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6 Ways to Get Inspired on Your Commute

Sep 27 2017

What were you doing at 8:30 this morning? If you’re like me, you were slogging through the least fun part of your day. The average employee spends nearly 53 minutes a day getting to and from work, but you don’t have to sit there feeling miserable. There are all sorts of creative ways to wring positivity out of your daily grind.

I asked IDEO designers and other creatives for their commuting best practices. Here are the top six:

1. Embrace Randomness

On my 20-minute walk to work, I'll use chance to determine my route. "Don't walk" sign? Cross the other way. See a dog? Walk on that side of the street. Does the time of day end with an odd number? Make a right. I won't walk the wrong way, of course, but I'll use random cues to make myself choose different paths so I'm forced to notice new things along the way.

I also use my commute to connect with strangers in small but meaningful ways. I make sure to give a warm, real "hello" to bus drivers—no earbuds, please! Compliment well-dressed people on their style choices. Flirt with outgoing dogs to get their owners to smile. Thank people cleaning the streets for keeping things tidy for the rest of us. Little things like this make a city feel more like a small town. —Annette Ferrara, IDEO Chicago

Maximize Your Commute Doggo

2. Ride with Strangers

I'm new to the San Francisco Bay Area and I'm finding the "casual carpool" here a total novelty. It's essentially organized hitchhiking. You arrive at the designated carpool stop and wait your turn as two to three people at a time hop into strangers’ cars. The incentive for drivers is being able to use the HOV lane, which requires a minimum of three passengers and can shave 30 minutes off your commute.

There are very strict, unwritten rules for casual carpool: You don't make conversation unless the driver initiates, you don't eat or wear too much perfume, and you absolutely don’t take phone calls. The default radio station is NPR. You offer the driver a dollar at the end of the ride for gas.

At first, I thought it was so weird that people don’t talk, but now I like the quiet ride. Every now and then, I'll jump into a car and we’ll have conversation for 20 minutes as we cross the Bay Bridge. I like this too; connecting with strangers on my way to work is a great way to start the day.

If there isn’t a casual carpooling option in your city, look into organizing one for yourself. —Maria Scileppi, IDEO San Francisco

3. Spin with Your Inner DJ

One era of music that’s splendid fun is early ’90s—rave, jungle, techno, happy hardcore, etc. Much of this music was written using software called a "tracker." With trackers, you can enter notes using a standard computer keyboard.

Fast forward to modern times, and I find that a new tracker has been developed—RENOISE—that works the same way as trackers of old, but with modern-day functionality. Well, I had to have a go on that.

I installed it on my work laptop and now spend my journey home lost in the sounds of chopped Amen breaks, 808 and 909 hits, and rude-boy vocals. There's a lot to learn in terms of production techniques, sound design, and arrangements.

I start a new track each trip; these are my "train tracks." I find a great deal of enjoyment in seeing where they end up after the hour-long ride, but then I'm happy to abandon them. There's always tomorrow. —Iain Smyth, IDEO London

Maximize Your Commute Subway

4. Unplug and Observe

I walk 10 minutes to the ferry building, take a 15-minute ferry ride across the river, and then walk 25 minutes to the office. I used to fill all that time listening to podcasts, checking email, surfing Facebook, or otherwise trying to get a head start on my day—which meant I'd developed a bad habit of looking at my phone while walking.

One day, I decided to end the habit for safety's sake. With my phone now tucked away during my commute, that time is spent letting my mind wander, observing my surroundings, and pondering the day ahead. The result is that I feel more prepared for my day mentally and energetically. I’m less frazzled and magically seem to have more down time. —Anna Silverstein, IDEO New York

5. Work Your Muscles, Free Your Mind

I bike to work because it's an easy way to build in regular exercise without having to carve out special time. It's a 30-minute ride each way.

I often have lightbulb moments and am able to connect the dots around things happening at work or in my personal life. There's something about the intense focus of weaving through traffic while letting thoughts percolate in the background that works for me.

For example, earlier this year, a large education company in India reached out to IDEO to talk about collaborating. On our call, it didn’t seem like a great opportunity for partnership, but then on my evening commute home, the dots connected.

I called the company back the next day to propose a program that would bring together the strengths of both our organizations (IDEO U's curriculum expertise and the partner company’s established marketing and distribution channels) to provide a great executive education experience for the Indian market. —Danoosh Kapadia, IDEO San Francisco

Maximize Your Commute Walking Girl

6. Get in the Right Headspace

I walk eight minutes to the 2nd Avenue subway and then take a 16-minute ride to Canal Street. I've been meditating every day for a few years, and this year I decided to listen to guided meditations on my commute.

I typically choose from a selection of meditations by Sarah Blondin on the Insight Timer app. Most are about 10 minutes long. She has a wonderful voice, and I select based on my mood. Usually, I choose something to pick up, reaffirm, or inspire me. Sometimes she nearly brings me to tears, but usually she just helps me be more present.

Listening to guided meditations while commuting has made me more mindful of my surroundings, more compassionate toward my fellow commuters, and generally calmer. —Caitlin Fitzmaurice, IDEO.org, New York

Next time you find yourself staring into space on the way to work, try one of these techniques to reboot your commute.

  • Heather Kathryn Ross

    Lead Writer & Editor, IDEO San Francisco
    As a lifelong storyteller, Heather has crafted articles about the legacy of civil rights abuse on North Carolina factory farms, the trillions of helpful microbes living in the human body, the wild art of Japanese butoh, and the ancient history of cheese. A jewelry maker, photographer, and amateur archaeologist, Heather can often be found on the lam with her camera or biking through San Francisco en route to the California Academy of Sciences.
  • Emma Baker

    Communication Designer, IDEO Cambridge
    Emma is a communication designer at IDEO Cambridge. She is interested in crafting compelling visual narratives that communicate a client's vision. Her multidisciplinary background allows her to combine the powers of traditional and digital media to tell brand stories in unique and surprising ways.

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