The 'secret to high performance' at work could be your commute, according to a new Dartmouth study

"Usually if you're on the bike, you're in control of your day."


The return-to-office means the return to commuting, something many Americans have been dreading. Almost half, 48.6%, of Americans pre-pandemic said they hate their commute, according to a 2019 survey by DrivingTests.org.

Whether it's stand-still traffic or a much-too-crowded subway car, most Americans have some complaints about their journey to and from the office. And the quality of your commute might contribute to the quality of your performance at work, according to a new Dartmouth College study.

Study participants used a smart-watch activity tracker and a smartphone sensing app to record physiological and behavioral patterns during commutes. Information captured included activity levels, phone usage, heart rate, and stress. A majority, 95%, of the 275 study participants drove to work, as opposed to taking public transportation, biking, or walking.

Participants who were high performers at work experienced less stress on their commutes and those who were low performers experienced more stress, according to the study results. Low performers also used their phones more during commutes.

"Compared to low performers, high performers display greater consistency in the time they arrive and leave work," Pino Audia, a professor of Management and Organizations at the Tuck School of Business and a co-author of the study, said in a release. "This dramatically reduces the negative impacts of commuting variability and suggests that the secret to high performance may lie in sticking to better routines."

Overall, stress, anxiety, and frustration were correlated with less efficiency at work.

If you're dreading your return to a daily commute, it might be worth switching up your routine to improve the experience. Here are strategies for making your commute less frustrating and maybe even enjoyable.

Transit time is 'me time'

Instead of thinking of your commute as burdensome, make a mental shift that allows you to look forward to it, says Lisa Bobby, founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. The findings of the Dartmouth study, she says, might indicate that high performers are experiencing their commute in a more positive way.

"Our experiences are not, in themselves, stressful," she says. "The meaning we make of them are what upsets us, or soothes us. Both 'stress' and 'sanctuary' are largely mental constructs, and by using that self-awareness intentionally we can have very different experiences."

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If you change the narrative of what your commute is, it might lower your stress levels and put you in a better headspace by the time you sit down at your desk to work, she says.

"Reframing transit time as 'free time' or 'me time' would help make the experience positive, productive, or beneficial," she says. "Framing this time as something like 'this is my time to listen to music I like' or 'this is my time to learn something new in an audiobook or podcast' ... makes commuting a high point of the day instead of a low point."

A 'no social at stoplights' rule and other tips for a less stressful commute

Improving your commute might require you to get creative or rethink what energizes you. Margaret Craig, 29, made her commute in Denver, Colorado, better by switching from music to podcasts on her drive.

"Switching to morning radio or a podcast instead of plugging in my phone and going to the same songs helped because it was less repetitive," she says. "In the morning, I'm not awake enough to shop through Spotify or I'm usually in a rush and don't care, so I ended up listening to the same 10 songs. When I listen to Up First by NPR or something more conversational, I'm actually listening and the time goes by faster even if the topic is trivial."

She also doesn't check social media until lunch and has a 'no socials at stoplights' rule.

"If I was in traffic and saw Instagram posts of people on vacation while I'm in bumper to bumper [traffic], it feels hopeless," she says. "You're starting your morning thinking, 'I'd rather be anywhere but here.'"

If I was in traffic and saw Instagram posts of people on vacation while I'm in bumper to bumper [traffic], it feels hopeless.
Margaret Craig
Denver commuter

Chris Browning, 34, hosts a personal finance podcast called Popcorn Finance. He used to drive an hour to and from his office in Los Angeles. His solution was to make some office buds.

"I developed relationships with co-workers that also had long commutes and would hang out while letting traffic die down," he says.

It started with him and one co-worker bonding over how bad their commutes were. The two started noticing traffic patterns and how long they would need to wait to make it home quickest.

Sometimes they would hang out in each other's cubicles, but other times they would grab dinner or see a movie.

"Even though ultimately we would get home later than if we had just sat in traffic, it made for a much nicer evening and a great way to destress after spending all day at work," he says.

Making your commute a little comfier might make it less stressful, too. Sydney Mason, 29, used to commute to work via bus in Chicago and says wearing comfy shoes helped make the journey less frustrating. She invested in better office footwear, but also has sets of shoes she only wears on her commutes.

"In the winter I wear my Uggs," she says. "Summer I would wear either my Crocs or my Birkenstocks. And if it snows, I wear my snow boots."

I developed relationships with co-workers that also had long commutes and would hang out while letting traffic die down.
Chris Browning
Los Angeles commuter

If you don't have to drive, consider an alternative mode of transportation. Participants who engaged in more active forms of commuting were more productive at work, according to the Dartmouth study.

Rachel F. Elson, a wealth manager, has been commuting to her office in San Francisco via bike since April and says she feels "more energized" when she arrives at work.

"It's a three-and-a-half mile ride so it's not onerous," she says. "It's a nice way to be in the city early on. You're not crowded and public transit can go awry if you have delays. Usually if you're on the bike, you're in control of your day so you don't get waylaid by traffic drama. I take an analog bike in the morning and an e-bike in the evening, if I'm tired."

All of this, she says, has improved her state of mind when she walks though her office doors: "I'm in a better mood when I get off the bike in the morning."

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