How to Use Your Commute to Add Skills and Improve Your Work Life

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Whether your daily commute is by car, train or subway, the hours you spend getting to and from work can seem like wasted time. Most of us spend it listening to music, making phone calls or catching up on a novel or favorite podcast. While there's nothing wrong with using that transit time as a way to zone out, experts say there is a "smarter" way to commute that can help boost the career you have -- or give you a leg up on getting a new one. So sit back, enjoy the ride and take a look at our top five ways your morning commute can give you the career boost you've been looking for.

1. Think -- really think -- about what you're doing and where you want to go

"There really isn't a whole lot of time left for thinking anymore," says Doug Brown, academic program manager for the online MBA program at the Malcolm Baldrige School of Business at Post University. "We live in a world where we're constantly getting information input, but we have very little processing time for all that information. At some point, it needs to process."

For some people, "thinking" time, or "processing" time, can be a few minutes each day where they put relaxing music on in the background and find a quiet space to think -- and that can be done easily in the car, Brown says.

"Commuting time can be very effective quiet time," he says. "If you're driving and your normal habit is to drive as fast as possible in the left lane, maybe you slow down, drive with traffic and let your mind focus on something else besides the road."

Although everyone needs time for quiet reflection, Brown says it can really aid professionals looking to improve their career, because it allows them to take stock of what's going on in the workplace.

"If you're having problems with a colleague, you can use that time to say, 'OK, I have this perspective, but what have I not thought about? What is the other person's perspective, and how can we approach this from a different angle?'" Brown says.

Using your commute for a personal "career planning" session is one of the most effective things to do with your time in the car or on the train, says Dave Denaro, vice president at executive coaching firm Keystone Associates.

Denaro says that making a list of strengths and weaknesses is a great way to get the ball rolling. "Since most of us are consumed with doing our jobs for much of the day, little time is spent thinking about managing our career direction."

2. Take some "transition time" a few days a week

One of the best ways you can improve yourself during your commute is by using that travel time as your "transition time," Brown says. "We are all go-go-go at work, and when we leave to go home to family, to home life, we risk taking that with us if we don't decompress. Your significant other does not need you to roll up to your house still in work mode."

If you've ever taken a yoga or meditation class, Angelo Kinicki, management professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, says that "mindfulness techniques" can be the key to slowing down and reconnecting to your personal life after a long day.

"Mindfulness techniques, which include attention to breathing, can help decrease stress and increase our ability to focus during the workday," Kinicki says. "Driving 'mindfully,' by being attentive to the details of driving, can also serve a meditative function."

By being "intentional" in how you use your commute back home, Brown says it will be easier to make the shift from work to home and vice-versa.

"We talk a lot about work/life balance, and we think we can switch really quickly, but unfortunately a lot of people come home and their first interaction with family is like they are co-workers," Brown says.

3. Understand the power of a small adjustment -- and get on a schedule

Once you've got your list of strengths and weaknesses together, Brown says to assess where a "small adjustment would have a huge impact," then find sources that can help you accomplish that.

"Download audio books, download mp3s or use your e-reader," Brown says. "Just don't expect to get a life-changing result from one audiobook."

If you can get "one nugget" from each piece of media you spend time with, you're doing good, he says. But understand that slow and steady wins the race.

"If you listen to a foreign language for two weeks and then don't do anything for three months, it's not going to work," he says. "It might take two commutes each week for a year. Let's say you take two commutes, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, and you work towards a specific objective. That's going to get you somewhere."

The most important thing is that you "do something," Brown says, and don't underestimate the power of the slight adjustment.

4. Find something good? Put it on repeat

"Whatever goals you're trying to reach or habits you're trying to change, it starts with a different way of thinking, and you're not going to change the way you think by listening to something once," says Robert Smith, founder of Drive & Grow Rich, a CD-of-the-month club. "Sometimes I would go five or six months listening to the same thing until I knew my behavior had changed."

Although it may sound intimidating -- or even boring, Smith says that once you find something you feel is helpful or inspirational, put it on repeat for at least 30 days. After that, the message will be more ingrained in your psyche and acting on it will be easier.

"Don't underestimate the good ideas you're hearing," Smith says. "The more you listen, the more little gold nuggets you hear. Eventually you will have an 'A-ha!' moment, and you will realize how much you've been processing that you weren't even conscious of."

5. Look for ways to move up -- and on

If you are really unhappy in your job and hate your commute every day, find a resource that can help you guide your career, Brown says.

"Listen to a podcast or a book that can tell you what the job search process is like for your industry, and start to educate yourself about that stuff," he says.

If you're actively looking for a new job, your commute is one of the best opportunities to explore other industries, says Robert King, management consultant and founder of EntelliPROJ Consulting.

"Listen to books, podcasts and speeches by industry experts and learn about the role you're seeking," King says. "If you understand the businesses in your industry, you instantly have the upper hand. Start educating yourself on the companies you admire, their products and the ways they do business."

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