Midlife is full of challenges, not the least of which is the need to get to your place of work and then home again. If your commute is anything more than 15 or 30 minutes, you may feel desperately frustrated on a regular basis about how it’s taking time away from your many obligations. You’ve got all kinds of things piling up at home apart from the ordinary duties that fill your non-work time, and you wish more than anything that the commute could magically be short and sweet.
Research validates that commuting is undoubtedly one of the most stressful parts of the day for almost anyone, much less midlifers with so many work, family, and community obligations. The daily grind of getting where you need to be on time can also be exhausting. An investigation by McGill University’s Charis Loong and colleagues (2017) showed that, in fact, not only the amount of commuting time, but mode of commute can affect everything from your energy levels to your actual ability to be punctual. Each form of transportation from home to work or school and back, they note, carries its own particular form of stress and potential delays. Pedestrians worry about their comfort and safety from traffic, drivers are stressed by the length of time they fear their commute might take, and those using public transportation become concerned about holdups and delays if they spend too much time waiting. Everyone worries about the weather.
The exhaustion mounts if you’re on your feet all day and have to engage in a commute that involves walking. If you have to drive long distances, even if you’re active while at work, you’ll be mostly mentally tired. On the basis of these premises, the McGill team devised a survey of university students and employees ranging across the adult age span to investigate various aspects of the commuting experience. From this study, we can gain important clues on how to cope with even the worst of commutes.
The Canadian researchers obtained a sample of 6,116 students, faculty, and staff (from a possible population of 38,000), who completed online surveys in which they rated their commutes to and from the campus on a cold and snowy day, as well as a warm and sunny one. The campus is located in the center of Montreal, and the survey questions tapped each aspect of their commuting mode, including how they planned their commute and how they took into account various exigencies that could affect their travel time.
The survey questions asked respondents to provide information on their mode of commuting (walking, driving, riding a bicycle, taking public transportation), the length of their commute, and their satisfaction with their method of commute. They were also asked to state whether they were negatively affected by their commutes either in their punctuality or ability to get to work, as well as their energy levels after getting to work.
Supporting the original premise of the study, Loong and her colleagues found that people who cycled to work or school felt most energized and were most likely to be on time. However, given that the study was conducted in a city with many travel days impacted by winter weather, the benefit of cycling only manifested when the weather was nice. Otherwise, the cyclists felt that their energy was depleted by their commute, and they were nearly as likely to be late as were other commuters. However, people who felt they were using their commutes in a way that boosted their ability to get something done were about three times more likely to feel energized when they got to work or school. Although the longer your commute, the more likely you are to be delayed by factors outside of your control, using that time well, rather than fretting over being late, would seem to be the best way out of the conundrum.
Clearly, then, the best way to be on time is to factor delays into your schedule, however your mode of transportation. Use that time productively by, for example, listening to an audiobook if you’re driving or taking mass transit, or working on building your fitness levels if you’re walking or cycling. Try some meditation when things really get to you. Keeping these ideas in mind, let's look now at the best way to get where you need to with the least amount of strain:
1. Don't procrastinate.
Since travel delays do appear to be inevitable, unless you’re extremely lucky in terms of the weather or traffic, give yourself some insurance by scheduling in more time proportionate to your distance than you would need under the best of circumstances. The Loong et al. team found that delays increased the longer the basic trip. If you are late getting out the door, there's no way you'll be on time getting into the next one you need to enter.
2. Don’t think of your journey as a drain on your time.
Reframe the time you need to spend traveling in a positive way, either because you get other things done or because you can use it to enhance your mental or physical skills. This way, you’ll be less likely to try to shorten your travel to the point where you’re almost certain to feel drained when your plans don’t work out.
3. Use available apps to help you plan.
There are enough data sources available now via travel apps so that you don’t have to be surprised when you’re confronted with a delay. Even better, travel apps give you alternate routes or modes of transport based on real-time updates, so you can decide whether to take the end run that the app suggests to you. There's no need to procrastinate when these travel apps can guide you to the fastest route.
4. Get more sleep.
To be able to wake early enough to allow yourself extra time, you need to get to bed at a reasonable hour. If you keep procrastinating your bedtime, you’ll have more trouble getting up and will be less efficient in getting organized when it’s time to get out the door.
5. Cut down distractions.
Keep your focus on doing all that you can to go from place A to place B. If you’d like to stop and read the paper or catch up on Facebook, that’s fine, but do so after you’ve gotten to where you’re going. If you're an inveterate procrastinator, train yourself so you'll put your energy into getting your travels underway.
6. Let others know your schedule.
If it’s your boss who keeps you from leaving on time so you can avoid the evening rush, you need to make it clear that you simply have to go. If it’s your kids, the people in your carpool, or a long-winded neighbor, you similarly need to be able to get out gracefully. Make it clear that you’d love to stay and chat, but now isn’t the time. If your travel partners are the procrastinators, you'll need to establish some type of ground rules so you aren't dragged into being late.
The art of being on time involves manipulating a host of factors. Although there are many of these factors you can’t control, learning to make those you can control work in your favor to keep your timekeeping and your commute if not the best, then at least not the worst, part of your day. Fulfillment in midlife involves being able to derive satisfaction from your daily activities, as well as achieving your larger purposes. These small adjustments can help you accomplish both goals and stay on top of all the obligations your midlife life requires.\
For more on this topic, check out my Psych Today blog.