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3 Strategies for Surviving a Long Commute

Geoff Williams
4.    How long is the commute to work?
If the commute to your workplace will cut into family, social or ‘me’ time, you may have to pass up on the pad.

Like many commuters, Neil Shapiro never quite knows what will happen on his daily journey.

That's because the journey is a little longer than most. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average one-way daily commute for U.S. workers is 25.5 minutes. Shapiro is among the 8 percent of workers who have commutes of an hour or longer. In fact, he's considered a "mega-commuter" because he commutes at least an hour and a half and 50 miles.

Every morning at 6:20 a.m., the 44-year-old managing partner leaves his house, wife and kids in central New Jersey and heads to Intermarket Communications, a public relations firm in Manhattan. He refers to it as the "triathlon commute." From home, he drives eight miles to the New Jersey transit station, and then takes a 60-minute train ride into Penn Station before boarding the subway into Midtown. But it's really a quadrathlon.

"I then walk four blocks from the subway station to my office," Shapiro says. "Total commute time is about one hour and 45 minutes each way -- if everything goes exactly right. Which doesn't happen very often."

But every mega-commuter wants everything to go exactly right. After all, time is money, and you want your time to be as well spent as possible. (Once, when a train broke down in front of Shapiro, it took him four hours to get to work.) So if you're a mega-commuter and moving closer to work or resigning isn't an option, then resign to improve your commute with these tips.

Study your commute. It may be that no matter what, unless you wake up at 3 a.m., you're going to be in for a long commute. You might also find that you can get to work faster, but it will be more expensive. That's what Shaprio has found.

"I spend about $530 per month commuting," he says. "This covers my monthly train ticket, parking at the station and NYC subway. I've done the calculations and estimate driving in every day would cost about 40 to 50 percent more, not to mention wear on the car."

[Read: 10 Ways to Reduce the Cost of Your Commute .]

But you may just need to tweak your traveling to get your life back.

"Timing is everything. The actual time that you start the commute is critical: Even if it's 15 minutes earlier or 15 minutes later, it can make a huge difference." says Bill Hartzer, a senior search engine optimization strategist at Globe Runner SEO.

Hartzer knows of what he speaks. He has a 79-mile, one-way commute, driving from Mabank, Texas, to Lewisville, in the Dallas area. He has been commuting from Mabank to various points around Dallas for more than 15 years, "and it's all been at least 70 miles away from home," Hartzer says.

Try leaving your home and office at different times of the day, he suggests. "From what I've learned, the traffic goes in waves, so to speak. It's as if groups of people leave at the same time, and if you're able to time your commute properly, you'll be in between one of those waves or groups of people doing the same commute."

Megan Bearce agrees that it's critical not to become complacent or a slave to your commute. She is the author of "Super Commuter Couples: Staying Together When a Job Keeps You Apart, " and her husband has been commuting for the past three years from Minneapolis to New York City -- once a week, by airplane. (That makes Bearce's husband a "super commuter" -- one who travels a great distance to work once or twice a week; a mega-commuter travels the same route regularly, essentially every day of the workweek.)

His company doesn't pay for his airfare, so Bearce, a licensed marriage and family therapist, is aggressive about searching for cheap flights. She also convinced her husband to take a water bottle on his trips so he doesn't purchase bottled water on his cross-country commutes.

Make the most of your time while you're traveling. That's a no-brainer, but it never hurts to ask yourself whether you're maximizing your time. For instance, if you drive every day, maybe you should look into public transportation even if it takes longer, simply because you can make it your mobile office.

"I read work materials on the way and prepare my thoughts for any calls or documents I have to work on that day. This is also a good time for editing any docs I've written," says Sumih Chi, 23, an account coordinator at Corporate Ink, a Boston technology public relations firm. "If it's not work-related, I like to listen to NPR and/or put together thoughts on things I need to get done at home."

[Read: 3 Simple Strategies for Better Time Management.]

Chi's commute sounds especially onerous. Her company's offices are only four-and-a-half miles away from her home, but it takes 90 minutes to get there -- by way of four buses and two subways. She pays $70 a month for her monthly link pass.

"Can't beat that," says Chi, who has a car but, for now, it is parked at her parents' house. "It's really all about parking," Chi explains. There's a dearth of parking spaces where she lives and near her company. "Parking fines can add up, especially with street cleaning and sweeping happening twice a week."

As spring hits, Chi hopes to bike to work, which may be the best use of a commuter's time -- she'll be helping the environment and exercising.

If you're stuck with your car, there's always the old standby: improving your mind.

"I made a routine out of finding a new audiobook to listen to at least once per month," says Brandon Green, who works at TrafficZoom, a Web marketing company in Los Angeles. "Reading wasn't a hobby of mine, but I went from taking in a few books a year to somewhere around 15 in the last nine months."

He also bought a battery-operated neck rest that vibrates, relaxing his neck and shoulders while he listens to his audio books. "I wouldn't recommend it for free-flowing traffic, but when I know I'm going to be in the same lane for at least 30 minutes, there isn't much to do but sit back and wait," Green says.

For about a year, Green has been commuting 14 miles, which takes 60 to 90 minutes in peak traffic. "The first week wasn't so bad," he says. "By the second week, the experience was no longer new and interesting. And by the end of month one, I was in commuter hell."

[See: 10 Saving Strategies That Can Backfire.]

Improve your landing. If you have a spouse, children and pets surrounding you, wanting your attention, your arrival might be stressful, especially if your commute was grueling.

"Some people like to be greeted with hugs by the kids," Bearce says, "but others need to decompress for five minutes."

She says the best super commuters work with their partners to make it an easier commute for both the person working and the family that stays behind.

Shapiro, for one, says he has been doing the same commute since 1997, and his wife and 12- and 15-year-old are all used to his long workdays. Since he isn't behind the wheel for most of his trek, the commute provides time to unwind from work and think about the rest of his life.

"In some ways," Shapiro says, "I find the train ride home allows me to relax and decompress somewhat after a long day, and I'm actually less stressed when I walk through the door."

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