Jo Harrison relied on a secret weapon for the 542-mile round-trip commute she made each week from Houston to Westlake, Texas: Gizmo, her Japanese spaniel. Bringing Gizmo along “kept me in good spirits,” recalls Harrison, who now makes the trip just once a month.
She also used the time to talk with friends (using a headset, of course). “Sometimes I’d call my best friend and we’d chat for the whole three-hour, 45-minute trip—and I’d be surprised to find myself suddenly at work.”
Harrison is what’s known as an extreme commuter—one of 600,000 Americans who travel more than 90 miles to get to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Although these epic commutes are unusual, they’re becoming more common, with even the average driver’s commute expanding in recent years. These extended trips take a significant toll not only on cars (96 percent of 50-mile-plus commuters use their own vehicles), but your personal relationships—and your own well-being, say experts.
“Most people on long commutes don’t feel like they have enough time to spend with their kids, their partners or themselves,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York City. “It’s as though they’re always saying goodbye, and they’re anticipating that ‘goodbye’ as soon as they come home. It has a psychological impact on everyone involved.”
As a result, extreme commuters say they keep a range of skills in their time-management arsenal to minimize the fallout from long-distance rides.
Coping With Mega Commutes
Megan Bearce, author of Super Commuter Couples: Staying Together When a Job Keeps You Apart, knows about commuting stress firsthand. Her husband became a Minneapolis-to-New York super commuter in 2009. For her family, staying connected—and maintaining a semblance of a normal routine—was key.
“We’ve really learned to be proactive and plan ahead,” Bearce says. “Our son has an important music program coming up in a few months, so my husband asked for time off work well in advance. For people who can’t take time off, that’s where technology helps. Using video conferencing or taking videos of special events can ease the separation,” she adds.
The Bearces’ separation across a few state lines seems paltry when you consider what software consultant David Pacailler endured. For 10 years, he hopped a plane from his Florida home to places as far away as Alaska—weekly. He figures he’s logged at least 1 million commuting miles. Maintaining a sense of humor helped, he says. “In an effort to keep up my mood, my wife used to spike my carry-on luggage with surprises,” Pacailler recounts. “More than once, she planted Barbie and Ken dolls in my bag. It was funny—after I got over the embarrassment [at the security check].”
Take Back Your Time
Of course, the real challenge is finding ways to make an epic commute feel less like a slog and more rewarding and productive. Harrison says that apart from her dog and her cell phone chats, she used her hours on the road to earn a master’s degree in human services over a two-year period. Today, she’s extremely proud of how she used her time: “I graduated with my bachelor’s with no thought of a higher degree, because I didn’t have time,” she recalls. “Once I began that long commute, though, I was able to listen to lectures and audiobooks that helped me get my master’s.”
Bottom line? Commuting is a fact of modern life. Yet you can survive yours by staying safe and upbeat—and using the time well.
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By Rosa Harris
Illustration by Pixteur
Read more: Does Driving Stress You Out?
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