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Daily commutes to work can be long and tiring, sapping you of energy even before you start work. Whether you are packed into a crowded Metro train or driving in peak-hour traffic, the long ride to and from work has been consistently cited by employees as the least favourite part of their day. In fact, the average global commute takes about 38 minutes one way—that’s the equivalent of more than 35 additional workdays a year. What is worse is that commutes aren’t getting any shorter. Longer commutes are also known to have negative effects on employees—additional stress and emotional exhaustion, leading to absenteeism. A new study suggests that daily commutes to work need not be a drag, and can be channelled into a “goal-directed prospection".

The paper titled Commuting with a Plan: How Goal-Directed Prospection Can Offset the Strain of Commuting, written by Jon M. Jachimowicz (Columbia Business School), Julia J. Lee (University of Michigan), Bradley R. Staats (University of North Carolina), Jochen I. Menges (WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management) and Francesca Gino (Harvard Business School), claims that commuters who have enough self-discipline and self-control to focus their thoughts on the tasks they need to complete at work can instead turn this “waste of time" into a positive period that helps them align their goals for the coming workday.

According to the authors, if employees perceive the daily commute as an imposition, they’ll distract themselves by reading, listening to music, or daydreaming about the coming weekend. On the other hand, employees who view commuting as a welcome chance to focus on their professional responsibilities—away from familial or social pressures—will be more likely to ponder over how best to structure their day and make a mental to-do list. Simply put, self-control helps determine whether employees use their commute as a daily drag or a productive buffer time that eases the transition from home to office.

The authors undertook several studies to arrive at their findings. They conducted a series of surveys at a global media firm to measure employees’ self-control and job satisfaction, and the psychological impact of their daily commutes. A second study involved full-time employees in a range of industries who answered open-ended questions about their workday. Both studies backed up the initial findings that workers with self-control were able to offset the negative effects of long commutes.

However, a third study that the authors conducted of employees at a B2B (business-to-business) firm proved to be a twist in the tail. The authors found that self-control isn’t a predetermined personality trait, but one that can be subtly nurtured. Participants in this study were split into two groups. One group received text messages from managers encouraging them to listen to music or read, but also to set aside a few minutes to plan their workday. The second control group was simply asked to note what they did during their commute each day.

Compared with the second control group, employees who were prompted to plan their day, significantly increased their job satisfaction and reduced their travel-related fatigue. This finding suggests that “engaging in goal-directed prospection" is a behaviour that can be learnt and adopted by employees regardless of their levels of self-control.

To sum up, while commuting time may not be in the control of employees, they can control the nature of their commute by using that time productively to plan their workday. This would increase their job satisfaction and help reduce emotional exhaustion.

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