Get More Done During Your Commute

By now, we all know multitasking doesn’t work. Our brains are incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time. We might think we’re multitasking as we scan our email while on a conference call, but we’re not. We’re actually switch-tasking—quickly shifting attention from one thing to another and then back again—diluting our focus and losing precious seconds each time we switch. Those seconds add up to many hours of wasted time every week.

So why do so many of us still try to multitask? We’re too busy with too much to do and too little time to do it in. The temptation to accomplish multiple things at the same time is practically irresistible. Even when we know it doesn’t work.

I was thinking about this temptation as I rode my bike to a meeting downtown, about five miles from my apartment in New York City. As I breathed hard and felt my heart beat, I suddenly realized that I had overcome the multitasking hurdle. I was simultaneously getting 30 minutes of exercise and commuting to my meeting.

In other words, you can multitask as long as you’re doing two things that don’t tax the same parts of your brain. Email while on a conference call? Bad idea. But exercise and commuting? It’s a perfect multitasking marriage.

What makes it so perfect isn’t simply that it’s doable. It’s perfect because each activity is enriched when combined with the other. My commute is shorter and more predictable on a bike compared with a subway and I arrive refreshed and energized. And my ride feels more purposeful when it’s taking me to a destination—commuting is the motivation I need to get on the bike.

It turns out that commuting time is a great multitasking partner to a number of different activities. And, since so many of us spend a considerable part of our day commuting, it’s worth being strategic about using that time. So what’s the best way to do that?

First, identify the most prominent gap in your life. Do you need more relaxation? More exercise? Are there things you’ve been longing to learn? Are you feeling disconnected from others? What in your life do you feel gets short shrift?

Once you’ve identified the gap, use your commute to close it. If it’s exercise you need, then bike or walk to work, even if it’s just partway. If it’s relaxation you’re missing, then do nothing or read a fun book. If you want to learn something, then read about it or, if you have internet access, watch a video or participate in an online course. If you’re feeling lonely, write some emails that will reconnect you to people you cherish.

You need to factor in your mode of transportation of course. I wouldn’t suggest reading or texting while driving. But an audio book (relaxing/learning) or a hands-free phone call (reconnecting) would work well.

Here’s the point: Don’t simply default to your typical time fillers. Use your commuting time to bring yourself closer to the life you want to live. Make a choice that will leave you feeling more accomplished and refreshed when you arrive at your destination.

And, no matter what gap you’re filling and what mode of transportation you’re using, there are two things all of us should incorporate into our commute every day:

During your morning commute, spend five to ten minutes preparing for your day and, during your evening commute, spend five to ten minutes closing it down.

In the morning, think forward through your day, hour by hour. What will make this day a success? With whom are you meeting? What are you trying to accomplish? What might throw you off? How will you handle it? Do you expect to have any difficult conversations? How will you approach them? Any risks you want to take? How will you initiate them? Your day is much more likely to be productive if you think it through and plan it out.

Then, during your evening commute, think back through your day hour by hour and glean wisdom and connection from it. How did the day go? What worked? What didn’t? What do you want to do the same—or differently—tomorrow? With whom can you share feedback? Who should you thank? What happened today for which you can feel grateful?

Your morning commute will prepare you for a productive day and your evening commute will help you learn, grow, and connect.

Not only will you be productive while traveling, but your work during the commute will also make you far more productive after traveling. That’s productivity times three: triple-tasking.

If you do it all on a bike, you’ll be quadruple-tasking. You’ll have commuted, exercised, prepared for your day, and, since the ride will leave you energized, you’ll also be emotionally ready to face any challenges with courage and power.

Who says you can’t multitask?

Originally posted at Harvard Business Review.


  1. Hah! This is the ONLY reason I wish I had any sort of commute (I live 1/2 mile from my job)… I would love “me” time to think about what I want to think about and not what I have to think about. I love road trips for this reason… I can truly multi-task. I listened to some great podcasts about marketing for my new business on my way home from a commitment last weekend and I found myself wishing I had more opportunities like that.

    Thanks Peter!

  2. Robert Schlesinger says:

    Your idea that connecting via cell phone via hands free is not a good idea. Numerous studies have shown using a cell phone while driving even with the hands free operation (not even factoring in the dialing process) is a form of distracted driving.

  3. John says:

    I just love and enjoy the simplicity with which you convey these lessons Peter.

  4. Olga says:

    Peter, I always enjoy reading your posts, but this time you’ve really given me something to think about. I love the idea of using the morning commute to be more strategic about preparing for the day ahead, as well as the idea of using the evening commute to ‘unwind’ instead of carrying the work pressures wherever you go. Also, the suggestion to identify and try to close the most prominent gap’ in one’s life while travelling is inspired – thank you very much.

  5. Cindy says:

    Love your ideas Peter! However, I have to agree with Robert’s comment, and distinguish between a driving commute and a riding commute.

    Working in the insurance industry, I’ve seen more than enough studies and reports to make me believe that talking on the phone — even hands-free — causes our brain to “switch-task,” not multi-task (Great term, Peter!). We fail to notice a large amount of important details while driving, because the same parts of our brain needed for driving have focused instead on the conversation we’re having. (It should be noted that talking with a passenger with you in your auto does not have quite the same effect.)

    Check out this link to the Cognitive Distraction report from the National Safety Council, for more information!

    Keep sharing, Peter!

  6. Well, I’m going to have to agree with Robert and Cindy – My mistake. I think you are both right – it is not a good idea to speak on a cell phone while driving, even hands free. I’m sorry I mentioned that particular idea in the article – it’s not a good one. Thanks for raising the issue and commenting about it.

  7. Sarowar Parvez says:

    I take your write ups as my personal development weapon. And this was no different. I was habituated to multi-tasking. I will avoid it ….. unless 2 tasks taxing same part of my brain :)

  8. Mary says:

    Thanks, Peter. Always enjoy your posts. Last evening, I pushed myself to multi-task in a good way — exercised on the living room floor while listening to a lecture on my laptop about ‘gaining clarity.’ Not only did I get to listen to something I wouldn’t have had time for, it forced me to stretch and exercise for an hour!

  9. Jeffrey says:

    I like the concept. Great idea if one is commuting while someone else is driving. Seems like biking and talking on cell has been shot down. I will say the same for biking and thinking about the day, or anythingelse that needs some amount of concentration. I bike whenever possible, here in Chicago. I know that it takes all my attention to avoid getting doored, potholes, cars at intersections, etc. I’m sure it is the same in N.Y. But if multi-tasking means commuting while getting exercise, then biking is perfect.

  10. Not to pile on, but I also add “reading time” to “commute” and “exercise” to triple task as I often listen to audiobooks or podcasts during my ride to and from work. One of the great additions to my ride has been the “Say It And Mail It” app that allows me to capture thoughts I have on my ride as an audio recording that is automatically emailed to Evernote.

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