Not all driving stints are created equal.
There’s cruising along the open roadway, en route to adventure and perhaps an unknown locale, with a packed suitcase in the cargo hold, a cooler of snacks on the back seat and a map close at hand.
Then there’s the flip side: Inching along a crammed freeway, headed to a routine workday in an oh-so-familiar locale, with the cringing knowledge that your packed briefcase or tote bag is 15 miles behind you on the kitchen counter, your water bottle bone dry and a dismal traffic report on the radio.
Traveling is a joy. Commuting is a soul-sapping necessity.
It could be worse. In Metro Detroit we don’t even break the top 10 nationally for minutes spent commuting, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. About 6 percent of us in Michigan, or about 238,000 people in a 2011 census report, have mega-commutes of over an hour.
There is ample evidence from myriad industry and academic studies that the frustrations of a solo, sedentary round-trip every workday are bad for both our physical and mental health, contributing to everything from flabby waistlines to road rage. And a just-out report from the U.K. says that every extra minute of commuting time reduces our satisfaction with both our jobs and our leisure time, and worsens our mental health.
An extra 20 minutes traveling to work produces the same bad feelings as a 19 percent drop in income, says the report, compiled by the University of West England-Bristol using 18 months of data. Women are more negatively affected by commuting woes, and people permitted to telecommute or otherwise avoid rush hour are more likely to stay at a job, the researchers found.
Advice for making better use of car time abounds, from learning a foreign language to downloading audio books to doing isometric exercises when your car is at a standstill. Not bad ideas at all — but in my extensive experience as a commuter, it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.
The dissonance comes from having to leave your home on a hurried basis every day, only to sit or creep along in traffic thinking of what you could be doing with this wasted time: That forgotten briefcase or lunch bag at home, the emails you could be answering if you could whisk to work without delay. The tensions of this forced inactivity at the busiest time of day, are, to me, the root of the rage.
The best way to combat this tension is to resign yourself to the situation and make life inside the vehicle as comfortable and serene as possible. About $20 worth of supplies, a good wash and vacuum, and stocking up on a few comfort items will pay off in a less chaotic and less stressful commute.
My experiments suggest the following:
■Force yourself to get up earlier to be less pressured before departing. Ideally, if your workplace allows for flex time, leave early enough to beat rush hour. Yes, it’s grim in the dark and cold, but being ahead of the freeway pack is worth it. If your work hours don’t flex, go anyway and use your early-arrival downtime to do life tasks on a smartphone, like shop for cheaper insurance, order a birthday gift or whittle down email.
■Pack ahead of time. It’s elementary, but it works. Make sure your totes, briefcases and the like are ready to go the night before, and put what you can in the car before heading to bed.
■Keep the tank full. It’s bad enough to be stuck in traffic, worse when your fuel gauge is flashing at you. I know it’s a pain to pump gas on the way home, but you’ll always be glad you did. Don’t let that tank get below a quarter-full, especially with winter coming up.
■Clear the clutter. Get a plastic tote, plop it on the rear seat or in the cargo hold and mercilessly toss every stray object into that tote before firing the ignition. Once a week bring the tote indoors and pitch or put away. You’ll feel more serene in a clean cabin.
■Add some equipment. If your vehicle has the proper outlets, buy a phone-charging cord to leave in the car — the minor investment means one less thing to remember on the way out the door. What else would make the drive more pleasant? Twelve-volt appliances from heated massage pillows to travel mugs to air purifiers — can plug into the dashboard for that extra level of luxury.
■Comfort your body. Dark chocolate, energy bars, a couple small bags of nuts, hard candy, dried fruit and little packs of pre-popped popcorn, plus a six-pack of water bottles will buoy your spirits and double as a winter emergency kit. A fleece jacket instead of a bulky overcoat will relax your shoulders, and a pleasantly spiced air freshener will provide aromatherapy. Little things add up.
In the grand scheme, we’re pretty lucky to have our cars and jobs to drive them to. We just need to be pamper ourselves a bit more behind the wheel.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com.