Before setting up his new business, Peter Yang made a point of bothering everyone he sat next to on his 75-minute commute to work.

“I’d just ask whoever happened to be sitting next to me if they ever thought of paying someone to write their resume for them,” he says. “A lot of people didn’t have a great grasp of how to optimise them, so it seemed promising.”

Yang, is now the co-founder of ResumeGo, a CV writing company that he started in 2015. He says that if it wasn’t for his long journey from his home in New Jersey to his then full-time job in New York, it would have taken far longer for the business to get off the ground.

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For nearly a year, Yang would either talk to people on his train about his business, think about how to create his company or chat with his future business partner over the phone – who was also commuting at the same time, but on a different train.

"The commute helped me dedicate a certain chunk of my day to working on the business," he says.

Most of us are probably not as productive as Yang on the way to work, but we may want to make better use of our time. In America, the average commute is 26.4 minutes, up 21% from 1980, while commuters in London and Manchester spend about 85 minutes a day getting to and from work.

The commute helped me dedicate a certain chunk of my day to working on the business – Yang

The rising cost of living in major cities like New York, London and Beijing has forced many people out into the suburbs and surrounding areas, giving them little choice but to commute long distances to the office each day. In Beijing the average commute is about an hour.

Rather than staring at our phones, we could use that time to upgrade our skills, start new companies, learn new languages and more.

That’s precisely what Mark Smith did on his hour-long journey from Haddenhan in Buckinghamshire to London, where he worked in the Department of Transport.

For years, Smith would pass the time by reading but, one day in 2001, rather than picking up another page turner, he bought a book on HTML – a computer language that’s used to create websites.

It took him two days of commuting to finish the book after which he built a one page website.

It took him two days of commuting to finish the book, after which he built a one-page website, Seat61, explaining how to get from London to various European cities by train.

It’s a subject he’s passionate about – he loves to travel, but says there was a lack of information on train travel between England and Europe. When the Guardian newspaper named his site the best travel site of the week in May 2001, he knew he was onto something.

A few months later, Smith purchased a laptop and began building more pages during his commute. In time, he stared earning a decent income from the site and in 2007 he quit his job to run it full-time.

It’s unlikely he would have created Seat 61 if it weren’t for his daily travels to London, he says.

“If I didn’t have this journey then I wouldn’t read nearly as much,” he says. “Would I have bought this book and read it? Probably not.”

Block out the noise

It’s one thing to want to be productive but it’s another to get meaningful work done. Smith, though, had no trouble. Despite sharing personal space with strangers, there were fewer interruptions than at his office and no one was calling him to talk, he says. He does add, though, that a 30-minute trip wouldn’t have been enough – he needed the full hour.

For Nancy Noto, noise cancelling headphones allowed her to study for her masters in social organisational psychology during her 45-minute rides from Manhattan to Queens, in New York. Working full-time – then at a startup, but now running her own HR business – and attending classes at night didn’t leave her much time to study.

That was the whole point of me using my commute – so I could relax and sleep when I got home.

She too decided to make the most out of her travel time. Every day she’d pop on her headphones and read textbooks uploaded to her Kindle.

“I really wanted to get everything done before I got home at night at like 10 PM,” she says. “That was the whole point of me using my commute – so I could relax and sleep when I got home.”

Plan ahead

To make the most out of your commute, says Clare Evans, a UK-based time management consultant, you should do two things: plan and be realistic. Those who think about exactly what they want to accomplish can focus better than those who don’t have an idea of what they want to do, she says.

“Decide you’re going to read a certain number of pages or listen to a podcast or write up some notes,” she says. “Figure out what you want to achieve in the time you have.”

I do miss the long train rides where I could focus on my business

It’s also important to be realistic about your time and your environment, she says. If you need to concentrate, the busy morning commute may not be the best place to do that kind of work. If you get a comfortable seat on the train, though, and know you can spend 40 minutes writing a chapter of a book, then it can be a good way to get extra work in.

While most people would prefer no commute over a long one, Yang, who now works mostly from home or from an office close by, does look back fondly on the times he had on the train.

"I do miss the long train rides where I could focus on my business,” he says. “But now I have more time to spend with my family, so I see the upsides to both.”

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