Working on commute?

Lonely platform (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Lonely platform (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

How many of you like feeling ignorant and dependent?

Me neither! But that’s how I’ve felt for the past month and a half.

Since I started my new job, I’ve been acclimatising to a new institutional structure, set of personnel, and need to find the right rooms (and buildings).

It has been hard. Harder than I’d thought starting new jobs normally would be.

The reason for this is that the new job is accompanied by a bigger, and more disruptive, commute.

Previously, I had a simple commute that was a half-hour train ride into the city.

Now, I have a two-step commute: a half-hour train ride into the city, then a 1-hour bus ride to the campus. That’s three hours a day on public transport.

When I told people about my new commute, they would cluck sympathetically.

Many of them asked why I didn’t just drive there myself, instead of ‘wasting time’ on public transport. There are quite a few reasons, including environmental and financial ones that I won’t bore you with. But, yes, reasons.

Others immediately offered suggestions about how I could best use the time, different ways to do constructive things, and resources I could load on various devices. There are lots of people out there who have given thought to, and written about, productive commuting, if this is anything to go by.

From the start, the conversations around my new job ended up as discussions about how to make the commuting time work for me, about not wasting it. I found myself talking like that, too, and feeling that it would be terrible to ‘lose’ that time. I was stressing about it ever so slightly.

Heaven forbid that anyone in academia is unproductive.

In practice, after more than a month’s experience, this is what happened.

This is a good time to admit that I have always been one of ‘those’ people on public transport – the ones who keep their eyes down, fixated on their device all journey. While I’m fixated on that one device (my phone), however, I am often doing different things: checking email, browsing and tweeting across the Twitter accounts I manage (as well as my personal one), and reading books (non-academic stuff).

These practices have mapped onto my new commute almost totally. Despite good intentions around working on the laptop and reading articles, none of this has come to pass with any consistency. I take the laptop with me almost every day. I have occasionally drafted emails on it, written fragments of blogposts, and spent a lot of my time stopping it from slipping into the aisle when the driver corners sharply.

I kept thinking I needed to do more with the commute, to get a head start on my day by working on program planning and presentations for the sessions, comms for the unit, prepping meeting notes and agendas, approaching all the colleagues I need to lean on for advice and assistance, and… all the other things that fill my day.

Then, about a week or so ago, I decided to try something different.

I emptied the commute of work-stress.

I figure there’s enough stress around the idea of working ‘enough’ in academia, and I’m already an expert at self-flagellating on this front. I could do without further practice.

So, I decided to not do any work on the commute.

What does my commute look like now?

The majority of my commute time is spent – without guilt – reading non-academic books (hardcopy and on my phone), and tweeting for fun (on my personal account, often including the #commute hashtag).

A significant minority of my time is spent staring out the window, thinking various things over (only very occasionally work-related), or just letting my eyes roam beyond a backlit screen.

I arrive at work and home much more relaxed and ready to face whatever comes next, be it the work-day or my evening’s domestic routine.

I realise now that, instead of getting anxious about not doing enough work on the commute, I should’ve been more concerned about ‘lost time’ at home. The new commute means waking up significantly earlier, and getting home regularly later. It affects me, and everyone in my household. I have less time every evening to hang with my kids, or to work on my blog-writing and other projects. Those are the things that matter more in the exciting and messy beginning of a new job.

The commute has become the least of my worries in many ways, and my focus is now on enjoying the brain-nurturing ‘idle’ time it affords me. We all know that down-time is a necessary partner to productive time, yet we rarely invest effort in making it happen. Writer Michael Taft comments that “the speed of life doesn’t allow enough interstitial time for things to just kind of settle down” (Why your brain needs more down-time [Scientific American]).

I have inadvertently been handed interstitial time to allow things to settle down.

I know which practice I’ll be sticking with.


  1. Oh I totally agree! I face about an average 4.5 hour daily commute including – at its full extent – a country train, two metropolitan trains and two local buses. (I break it up and only do the full trip 3 times a week, staying locally some nights to bring it back to an average 3.3hrs per day across a normal week.) I use *some* of this time for ‘productive’ things, when grading deadlines are pressing, for example, or I have some reading to finish for a class, so that I don’t have to do those things when I (finally) get home (normally at about 7.30pm – often having left home at 6.10am). However, I also use it for unwinding time. I do the sudoku, call friends/family I haven’t seen for a while, and even talk to fellow commuters (we’re a different bunch on country trains). Arriving home decompressed matters even more when it’s already late when you arrive!


