Six steps to become a better train commuter

It’s been less than one week since I reversed my commute to work. When we lived in the city, I was less than half a mile from the red line subway, which meant my average one-way trip to or from work could be less than 30 minutes if I walked fast enough. Additionally, because we lived in the city, this also meant I could fetch a low-cost Uber ride home if I were really in a pinch.

Everything about my commute changed when we moved west. Now, I still commute by train, but my new train ride with Metra can last anywhere between 35 and 50 minutes, with an additional 20 to 30 minutes of bike riding or walking on either end.

After just three days of this commute, I’ve already made enough mistakes to fill a month’s worth of petty frustrations. Rather than holding onto those frustrations, here are six steps long-distance commuters can take to make their lives abundantly easier, founded in the real mistakes I’ve already made.

Plan Ahead

This might sound easy, and possibly even redundant, but planning ahead when you’re transitioning to a longer commute can be more tenuous than you might think. The first reason for this is that your day gets longer and the amount of time you can actively devote to planning naturally gets reduced.

When we moved, I had the best intentions to make an express train that departs at 6:53. So far I’ve made that train just once and still find myself scrambling to make the 7:10. Why? I never planned to change my morning routine from what it was when we lived in the city. It wasn’t a great morning routine, but the distance to my office was so short and leaving between 7:45 and 8:15 would still get me to the office with little stress.

I don’t have that luxury anymore, and missing one train comes packed with risks that I never had to deal with in the city. Being strict with yourself is never fun, but you’ll reap the rewards in terms of lower long-term stress once your plan begins to run on auto-pilot.

UP-West - that's mine.

Internalize Your Schedule

If you’ve ever had to rely on unpredictable transportation—whether it’s the downtown subway or bus or even interstate traffic—shifting to the nearly unwavering schedule of a longer-distance train like Metra can be a remarkably jarring shift to your plans. The risks to missing a train are greater since they don’t arrive as frequently, and the time difference between express and non-express trains can be pretty significant.

With everything else going on during the day, it can be tough to sync your internal clock with your new schedule. For me, I’ve got between a 15 and 25 minute walk to the train station, depending on how slow people walk or how awful I predict the traffic lights. The last thing anyone wants out of their evening commute is a persistent angst about whether you’ll make the next train or not.

I used to use the Transit app a ton to figure out when the next train or bus would arrive downtown, but it’s super useful for commuter rail, too. Since the trains operate on strict schedules, you can use the app to set automated alerts based on the departure time of the train you want to be on. Based on your location, the app will give you an estimated travel time to the train so you can make a decent guess about how long it’ll take you to get there.

Get and Stay Organized

Commuting never let me carry much to begin with.

One of the advantages of living close to work is that if you forget something at home or at the office, doubling back to pick it up can be done in a flash. When you live 30 miles from your office, forgetting or misplacing something can be disasterous.

On my way out this morning, I realized I couldn’t remember where I put my wallet the night before. This might not have been a problem, but since I was already late, sticking around to look for it wasn’t going to happen, especially since missing the train means getting to work 30 minutes later—or more—than intended.

Jäg ater
Jäg ater

Schedule Train Activities

Forty minutes one-way might not sound like much, but when you add it all up, that’s more than six and a half hours per week of train time. Planning out that time to learn or accomplish additional personal or professional tasks can make you feel more productive and satisfied by the time the weekend rolls around.

Our cell phone plan supports teathering, and since I’m hardly ever off WiFi in the office or at home, I can use my data plan to connect my computer to the internet and get some extra work done without many of the normal distractions of the office. Additionally, I love to read and learn. Lately, I’ve been using a language learning app called Duolingo to keep my Spanish fresh and learn a new language (Swedish).

Stock Up and Store

Miles away from home means miles away from your stuff. If you’re like me, you enjoy coffee in the morning and you like to work on the train to keep yourself busy. If this is you, you will spill your coffee at some point. Rather than fret, store an outfit or two at your office. If you spill coffee all over yourself, wash your clothes with soap and water when you arrive at work and change your wardrobe.

Alternatively, stop buying coffee. This will have two effects. First, you’ll start saving money. Second, brining your own coffee in a high quality, spill proof container will mitigate the risk of actually spilling.

Making It Stick

If you’re like most people, changing habits in the face of a new routine can take time. You won’t get it right the first time (the reason I’m writing this post is because I’ve failed on every front). A routine is something you shouldn’t have to think too hard about, but when you’re changing everything, it pays (often in the form of clean clothes and homemade lunches) to think hard about what works and what doesn’t up front. If you’re the writing type, it can even help to journal about your success and failures and create your own set of best practices. That way, your new activities can become true routine fast and you can spend more mental energy focusing on the people and things that matter most.

Adjusting to a new lifestyle definitely changes your habits and makes you learn new ones. So far, I’ve learned that if you make the changes deliberately and learn from your “failures” early, you’ll be well on your way to establishing new habits in no time.

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