My work and travel over the past few years have made me spend a lot of time on the road: commuting to and from different jobs and classes, driving between cities to see family and friends, etc. Many Americans spend a great deal of time commuting to and from work on a daily basis, and some of the recent research on happiness (discussed in countless books such as Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth) indicates that a long daily commute is one of the surest paths to a stressful and unhappy life.
Anyone who has been stuck in standstill traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago (to give one example) will probably intuitively understand the truth behind such research findings. But many of us have no choice but to drive a great deal for work - and for home-owning commuters in many areas, the collapse in home prices in recent years has made it impractical to sell one's house to move closer to one's workplace.
But this is one area in which approaching life as a self-educator can make a person more happy and fulfilled. To the self-educator, the day-to-day "grind" of commuting, work, waiting, and errands can be at least partially transformed into a set of opportunities for learning and growth. Our daily schedules, which often seem so packed and overfilled with tasks and obligations, usually contain "hidden moments"* - or even hidden hours - that we are accustomed to wasting, but that can be put to work in the service of learning, goals, and growth.
Here are a few ways in which I have put my commute to use in the past or hope to put it to use in the future. If any of these ideas appeal to you, I encourage you to think about how you can modify it to suit your own tastes, interests, and circumstances.
-Visit your local public library and browse the audio book collection. Skip the latest bestsellers and challenge yourself with something you know will be valuable and cause you to grow and broaden your mind: a classic work of literature or a book of history, for example. Listen to these on the road. (Audio books I've listened to this year: James Joyce, Dubliners; Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft; Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged; Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers; Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam; Bob Woodward, State of Denial). Also, many libraries have some sort of interlibrary loan system that you can use to borrow audio CDs (as well as books and other materials) from libraries around your region. (See also: The case for reading good books and Self-education and language learning).
-Find out what your local NPR news station is, and listen to it. NPR has five minute news summaries every hour, and many of their daily programs offer incredibly valuable and in-depth interviews, commentaries, and features. Nothing else on the radio can compare. NPR programs regularly interview and profile people of all political persuasions, and the vast majority of NPR programming consists of informed debate and informative reporting, not opinion pieces.
-If you have an auxiliary audio jack with which you can attach an iPod, smartphone, or other mp3 player to your car stereo, download high-quality podcasts or audio files to your mp3 player and create a playlist to listen to in the car. Great podcasts with high educational value are put out by NPR, PBS, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other websites and media outlets. (Browse the iTunes Store's podcast collection here - nearly all podcasts are free.)
-Consider subscribing to audio versions of high-quality, educational magazines and newspapers. You can arrange to have these automatically downloaded to your digital audio player every morning in time for your commute. I particularly recommend the Economist, every article of which is made available each week in podcast/audio format for subscribers. Regularly reading the Economist over a period of years is, in my opinion, the single best way to gain a broad knowledge of current events around the world. And the Economist is not, its title notwithstanding, primarily a business magazine; its pages include news from around the world, in-depth special reports about a wide range of topics, business and economics news, science news, book reviews, and more.
Audible.com also offers audio subscriptions to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the U.S.'s top two newspapers. The Times is better for in-depth investigative reporting about politics and international affairs, and its opinion pages are mostly liberal; the Journal has a business and finance focus, and its opinion pages are mostly conservative.
-If you are studying a language, trying to memorize something, or boosting your vocabulary, create your own digital audio files with the material you are trying to memorize. Listen and speak along with the material as many times as you can - when you can reflexively and immediately generate the material you are memorizing without the aid of the audio, then you will own it.
-If you are brainstorming ideas for writing or other projects, use a digital recording device (most recent phones and smartphones come loaded with some sort of recording software) to record ideas you come up with on the road. I have sometimes been able to overcome writer's block by verbally "freewriting" on the road - simply talking about the topic I am writing about as though I were brainstorming aloud to a friend, and capturing the ideas on audio to listen to and record on paper later.
-Minimize talking on the phone, and never text or play with your phone while driving - regardless of what the law says in your state. If you keep yourself busy with strategies like those above - not to mention with the business of careful and conscious driving itself - you'll be much less tempted to fiddle with your phone and risk causing an avoidable tragedy.
Consider sharing your own thoughts about making the most of commuting time in the comments.
* = [Note: I originally discovered the concept of putting "hidden moments" to use in Barry Farber's incredible book about self-education and language learning, How to Learn Any Language.]