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What Successful People Do During Their Morning Commute

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How to get ahead while you get to work.

By Laura Vanderkam

Just about everybody who wakes up early and battles traffic just to get to work feels discouraged at times. A recent study from Princeton University that tracked the moods of Texas women throughout the day found that they were most unhappy during their morning commutes.

But these trips don't have to feel like a maddening waste of time, even if your journey is epic. "I've got quite the commute -- three hours!" says James B. Bunn, chief marketing officer at Brahmin, a handbags and accessories company. Bunn drives from his New York home to Brahmin's Massachusetts headquarters every few days. The key to surviving -- and thriving -- is strategy. "Over time, I've learned to turn it into a time for me to accomplish a lot," he says. Though the most commonly accepted way to do that is to talk with colleagues or connect with friends, using a cell phone -- even a hands-free one -- increases your risk of accidents. Our advice? Skip the calls and try out these five other ways to increase your work and personal satisfaction.

Buddy Up
Figuring out schedules for a carpool can be tricky. But a little inconvenience -- and a few planning emails -- may be worth the effort, if you're sharing the drive with, say, a mentor who can advise you or a co-worker who can talk over an issue with you that will save you time at the office. The perfect ride-sharer may be right at home. Take Michelle Paquette, PhD, and her husband, both professors in Kansas City, Mo., who commute together most mornings. "When we're really on the ball," she says, "we brainstorm ideas and how to deal with co-workers, which is a nice way to add another five productive minutes to an otherwise too-short workday."

Even if you don't work at the same place as your spouse, there are advantages to driving as a couple, namely reconnecting. "Carpooling turns otherwise wasted time into a daily date," says Dr. Paquette. And though that might not translate into a higher salary or a corner office -- it does increase the most important measure of your success: your happiness.

Get Car-Schooled
Do you really need to listen to a morning DJ crank-call an elderly woman who believes she's speaking to Lady Gaga? Upgrade your commute -- and sharpen your mental acuity -- with an audio version of a classic from your library, or get a subscription to Audible and listen to the freshest business titles (my favorite: The Power of Habit). Another overlooked option is the offerings from The Great Courses (everything from physics to the history of the ancient world, taught by big-name professors), the lessons of which often apply to the work world (my favorite: "Secrets of Mental Math").

Don't forget hands-free language programs. Mary Alice McDonald, who works in music publishing, has been learning Russian during her morning commute. "I like to mentally practice common words and phrases that apply to my commute," she says, especially when another driver cuts her off. "You can only imagine how colorful my vocabulary is becoming." Not to mention: learning a language spoken in a country where your organization does business can give you a leg up when it comes to advancing.

Talk To Yourself
Most of us realize that practicing a presentation or a tricky conversation the day before can help us sail through the actual event. But we fail to do so, mostly because by the time we get to the bathroom at the end of the day, we want to wash our faces and go to bed -- not deliver a speech to the mirror. Instead, rehearse your talk at the wheel. No, you won't have your PowerPoint slides, but feel free to gesture at the passenger-seat headrest.

Your hobbies can also use the attention. Barbara North, a director at a conference-and-event video company, drives across the Bay Bridge many mornings, a process she calls "painful and boring." So now she uses the time to practice numbers for the two bands with which she sings, including an all-girl punk rock band that does country-music covers. "Not only does it free up the time I would otherwise have been looking at music at home," she says, "but I'm actually spending more time on music than I used to, which means I am spending more time doing something I really love." Bonus: She's really ready for gigs. Some days, she confesses, she drives instead of taking public transit, "just to have the extra time with my practice tapes."

Get Your Exercise
Getting that hour of cardio in during the day can be tough. You've either got to get up at dawn, squeeze it into lunch (plus, take the requisite shower) or find a way to stay awake enough to work out at night. That's why Bailey Mader, a software developer in Johnston, Iowa, bikes to work: "I am lucky enough to have a trail between my office and my home, so I can get lost in my thoughts without worrying about traffic." Mader reports that while his method takes a few more minutes than driving, the time is far from wasted. "I also feel more awake on the mornings I bike, so I more than make up for those scant extra minutes with heightened productivity. Biking is my caffeine!" He's not wrong. A number of studies have found that people feel more productive after exercising.

Even if you have to drive or take mass-transit to work, you can consciously choose to incorporate activity into your commute. Get off at an earlier bus stop on a nice day, or park farther away, at the back of the lot, or in a garage a few blocks away. "My commute begins with a walk," says Naila Bolus, president and CEO of Jumpstart, a Boston nonprofit that prepares low-income children for kindergarten. "Every single morning I walk my twins to school; it's something we do together, and I love sending them off on their day."

Feed Your Inner You
We all want to maximize time, do well at our jobs. But the commute can be one time to pamper yourself. Bunn reports that he often turns those three hours into simple enjoyment and relaxation, listening to "ball games or even comedy radio, for a laugh." By getting your me-time in the car, you might not need to cyber-surf during the day, or at night, to decompress, leaving you more time for -- you guessed it -- your life.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, recently published in paperback by Portfolio/Penguin.

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