In a world increasingly divided, here's one thing we can all unite behind--absolutely no one needs more stress in their work day. Trying to reduce your 9 to 5 stress is an industry in and of itself, with advice aplenty.

But Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino's 2018 research reveals that the key to a lower stress day happens before we ever get to the office--during the commute.

The average commute is 76 minutes roundtrip, more than twice what workers say is ideal. I know of many big city, west coast commuting tales where the commute is four times that. These people have it worse as the research cites that for every 15 minute increase in commuting time, job satisfaction scores decrease another 4 percentage points. The common denominator for any commuter is that unpredictable traffic can make you late for a meeting and throw your entire day into chaos.

Conventional wisdom says that to destress during such anxious time you should do the opposite of what stresses you out--listen to music, read wonderful articles (like this one) on the train, scroll through social media. 

But Gino's work shows something I was honestly surprised by; engaging in these activities doesn't help you manage your stress. It just interferes with your ability to transition into your work role more smoothly. This can have a hugely dampening impact on stress levels throughout the day and on corresponding job satisfaction. Gino put it this way to Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge:

I was surprised with this finding myself. 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.

So, to have a less stressful day, don't default to doing relaxing things on the way into work? Counterintuitive but true. This doesn't mean, by the way, to replace relaxation with worry. For those struggling with the conflict between home pressures and work pressures, longer commutes take an even bigger toll because "me time" gets replaced with "dual-worry time", which is even more counter-productive.

Here's what to specifically do with your commute time.

Gino says to use it to transition into your work role. Go through your plan for the day (visualize it), set your goals and priorities, and review the three most important tasks to accomplish.

Her research proved the impact. For four weeks one group of respondents was asked to listen to music, read the news, or do anything they enjoyed during their commute. The other group was asked to "focus on your goals and make plans about what to do during your workday". The pre-planning commuters reported significantly higher levels of job satisfaction and corresponding reduced intentions of quitting their job.  

The power of intentionally transitioning roles holds true for the commute home as well. Gino's research shows it's important to transition to your home role at this time. Plan out what might be for dinner, what you'll do with the kids after dinner, or how you and your partner will unwind.

It's also important to note that leaders can benefit from awareness of the toll commutes take on their employees. It speaks to the need for more flexibility and the need to support remote work but it also means opportunity for the leader to help employees better manage their commute time.

Adding structure to unstructured time to help you prepare for the day ahead might, at first glance, seem like a downer. But if it makes the rest of the day such an upper, it's well worth the sacrifice.

Published on: Apr 1, 2019
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