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Your commute robs you of time that you might be devoting to work. But handling the commute poorly may also reduce your productivity upon finally reaching the workplace.

Many people try to make use of commuting time by relaxing, listening to music or audiotapes, or scanning social media. It seems a logical response to stressful lives and the stress of commuting itself. But research suggests that behaviour may interfere with the ability to transition into work smoothly. In turn, that makes employees gloomier about their job and more likely to quit.

“I was surprised with this finding myself,” Harvard professor Francesca Gino told the Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge. “The idea that we need to work to transition from our home role to our work role is not always intuitive. One would think that switching roles is as easy as putting on a different hat. It turns out that transitioning between roles takes time and effort, and it’s a part of the day we need to pay more attention to.”

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The researchers – she was joined by Jon Jachimowicz of Columbia Business School, Julia Lee of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina, and Jochen Menges of the University of Zurich – say that you are in limbo during the commute, trapped between home and work, and can squander the time. They advise you to use the interval to get into a work mindset. That can turn a negative period of time into a positive.

The study notes that commutes are getting longer – 38 minutes on average globally. That adds up to about 300 hours a year, which is equivalent to about 10 per cent of working time. The Harvard publication notes that one study found an ideal commute would be 16 minutes. People will quit jobs for better commutes.

The researchers call their antidote “role-clarifying prospection,” a mental strategy that involves engaging in thoughts about your upcoming work role. In short, think about what’s ahead and what might happen, anticipating responses and actions. Nothing unusual, but it may be what you’re avoiding on your commute now with thanks to your headphones or a mystery novel.

Digging deeper, the researchers highlight people with weak “trait self-control,” not adept at regulating their behaviour, thoughts, and emotions. They don’t plan ahead as much and are more likely to engage in thoughts and behaviours that are rewarding in the moment, like listening to music or daydreaming.

Commutes are also particularly tough on people who feel a greater degree of work-family conflict, not able to balance those separate spheres of life, such as a demanding boss and their devotion to their kids. The research suggests they have a tougher time transitioning to their work role.

In one of the studies, some commuters were told to use their commuting time to focus on their goals and make plans about what to do during the work day, while another group was encouraged to do something they enjoyed, such as listening to music, reading the news, or catching up on social media –“anything that you inherently enjoy is fine,” as the researchers put it. The group preparing for the workday reported significantly higher levels of job satisfaction and reduced intentions of leaving their jobs. People with weak trait self-control or high work-family conflict may benefit the most from a work-planning prompt.

Your mission on tomorrow’s commute is to put that into action.

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Quick hits

  • Schedule personal rejuvenation time in your calendar, advises Janelle Bruland in the new book The Success Lie.
  • Setting limits can counter-intuitively force us to be more effective – doing more with less, notes leadership blogger Ken Downer. Try cutting 15 minutes from meeting time, forcing you to get things done more quickly.
  • What are five words that describe you when you’re at your best? For executive coach Scott Eblin, they are calm, clear, engaged, energized, fun. The value of coming up with your own list is that it’s a reference point to assess and adjust when necessary.
  • To be more effective, it helps to cut out lower-value work. The best opportunities to do that, says career coach Priscilla Claman, are when you start a new job, as you can study the work and propose changes to your manager, and when you are given more responsibilities.
  • Women appear to pay a price for promoting other women. Research by the Center for Creative Leadership indicate that men’s performance ratings increase when they show they value diversity in the workplace, while women’s performance ratings decrease when they show the same impulse.

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