Using Walks, Drives, and Commutes For Work

I used to think that walking, driving somewhere, and commuting were things that we fundamentally opposed to work. Complete downtime. Even using them to listen to podcasts isn’t working. It is a good use of the time, but it isn’t working.

I now regularly go for walks throughout the workday and take time commuting between my house and coffee shops without stress because I’ve learned how I can best use those periods of time productively for work: I use them to think about a specific problem.

We all think when we walk, drive, and take public transit, but the key is using that time to focus solely on one problem instead of just letting our minds wander. It is tricky, because unlike working at your desk or diningroom table, driving, walking, and commuting are full of opportunites for distraction.

Here is what works for me:

  • I define the problem I’m trying to solve, give it parameters, and write it down in my notebook.
  • I go over the relevant research I’ve done previously. It usually takes me no more than 15 minutes.
  • I forego podcasts and most music. If I’m on the train, sometimes I put instrumental music on to block out the surroundings, but if I’m walking or driving I leave my headphones in my bag. If your mind wanders, notice it and pull it back to the topic at hand without judgment.
  • I have a notebook ready to take notes. If I’m driving, I usually wait until I get to my destination. If I’m walking or taking the train, I can take notes immediately. I used to take notes on my phone, but I find the allure of apps and notifications too distracting, so now I opt to leave my phone in my pocket.

Here is an example from earlier today. I wanted to go work from a coffee shop for a while because I needed some coffee. Here is how I used my time driving there and back:

  • Defining the problem: I have three months of curriculum content to decide upon with TK in a meeting this afternoon and 6 topics to choose from. What best flows from what already exists and how can it be used?
  • Research: Going over the existing 6 topics to choose from and the curriculum elements we’ve already decided on.
  • Today I was driving, so I left podcasts off and just thought as I drove. When my mind wandered off, I noticed it and gently shifted my focus back to the curriculum, just like I’ve been learning to do with my daily meditation practice. (I use Headspace.)
  • When I got to the coffee shop, I wrote down the ideas I had and took a few minutes to refine them.
  • I worked on something else for a while, and then got ready to go home. I reviewed my earlier notes and asked myself, “Where are the holes in this plan? What would make this better?” That is what I focused on while driving home.
  • When I got home, I had 15 minutes to write down my notes and get ready to talk to TK about them.

I do this all time time now, especially on my walks. It is amazing how much framing a specific question before leaving and focusing on that can turn something we usually squander into useful time.