Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

You can still feel good about this.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

People hate commuting. Whether you’re inching along in traffic or avoiding eye contact with strangers on public transportation, your commute is something you’re resigned to tolerate—barely—as part of the daily grind. In a 2004 study, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his team found that in a daily log of activities, the amount of happiness people reported while commuting is about on par with the joy of housework. More than half of Americans spend at least 40 minutes in their round-trip commute; the national average is 50 minutes, and some folks, who the Census Bureau call “megacommuters,” spend more than three hours on the road every day.

Until science invents teleportation, there are ways to make your commute suck less. And research suggests that multitasking can make your commute feel more worthwhile. An important first step is to consider how you want to use the time.

If you’re the organized type, try using your commute to plan what else you’re going to do that day—even if it sounds like overkill to make plans to plan your day. Simply checking items off of a to-do list, so the logic goes, requires a lot of decision-making, which tires you out before you even get started. Plus, scheduling tasks makes you more realistic about what you can accomplish in a day. If you take public transport, generate a list and schedule the tasks by using an app like Timeful (free), or a combination of synced tools like to-do list app (free) and its companion Cal (free).

If you’re in the car, though, it’s a little trickier to whip up a list or schedule. You could try recording yourself (and transcribing later) with a tape recorder or smartphone app. The ultra-popular Evernote (free) has a voice-recording function that saves recordings as separate notes. Evernote has saved my life on multiple occasions with its dynamic list of features, which include creating “notebooks,” tagging notes, uploading photographs, and syncing between devices for a seamlessly user experience. (Pro-tip for Evernote users: You can link notes to one another!)

You can try using voice transcription apps to instantaneously turn your thoughts into written notes. Apps are certainly less accurate than transcribing yourself, but at least it saves you from listening to your own voice. Dragon Dictation (free) and Leping Li’s Voice (free) both provide fairly accurate transcriptions in dozens of languages and let you email or text transcriptions. (If you’re brave, you can even use this function to dictate and post a tweet or Facebook update.)

Car commuters also don’t have the luxury of handling a full-service email app—I prefer Boxer Lite (free)—but you can at least check your email. There are several apps that read your email aloud to you, but my favorite is AgileSpeech’s app ASAM (free). It reads at a reasonable speed, and it’s fairly accurate. Be warned, however: Like Ron Burgundy, it reads everything. For instance, when relaying an email from Yahoo about my fantasy hockey league, it included all of Yahoo’s wordy disclaimers.

One particularly useful ASAM feature is its transcribing function, which allows you to dictate an email. This requires giving the app voice commands like “reply,” which begins a response email, and “review,” if you want ASAM to read back what its composed before you give it the “send” command. Short messages work best since you can’t go back and edit while on the road; ASAM does offer a “record again” option, but it’s frustrating to dictate the same email over and over. The full list of commands take a bit of practice to memorize, but consider it a small start-up cost to being able to access your email without taking your eyes off the road.

If you want to have something besides email read aloud to you, take advantage of this weird and little-known function: Open up a PDF in Preview, if you’re on a Mac, select a swath of text, then right-click: There’s an option called “Add to iTunes as a spoken track.” From here, you have the option of selecting a variety of voices to read your text. Alex, Bruce, and Victoria speak in traditional American accents, but if it strikes your fancy, there are some truly bizarre options: Have your text read as bubble noises, bells, and cellos to the tune of “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” or of a person laughing. (Unfortunately, it seems that text-reading software has not improved much since the ’90s, and there are weird glitches—for instance, line breaks result in weird pronunciations, e.g., “ac[line break]quired” gets read as “A – C – quired.” Overall, though, the readings are accurate enough that you’ll get the gist of the document.)

Public-transit commuters who can read documents the old-fashioned way should do themselves a favor and download Mendeley or Papers. Both organize your papers and makes them searchable by author, year, journal, or topic. They also allow you to create tags and collections of papers, so you can find them more easily later, and sync with desktop apps. Mendeley is free; Papers costs $79 but offers a free 30-day trial and a 40 percent student discount. And if you’re planning on writing, creating a presentation, or working on a spreadsheet, get a Dropbox account, which lets you access documents without an Internet connection; with a Wi-Fi connection, it can sync your work with multiple devices.

If you want to leave your work for the office, your commute can also be a surprisingly great time to complete time-wasting chores. Say you’ve been meaning to call your cellphone company about a mistake on your bill or to make a doctor’s appointment—make the call during your commute! Or, better yet, try the app FastCustomer (free), which has thousands of major companies in its Rolodex. Select one in the FastCustomer app and rather than waiting on hold, the app calls you back when a customer service rep picks up. It’s magical.

Alternatively, turn your 20 minutes (or 40 minutes, or three hours) a day into personal time: Download Duolingo (free) to learn a new language or Stitcher (free) to create a playlist of all your audiobooks and podcasts, so you can listen to multiple shows in a row without having to fiddle with your device. Or just unwind: Research suggests that listening to music makes commuting more enjoyable. Even striking up a pleasant conversation with a stranger can be an unconventional recharge. And lastly, failing all this, remind yourself that being productive is great but that it’s impossible to always be on. Some days, the best thing you can do for yourself is to take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy the ride.