A Slate article entitled “Your Commute is Killing You” compared my commute with assembling IKEA furniture and called it a “migraine-inducing life-suck”. It must have been talking about engineers living in California.
I commute 45 minutes, each direction, every day. But unlike most people described in this article I have taken complete control of this issue and have made my commute productive, enjoyable and one of those things to look forward to, both directions.
Here’s how I do it.
1. I look Forward to Both Ends of My Commute
I live in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and work a couple of blocks north of Union Square in Manhattan. Every morning I walk a couple of blocks to the subway. I look forward towards arriving in Union Square where a farmers market takes place three times a week and I walk four blocks to General Assembly where I get to see some of the smartest people I know, sharing a desk in our reserved area or a couch in a communal space. I love the energy of the city and I feel happy coming to work.
Heading back from work means seeing my family with some additional perks, particularly enjoyable in summer. I get to walk into my apartment, change in a bathing suit and feel the sand on the beach before taking a dip in the cool water of the Atlantic. In winter, there’s also the ocean, albeit colder, but combined with an indoor pool and a Russian sauna. Brighton beach feels like a vacation that I get to take every day.
2. I Work on the Subway which Serves as a Time Box
I use a laptop on the subway and write code. I sit through my commute, turn on my laptop, and focus on getting one relatively small thing done. Unlike a car, the Subway is spacious, comfortable and allows me to focus on the work, rather than on the commute itself. It’s also a perfect time box system – I will have to get out at my stop or make friends with the subway bums in Coney Island or the Bronx. Is it really worth it?
At home I start my day by having a coffee from my obnoxious espresso machine and glance over any unfinished work. I don’t read e-mail. I look for one very complicated, challenging or insurmountable task. Something that bothered me or a colleague for a while - anything that looks hard. This is because the brain works best in the morning. I walk my son to school and think about ways to solve the problem. Once I am sitting on the subway, I usually have a plan in mind and 45 minutes to attempt a fix or a feature.
Before leaving work I exit every single application still open on my computer, creating a clean slate. I make sure I stash any changes and finish or put away anything I wanted to do during the day. I then open Pivotal Tracker that we use for tracking work-items and just leave it this way before putting my laptop to sleep. Once I am sitting in the subway, I open the laptop and read through my work items. I pick the easiest thing on my list. I know I can get it done in the next 45 minutes and because of the unchallenging nature of the problem I choose, it won’t occupy my mind for the night.
3. I Live off the Last Stop
I always get a seat in the morning because I live on the last subway stop. This is not the case on the way back, which I will address in the next point. Having a dedicated space is important. The subway is somewhat of an office space to me.
4. I Don’t Commute in Rush Hour
Being in software and working for a startup enables me to commute during off-hours. I take the subway at nine thirty in the morning and try to leave the office after seven. This means I won’t have to let an old lady sit in my place half way through my ride and that the subway will not get as packed with school kids. It won’t be too hot during summer, so nobody will be dripping sweat on my keyboard (but thanks to the hardware manufacturers for protecting laptops from small spills anyway).
5. I learn the Patterns and Observe People
Sometimes I miss the easy commute window and end up in a rather packed subway. This only happens for me on the way back from Manhattan. I know which subway cars are the emptiest, so I tend to jump on those. If I don’t get a chance to do that (train arrives as I enter the station), I spend my time observing people. By now I have stereotyped most of the commuters that travel with me.
The tourists are not leaving Manhattan and will get out at the next stop. Score.
The Russians can be easily recognized by their fur coats and sneakers and live in Brighton Beach.
The Latinos, notably the Mexicans with children or exhausted workers that are falling asleep live towards the end of the line in my neighborhood and will share my entire ride.
The Asians, especially the Chinese that talk endlessly will get out on Canal Street, one stop from Union Square. If they don’t, they will get right before Brighton Beach amongst the last people to leave the subway.
The young hipsters of any nationality or color are slightly better dressed and will usually get out on the first couple of stops in Brooklyn, followed by young adults that will get off around Prospect Park.
The remaining African American folks, especially small groups of young girls or those that are still wearing their medical personnel uniforms, will get out around Church Avenue and Kings Highway.
The orthodox Jews with many children live around Ocean Parkway and will get out in the last avenues before Brighton Beach.
When I enter the subway I try to stand near the group that I believe has the highest chance of getting out early and vacate a seat. My success rate has been improving dramatically over the years.
6. I have Wi-Fi most of the Way
I use my Android Tether and have the internet most of the way since the subway runs above-ground. I make it into a wireless hotspot. This lets me push my code one or two stops before my destination and complete the “done” part of “getting things done”. When I don’t have WiFi I am happy to be using git and Github. I get to make local commits all the time.
7. I Watch People and Enjoy Crowds
Even if I don’t get a seat, I love people-watching. All those people of the many origins and ethnic groups are endless source of amusement, fun and learning. I love my commute even if I am squeezed between a fat dude and a whiny kid. If you hate your commute, start by packing your stuff, getting a job at a startup and moving to New York where there’s an incredible diversity.
I no longer commute from Brighton, having moved back to Manhattan. That was mostly motivated by the need to be in a better school district.