Jachimowicz suspects that these benefits come from the fact that it eases the conflict we feel between our roles at home and our roles at work. After all, your behaviour at home – as a flatmate, spouse or parent – will be very different from the ways you are expected to act at work. And some people don’t switch between the roles very naturally, creating a sense of conflict that can compound work-related stress.
“When we’re stuck in between these two roles – this thing that researchers call ‘role ambiguity’ – we feel conflict, and that leads to a lot of negative outcomes,” Jachimowicz says – such as feelings of exhaustion and burnout.
A few moments thinking about the day in front of you can therefore ease the change of gears, reducing the stress once you arrive in the office, he says. “The time period between leaving home and arriving at work is really a wonderful opportunity that people could use to transition between the two roles.”
The evening commute, meanwhile, may be a good time to consolidate your memory of the things you have learnt throughout the day. Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School asked trainee IT workers to spend 15 minutes of reflection at the end of each day. By the end of their course, they performed 20% better than people who had instead spent that period on additional active practice. Gino’s participants were, admittedly, reflecting on their work from the comfort of their office – but there’s no reason why you can’t use your commute to quietly reflect on the day’s lessons.
Many people prefer a more involved distraction, of course – and it is worth remembering just how productive those snatched moments can be in the long term. As BBC Capital recently revealed, someone who spends around six hours commuting each week could read (or listen to) a 100,000 word book in that time. Or you might decide to learn a language. Neuroscience shows that we often learn best when we study in spaced chunks – and the commute is an ideal time to put that principle into practice.
Even if you simply let your mind wander, you may find that yourself unexpectedly solving a knotty problem – with evidence that periods of mindless distraction can lead to momentary sparks of creativity.
You don’t need to spend too long on any of these activities – in between checking your Instagram and Twitter feeds – but if you do devote a little time to reflection, your commute could help to enhance your sense of achievement and your productivity.