Mindful Commuting: Making Time for Mindfulness During Free Moments
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One complaint about mindfulness I hear again-and-again is “Steve, I just don’t have time to be mindful.”
Hey, I get it!
The idea of slowing down and “enjoying the moment” seems at odds with the idea of being productive. And I love productivity.
How Making Time for Mindfulness Improves Productivity
It is easy to think that making time for mindfulness would make you less productive. But this is not really true.
The truth of the matter is that taking breaks and thinking mindfully actually gives your brain time to recover and increases your productivity. Your mind needs a break.
Mindfulness increases productivity by:
- Consolidating memories and improving learning (source)
- Reigniting motivation (source)
- Decreases decision fatigue (source)
- Help keep you focused when you are working (source)
- Reducing work related stress (source)
- Improves mental and physical health (source)
Clearly there are a lot of good reasons to add some mindfulness into your daily life.
But sometimes the sheer volume of ways to be mindful seems daunting. Not too long ago I wrote a post: 71 Mindfulness Exercises for Living in the Present Moment. The idea of this post was to give a large volume of ideas people could cherry pick for ways to add more mindfulness into their daily lives.
But still I heard the complaint. “If I follow these 71 mindfulness exercises I will not have any time to live my life. “
While I was never advocating adding every single mindfulness exercise into a daily routine. I decided to write another mindfulness post that featured ways to be mindful in those free moments of time. The times when you have nothing else going on. Driving to work. Taking a bus, train or plane. Walking.
Before we dig into the specific mindful activities that can help you be more mindful in your free moments. Let’s make sure we are all on the same page. While this post is not written for mindfulness experts. I do assume that anyone reading this post has at least heard about mindfulness.
If the concept of mindfulness is new to you. (or you could use a refresher) I suggest you read: What is Mindfulness? to get up to speed or check out this review of the Grokker app if you'd like to build a solid mindfulness practice.
NOTE: Mindfulness is an exercise. Just like running or hitting the gym. Except it targets the mind rather than the body.
This means that doing too much of it without developing a routine can wear you out. If you have a long way to travel you do not need to spend the entire trip “being mindful” practice 5-10 minutes of the trip on mindfulness, then let yourself listen to your music, podcast or other distractions for a while.
Let’s get to it.
Why Mindful Commuting Can Be So Important
Jonathon Haidt, in his book Happiness Hypothesis (link to book & picture of book on side here), pointed out the problem with commuting. He noted that a long commute is one of the major stressors in life that always decreases happiness. As he said,
“Many people choose to move farther away from their jobs in search of a larger house. But although people quickly adapt to having more space, they don’t fully adapt to the longer commute, particularly if it involves driving in heavy traffic. Even after years of commuting, those whose commutes are traffic filled still arrive at work with higher levels of stress hormones.”
Commuting will always be a stressor.
The easy answer is to live closer to work, keeping your commute short. But often we do not choose to live far away for our own happiness, but for the happiness and wellbeing of our children and spouse. So what can be done about this catch-22? How do we increase our happiness when practical concerns mean we must have a travel time?
The answer is mindful commuting and finding time for mindfulness in those spare free moments of your life.
Mindful Commute: Practicing Mindfulness While Driving
I have a problem.
I am generally a very calm and easy-going guy. It takes a lot to really make me mad.
But somehow driving a car changes that…
People cut me off. Tailgate. Drive to slow. Drive to fast. Talk on the phone while driving. And generally, act like they should have no right to drive a car.
This stresses me out. It makes me very angry. I go quickly from mild mannered Bruce Banner to the incredible Hulk.
Isn’t road rage a great thing?
This is why I love practicing mindfulness while driving. It keeps the anger and stress at bay. It makes driving a far more pleasant experience. Rather than ending a 45-minute drive stressed out, angry and upset. I end my drive feeling refreshed and ready to work.
When driving, it is easy to tune things out and get lost in thought. Your autopilot takes over and somehow you get where you are going safely.
Mindful driving is about being present during your drive. It is easy to spend a drive obsessing over the past. Worrying about the future. Or thinking over the things we did during the day. Mindful driving takes us away from these obsessive thoughts and gives us a chance to enjoy the world we are living in.
How to Drive Mindfully
WARNING: Mindfulness can sometimes make people sleepy. The purpose of mindful driving is to be focused, calm, alert and relaxed. If you find yourself getting sleepy -stop the practice. Turn on your radio, podcast or audiobook and wake up.
(Remember Safety First!)
- When you get in the car take a few deep measured breaths. (See lung exercises.)
- Turn off your radio. Keep your phone on silence. Eliminate all potential distractions while you drive.
- Take a moment to notice the silence and your surroundings in the car.
- As you drive pay extra attention to your surroundings. Keeping your eyes always on the road (safety first) notice your surroundings with your peripheral visions. Notice the sights, sounds and scenery of your drive.
- Focus on the physical experience of driving. Your hands on the steering wheel. What it feels like sitting in your seat. The feel of the contact with your pedals.
