Delays and commuter complaints are mounting on many of the nation’s largest transit systems, including those in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Boston. New York’s governor has declared this the “summer of hell” for commuters. San Francisco’s rapid-transit system has been plagued by overcrowding and equipment breakdowns and Chicago’s commuter-rail system was stalled earlier this year by computer problems.
And the Federal Transit Administration says $90 billion in mass-transit repairs are overdue nationwide.
The big question for workers with no alternatives: How to make peace with your commute?
Some New Yorkers recently were stuck on a crowded subway car that stalled between stations without light or air conditioning. Dread of being trapped like that haunts accounting manager
He battles claustrophobia while commuting to his job in Manhattan by reading books on his e-reader—if he can find a seat. If not, he dons earbuds, closes his eyes and immerses himself in podcasts or a meditation app on his phone.
He tries not to take it personally when other commuters slam into him while rushing through the subway doors as they close. And the moment he emerges onto the street, Mr. Hopkins says he practices “wiping the entire experience from my mind.”
Brad Westley of Silver Spring, Md., builds a buffer into his daily schedule to allow for commuter-train delays en route to his Washington consulting job. Breakdowns on the city’s mass-transit system have risen steadily in the past five years, federal data show. Mr. Westley can’t predict whether his commute will take the usual 25 minutes or twice that long, so he avoids scheduling any meetings until more than 90 minutes after he expects to arrive.
When a brake fire broke out on his train, he had to wait for the next one on a platform so crowded that he could barely move. “People are literally pushing you onto the train so they can squeeze in behind you,” he says.
Having to exercise so much restraint and self-control before you arrive at work can hurt productivity later in the day, says
a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota and author of 180 studies on self-control and related topics.
Employees whose self-control has been depleted by mental strain are less likely to take initiative on the job, she says. Rather than trying new ideas or wrestling with tough choices, they tend to punt and think, “I can’t deal with that right now.”
“If choosing the status quo is an option, people who are mentally fatigued are likely to choose that,” Dr. Vohs says.
Commuters can stay productive by modifying their expectations: Prepare to be delayed, says
a Madison, N.J., consultant who advises employers on flexible workplace strategies.
Fully charge your phone, tablet or laptop, carry backup batteries if needed, and download work, podcasts, books or projects you can focus on during the trip, says Ms. Yost, author of “Tweak It,” a book on making small changes to feel happier.
Not everyone has the patience to dive into work in crowded conditions. But some commuters use travel time to focus on an absorbing project, such as writing a presentation, which helps distract them from the frustrations, says New York stress coach
Another approach is to think of your commute as a buffer period when you can prepare mentally for the workday, then retreat into your thoughts, says
Jon M. Jachimowicz,
a doctoral candidate at Columbia Business School. Commuters who were assigned to ask themselves, “What steps can I take to accomplish my career and work goals?” and to plan those steps en route to work, handled commuting hassles better, according to a four-week study under review of 443 U.S. commuters led by Mr. Jachimowicz.
Mindfulness training, which includes stopping your mind from wandering and directing your attention to what’s happening in the moment, can build resilience and help people get through periods of heavy stress with their cognitive resources intact, according to a 2016 study.
And trying to act compassionately toward others in day-to-day settings can help you feel closer and more relaxed around them, a 2017 study shows.
actively resists lapsing into a dark mood during her daily bus ride from New Jersey to Manhattan, which has been stretching to two hours from the usual 40 minutes. “I do conscious things to get out of that head space,” she says. A managing director at a New York public-relations firm, she swipes her transit fare card for fellow commuters whose cards have expired.
And when she walks the final leg of her commute, she smiles and greets shopkeepers out sweeping or hosing down the sidewalk. “People sometimes think I’m crazy, or a tourist,” she says, but she takes comfort in fostering a sense of community. Amid all the stress, “you’re still part of a neighborhood.”
How to shake off a disastrous commute when you finally arrive? Consider taking a walk around the block before hitting the office to calm your nerves, Ms. Yost says.
A comforting ritual can help.
usual one-hour commute from Long Island to his office near Penn Station is taking up to 2½ hours. Then he’s frozen for several more minutes on the steps of his train car by human gridlock on the platform at “Pain Station,” as he calls the terminal. “It’s so jammed and you’re sweating already,” says Mr. Gould, managing partner of a Manhattan M&A firm.
He regains energy by downing a large coffee with an espresso shot and humming “God Bless America,” Mr. Gould says, with irony. “It reminds me of the freedoms I have,” he says, “when I’m not sitting on the Long Island Rail Road.”
MANAGING A STRESSFUL COMMUTE
To Stay Productive
- Download work onto your mobile device in advance, in case you lose connectivity.
- Charge your devices and carry a backup battery if needed.
- Use the commute time to plan your day and set goals.
- Schedule a one-hour buffer before your first meeting, in case you’re delayed.
To Lower Tensions in Crowds
- Consider how other commuters must be feeling and treat them with empathy.
- Cooperate with others in finding ways to ease the strain.
- Wear light, comfortable clothes and shoes and carry water.
- Practice deep breathing, muscle relaxation or visualization to calm yourself.
- Download and listen to calming music.
To Shake Off a Bad Commute
- Take a walk around the block before settling in at your desk.
- Engage in a calming ritual such as stopping for a latte at a friendly coffee shop.
- Think or write about an inspiring personal value, such as caring for family or being kind to strangers.
- Immerse yourself in a setting with plants or natural scenes, such as a park, atrium or room with a nature mural or photos.
Work & Family Mail
Q: I usually delve quickly into asking personal questions of someone I’ve just met, such as, “Have you worked there long?” or, “Where are you from originally?” Is there a boundary one should keep in mind?—L.L.
A: If you press too aggressively for such specific personal details, you risk making your conversation partner feel as if he or she is being interrogated. The kind of probing, thought-provoking questions that spark a deeper connection don’t press so hard for details, and reflect genuine curiosity about the other person’s deeper interests, passions, needs or goals.
People’s personal boundaries differ: One may welcome a question that another regards as intrusive. Watch body language. You may have gone too far if the other person stops making eye contact, steps or leans away from you, crosses her arms or turns or points her feet away as if to leave. Another signal to back off: The other person has been mirroring your posture, gestures, tone of voice and facial expressions and suddenly stops doing so.
More Work & Family
Should You Still Get the Parents’ Blessing Before Your Proposal?
June 13, 2017
The Curse of the Endlessly Rescheduled Meeting
June 6, 2017
Save Yourself From Tedious Small Talk
May 23, 2017
Dare to Let the Children Plan Your Vacation
May 16, 2017
Why You Can’t Concentrate at Work
May 9, 2017
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at firstname.lastname@example.org