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Dealing with the down time of commuting

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Globe and Mail
June 28, 2012

Dealing with the down time of commuting
By Harvey Schachter

A long journey into work doesn't need to be a complete waste of time

Nikki Wills sings as she drives to work. Mark Sheppard will stop in the early morning hours to take photographs. Kevin Montgomery reads on the GO train. And Eddie Ho will often use his time stuck in traffic or on transit thinking up ways that Toronto's roads and transit system could be operated more effectively.

The four are not just examples of the millions of Canadians who have long commutes every day, but of the creative ways that many commuters have devised to make the trip productive – or, at least, less wasteful.

A survey on the Globe Careers section in March, designed to help people tally how they were faring in stress and work-life balance, unearthed an unexpected vein of deep dissatisfaction from respondents who were highly stressed by their commute and frustrated that it made their preferred work-life balance impossible because of the amount of time gobbled up.

At the halfway mark of the year, we are running that two-pronged self-survey again. The Scorecard section helps you measure your stress and work-life balance levels, and the Questionnaire guides you through how you might deal with imbalances. You can find the Scorecard and Questionnaire here [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/whats-the-status-of-your-work-life-balance/article4096763].

Mark Sheppard has a long drive each day from Whitby, Ont., to the military base at Camp Borden, near Barrie, which takes him around an hour and 40 minutes each way. He took the job with his eyes open: A former member of the military who now focuses on e-learning, he had been working from home but was ecstatic about being able to serve as a civilian contractor in training and development for the forces. "That is the only reason I would make this commute," he says.

He leaves the house at 5:10 a.m., fortunately with little traffic and going against the flow. On Highway 400, heading north from Toronto, he'll be on cruise control virtually alone on the road while watching three lanes of traffic pushing south to Toronto on the other side. Invariably, he'll be listening on his iPhone to podcasts about training and development, or audio dramas, or audio books.

If he faces a presentation that day, he might rehearse, talking to himself out loud: "I'm sure anyone who sees me thinks I'm nuts." Even more unusually, while everyone else is in a frenzy to get to work, he'll be watching the scenery, and when he sees something glorious – a sunrise, mist, or beautiful vista near the Holland Marsh – he'll pull over to the side of the road, take a photo with his trusty iPhone, and share it with the world through social media.

If Mr. Sheppard might startle fellow commuters by talking out loud to himself, Nikki Wills has done it by singing. She moved from Brampton to her husband's home town of Brantford when he found a job in the city. But she was working in Mississauga, a commute that for her Saturday shift only took about 45 minutes from Brantford but on Tuesday to Friday could run as long as 2 1/2 hours either way. She secured a job transfer closer to home, but it took six months until she obtained a shorter commute to Hamilton, before eventually landing a post in Brantford, a few minutes from home.

A trained singer who started voice lessons in Grade 6, she would burn CDs with upbeat, peppy songs and sing her heart out – although she stresses not "in full concert, eyes closed, Diva mode." She admits sometimes she would arrive for work at the call centre with her voice "a bit toasted."

Kevin Montgomery takes a 45-minute GO train ride each workday from Brampton to downtown Toronto, where he works in marketing and publicity. On the way home, often the most creative act is to nap, refreshing himself. But going in he will read for pleasure and work, draw something, or work on some freelance design project on his laptop.

But the 31-year-old also takes a fold-up bicycle with him. That allows him some exercise at both ends of the train ride, but even more importantly offers flexibility when the dreaded announcement occasionally comes that the train is being delayed. He'll check the bicycle routes on Google Maps, calculate how quickly he can get to work or home by bike, and take off if he can come out ahead pedalling.

Eddie Ho, a chartered accountant with Ernst & Young, lives downtown only eight minutes from the office, but sometimes he and colleagues will have to visit clients far away. On subways, he'll listen to his iPod, since he finds it difficult to read. "It's wasted time – definitely," he says.

But maybe not totally wasted, since he is considering applying to be a member of the Toronto Transit Commission board, where he can push some of his ideas for reducing congestion in the city that he's developed as he studies the morass around him on commuting days.

"I don't know what is preventing Toronto from getting ahead on roads and transit. There is too much speaking and not enough doing," he says, and not enough creativity.

Harvey Schachter is a Bettersea, Ont-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book review for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail harvey@harveyschachter.com [harvey@harveyschachter.com]