What Would Happen If Your Commute Became a Time for Reflection?

Like most Americans, I make a two-way commute every day to get to work and back home again. It’s an unfortunate but necessary part of my day that I’m perfectly guilty of writing off as time wasted. The whole time I’m in the car is spent either worrying about the tasks that await me at work or thinking about everything I left unfinished at home.

You might be thinking, Maybe music is the answer. Music helps me unwind. As a hugely enthusiastic consumer of music, I’d say that’s true—up to a point. I have little doubt that, under the right circumstances, music is a great tool for helping us unwind. It can help us to face the things inside us that have always given us pause, or to turn our eyes outward and see the world for what it is.

Nevertheless, I’ve found lately that listening to music in the car can actually be a bigger distractor than a help. Maybe it’s the fussing with the iPod. Maybe it’s the trouble deciding what kind of music to listen to. Either way, I’ve learned to go without it. These days, I drive in silence or with NPR quietly playing.

You may be familiar with something called the Pomodoro Technique. There’s not much to it; you use a simple timer to create blocks of time roughly 25 minutes in length. For 25 minutes at a time, you remain intensely focused on the task at hand, allowing yourself some distance from the task or problem before you. You turn your mind toward something restful. And then you take a break before continuing on with the next 25-minute block.

The theory is simple: we do our best work when we allow ourselves short, but frequent, breaks. I'm trying to start thinking about my commutes not as another task, but as one of these breaks between period of intense focus and stress.

The average American lifestyle is pretty hectic. By the time we get home from work, there are 50 other things all demanding our attention—whether it’s pets, children, bills, exercise, or loud neighbors. This is why I’m applying the Pomodoro Technique to my morning and afternoon commutes: that time in the car has become a refuge—a time for contemplation and reflection.

No, I’m not asking for Jesus to take the wheel or anything like that. You still need to watch your blind spot and pay tribute to the gods of the zipper merge. That’s not going to change. What is changing—for me—is how I occupy my mind during those cumulative hours I spend in the car each week.

I don’t, for example, watch the dashboard clock. After the wheels are turning, there’s almost nothing I can do to get to my destination faster. Just try it. It can’t be done.

I'm also learning not to let other drivers get under my skin. This is an important step toward reclaiming your commute as me time.

Don’t think about what you left at work, or about what awaits you at home. Think instead about that dream you had last night. Think about your loved ones, and your memories with them—and the memories yet to be made. Leave the stressors behind and focus not on the minutiae, but rather on the larger picture. Am I happy in this moment?Do I feel centered?

Get lost in the abstract. When you’re in your car, you don’t (or should I say shouldn’t) have access to your phone or your computer. Aside from the basic task of keeping your car on the road, this is your chance to let your mind wander and unravel a bit. Get to know yourself better than you ever have. In the immortal words of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, You are not your job. You are not the car you drive. So what are you?

The isolation of your automobile might present you with a surprisingly effective way to find out. And if you can believe it, even the worst experiences on the road can be an opportunity for reflection, as this couple found out during a near-tragic accident near Bangkok.

I’m not saying you have to risk your life to find clarity. All I’m trying to prove is the value of quieting your mind. We look at driving as an inevitability because it is. But the stress that accompanies it is, by and large, a choice we make for ourselves. I’m learning to deny it a foothold.

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