The art of the long commute

I live in San Francisco and work in Palo Alto. Having no car to call my own, I bike to the Caltrain station every morning and ride down from the city. Door to door, the commute is about 60 – 70 minutes each way. I’m writing this post because I got duped.

You see, I follow Megan Berry on Twitter and clicked on a link she posted about tips for commuters. Turns out, her tip was “Move closer to where you work” which of course is useful advice, but not for people committed to commuting. So I decided to write the post that I wanted to read.

Long commutes are mostly a pain. You commute because you value the place you live so much you’re willing to endure the cost, hassle and time-lost in a long commute. After doing one for about 9 months, I have at least a list of things you can do to better pass the time.

  • Read a Book. I read a lot of stuff online and on my phone, but I still really enjoy the pleasure of reading a physical book. In an age where 140 characters is the length of a thought, it is refreshing and important to step back and get the perspective of someone who has spent a year or more thing carefully and comprehensively about a specific topic. Long commutes are great for this.
  • Twitter. On the flip side of this, sometimes I use my commutes to read all the tweets I missed last night. I get caught up on the big issues in my industry and what’s happening with my friends and acquaintances. I retweet some links, @reply some people and try to add some value to my followers.
  • Meditation. Sometimes your day is going to be so busy that the best thing to do is to spend part of your ride focusing and preparing yourself for the chaos ahead. There are a lot meditation techniques available but my favorite is just taking 10 slow breaths while focusing solely on inhaling and exhaling. Great way to get grounded.
  • Email. Again, the flip side of meditating is doing email on the train. Sometimes what I really enjoy is pounding out a few emails before the day gets started. You’re focused on writing a good response without any distractions and you roll into the office having already knocked a couple items off your to-do list. Gotta say: not a bad feeling.
  • Napping. There is no shame in this. Sometimes you are just dead tired for whatever reason. If you can get a 4 seater to yourself or one of the upper level double seater, you can really stretch out, relax and drift away as the gentle rocking of the train lulls you into sleep. Just don’t forget to set an alarm!
  • Phone Calls. While it can be annoying to hear a guy near you (why is it always almost always a guy?) squawk on the phone for an entire trip, the train truly does offer a great opportunity for catching up with friends and family. You aren’t going anywhere so you know you can devote some time to the call. Just make sure you speak softly and watch out for the tunnels – easy to lose reception.
  • Networking. I’ve met some interesting people on the train like a business lawyer who helped a famous tech startup (I can’t remember which now) do their IPO or a former classmate who works at a firm near me. I’ve even gone on a date from someone I met on the train who worked really close to me. So don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the person next to, across from, or on the other side of,  you.
  • Movies and Games. It’s nice sometimes to just shut off from the world and watch a movie or play video games. Bring your laptop or pull out your iPhone/PSP/Nintendo DS and go for it. Just make sure to use headphones unless you’re planning to turn the train into a personal theater/arcade.
  • Writing. Writer’s block is something almost all writers deal with on a regular basis. I finished a 50,000 word novel in 2009 for NaNoWriMo in no small part because I bought a netbook and pounded away at it for weeks and weeks in a row. Fewer distractions means more stuff gets written.

On thing to avoid: – Doing “Brain-Intensive” Work. I’ve found that when I tried to crunch numbers or write something really sensitive, I have struggled on the train. The train doesn’t seem to be good for focused high intensity mental analysis. Maybe that’s just me. I don’t know how someone could handle heavy mental lifting while riding the train. But I know I can.

So there you have it: nine (9) things to try doing if you commute and one thig to avoid. I hope this has been helpful to you and feel free to email me or @reply me (Twitter.com/jasonshen) if you have any questions about it. Tell me if I missed anything!

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