    • Oh, Kathleen, you have my empathy. 4.5 hours is a long haul! I totally agree re being able to walk into your home ready to be wholly ‘home’ and not still worrying over work-related issues or projects. I still have to curb myself regularly when I start mulling over problems (unproductively) on the weekend. Conversations I have with myself: “Are you going to do anything about X problem this weekend? If not, there’s no point worrying at it until Monday.” It’s usually a longer, convoluted conversation, but I’ve summarised… 😉


  2. Really refreshing to see this post amidst all the emphasis on ‘making the most of one’s time’ and being constantly productive. Earlier, I had a 1 hour bus commute and I starting taking the opportunity to gaze out of the window (, do some breathing exercises or listen to the conversations milling around me. I soon realised that by shifting from fretting over my ‘lost time’to accepting it and relaxing, I was always more upbeat when I reached office.


    • Thanks, Chandni. There is still an element of being perceived as not being totally serious about your work if you need to take a step back from it to recharge and get perspective. The notion of academia being a ‘calling’ has a lot to answer for, and others have written about this much more articulately than me.

      On another note, love the bus windows meme!


      • I suspect that the truth is that UNLESS you step back from time to time you become less productive. My sense of myself is that I spend far too much time “not not working” rather than working productively.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I so agree. Nowadays I cycle most days, about 40 minutes. It is very de-stressing (mostly). But when I catch the train I tend to read books for fun or just sit. I had a long bus commute for a while and because I tend to get motion sickness I usually just listened to podcasts. Or just sat and looked out the window. Thinking time is so important, and not intense thinking, that time to just the mind wander. I think bus and train trips enable that in a way that a lot of other activity doesn’t.

    Also the times i have thought I should do my emails while on the bus/train I actually find it more stressful as the smartphone is fiddly and hard to type and I often just end up feeling frustrated.


    • One of my (many) reasons for not driving is that the drive would stress me out. I would prefer a longer train commute and shorter bus one, but c’est la vie. 😉

      Yes, now that I’ve given up trying to work on the commute, I’m way more chilled.


  4. I can’t always guarantee a seat in my commute (or I ride my bike), as I’m an inner suburbs person. But even when I did sit on a train for a considerable commute in the past, I found my eyes wanted to look off into the distance, and my brain wanted to ruminate! It’s important eye-rest (from looking at screens) and brain processing time. Or I would find myself people watching!!
    So yes, go easy on yourself, and if you have to commute 3 hours a day, do something you enjoy! I’m slightly jealous of your available reading time! Slightly…


    • Thanks, Lisa!

      I’m realising how much I had been missing out on when I wasn’t reading as much. I’ve been a huge reader all my life + had, in more recent years + post-kiddies, not been doing as much. Now, it’s back with a vengeance and my ridiculously long to-read list has a chance of being tackled!


  5. Absolutely. I had a 2 hour, 3-train commute in Sydney with 10-20 minutes walking at either end. I used to 1. eat breakfast and drink coffee, staring out the window, 2. read novels 3. tweet and catch up on interesting internet posts when my data connection allowed it. On the way home I ate afternoon tea, called my family on my phone, slept, read novels, or zoned out. On the last 20 minute walk I tried to refocus on arriving to my 5pm chaotic family life so I could jump right in with dinner/bath/etc with the kids. The only time I worked was if I was on my way to a lecture that wasn’t quite finished, or reading an academic book that was so fascinating it was fun!

    Although the commute was one reason I did move to NZ where it is a 20min walk/10min bike 🙂


    • Ah, I can empathise with the allure of a simple, shorter commute! My life’s been so much less frazzled since I jettisoned trying to be ‘productive’ on my commute – I’ve been quite amazed at what a difference it makes. And I find myself occasionally looking forward to it so that I can get going on a new book or finish up a riveting read!


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