- Notice the other physical sensations of your body. Tension in your shoulders. Headache from a stressful day. Tightness in your hips from your lunchtime exercise. Will your body to relax and let go of the tension, pain and stress.
- If someone cuts you off or you get stuck in traffic notice the feelings this brings (frustration, anger, competitiveness, anxiety, stress). Identify the emotions and understand why you are feeling them. Many times, simply understanding why you feel a negative emotion will help you to stop being negative.
- When you stop for traffic, a stop sign, a light or a crosswalk take a moment and run through a quick deep breathing ritual. Just a few simple deep calming breathes.
- Any time your mind wanders, gently pull your perspective back to the present. Our mind naturally jumps from topic-to-topic. According to scientists the average person thinks as many as 50,000 different things every day. This is our monkey mind. You can’t stop it completely during mindful driving since you need to let much of your mind free to focus on actually driving. But if you notice your mind is straying -bring it back.
More Methods of Mindful Driving
If practicing mindfulness dulls your alertness when driving, or if you are finished with a session of mindfulness, there is more that you can do to keep calm and centered during your drive. This techniques if basically about listening to something that will calm you down and reduce stress.
Meditation and Mindfulness Apps. These apps (Headspace, Buddify, Mindfullness Daily, etc.) are a great way to help find some calm even when you are stuck in a sea of traffic. See 15 best mindfulness apps.
Mindfulness and Meditation Podcasts. Podcasts have much more varied content than the apps. They are probably even better suited for a grueling commute. Your mind will ease and calm listing to some of these great podcasts. See 17 best mindfulness podcasts.
Other podcasts or audiobooks. While other styles of podcasts and audiobooks may not be purpose driven to ease your mind, they do have that effect. Listening to a good book or hearing an interesting podcast or any form will help you to calm your mind and make the trip seem less stressful. It may not be “mindfulness” exactly. But hey, anything that does the trick works in my book.
Mindful Travel: Practicing Mindfulness While on a Plane, Train, Bus or as a Passenger
A commute/trip is one of the best times to practice mindfulness. It is dead time anyway. There is only so much work you can actually accomplish on a train, plane, bus, or car (as a passenger). But it is very easy to use a bit of your travel time to bring yourself to the “now” with some mindful thinking.
The dangers of mindful travel as a passenger are far less than that of driving, but they still exist, so are worthy of acknowledging. Mindfulness makes you relax. This could cause you to sleep which could make you vulnerable to theft or miss your stop. So if meditation makes you sleepy, proceed with caution.
How to Be Mindful While on a Plane, Train, Bus or Passenger
- Pick an object to focus on. Stare at it while willing your body to relax.
- Do a mental inventory of your body. Notice any pain, discomfort, tension or tightness. Will your extremities to relax and let go of the pain and tension.
- Tune out distractions. Focus on a neutral sound, like the sound of the engine or passing vehicles and tune out conversations, music and other distractions.
- Focus on your breathing. Notice your breathe patterns and intentionally make your breathing deeper, with slower exhales. Develop a pattern to your breathing. Set up a count to your breathing can help this. For example, a slow 2 count in inward breathes and a slow 3 count on exhales.
- Focus your mind on the present moment and how you feel. If you mind wander (and it will) bring it back by paying attention to your breathing.
- Keep this process up for 5-10 minutes of your commute. You can set a watch or app to give you a notice when your time is complete.
- Once you are done go ahead and do whatever you would normally do to fill the time during your travel. Read a good book. Get some work done. Listen to your favorite podcast or audiobook.
- If it is a long trip, repeat this process for 5 -10 minutes every hour to keep yourself a bit calmer.
Mindful Walking: A Short Mindfulness Practice When Walking from Place-to-Place
Maybe practicing mindfulness during your commute is not for you. That doesn’t mean you cannot find a way to fit some mindfulness into your trip. You can simply practice mindful walking (aka walking meditation).
Simply park your car far away from your destination. The goal is to have a 5-10 minute walk in an area that is not a dangerous parking lot. 5 minute plus walk on a sidewalk or path as you head toward work is perfect.
Then simply follow many of the steps from your mindful commuting. Tune out distractions. Focus on your body and its feelings. Practice your breathing.
To find out more ideas to help you in mindful walking check out this article on Mindful Meditation.
Final words On Mindfulness and Commuting
A long daily commute is hell. It is unlikely, even with practicing mindfulness that you will get through it, every single day, with no stress at all.
But taking a few minutes to practice mindfulness during your trip will ease your stress to some degree. It is making the best of a bad situation.
Try to practice mindfulness every single day during your commute for a week. See how it makes you feel. Does it reduce your stress? If it does, make it a practice. Like anything, mindfulness is a practice. The more you put into it, the more you get back.
If you want to learn more about practicing mindfulness I encourage you to check out my book: 10-Minute Mindfulness: 71 Habits for Living in the Present Moment (add link to this book)
If you want to learn some more methods for reducing stress. Check out this list of books to reduce stress.