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Train Of The Damned
August 29, 2012 1:02 PM   Subscribe

How to fix a lousy afternoon commute routine?

I spend a lot of time being annoyed by my commute. A few weeks ago I realized that the mornings are OK -- my morning routine is good. The afternoon equivalent is not.

I commute every day from Queens to Manhattan and back -- 25 minutes by E train, then walk for 15 minutes or take a busy bus for 5-10. I usually listen to music for most of the trip, and I leave work around 4 most days.

Thanks to my downtown office, I always get a seat on the subway, but the ride nonetheless starts to feel like stressful torture. I'm usually trying to decompress from a long day of mental focus, the train gets very crowded, and my stomach tenses and my posture gradually becomes uncomfortable, regardless of how I sit. By the time I get home I'm strung out and annoyed by whatever was going on with other commuters (people up in my space, constant loud music performers, people begging, etc. etc.).

What to do to reduce the stress? I've tried alternate ways of getting to work, but it's 10 miles across the inner city, which makes for an infeasibly long walk and a long, stressful bike ride. Driving would be insane. I'm at a loss for how to improve this experience, despite many years as a subway commuter.
posted by zvs to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Instead of music, listen to books, or interesting podcasts. I find it's so much easier to deal with a commute (I don't have much of one anymore, but when I did) with soothing voices talking to me.

Fresh Air is a great and thoughtful show.

I find it's easy to tune out when you have words to listen to.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:06 PM on August 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Noise canceling headphones. The in-ear passive kind like these. And like Ruthless Bunny said, podcasts. Or get lost in a book.
posted by valeries at 1:08 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Listening to music via headphones has always been my refuge, but then, I'm a musician and I use mp3s to help me learn songs. While it doesn't solve the problem of a crowded train, it will at least drown out some of the excess noise.

What do you normally do to decompress? Is it possible to bring said activity on the train, like say, playing video games via iphone or something?
posted by LN at 1:10 PM on August 29, 2012


Ugh, I feel you. I actually switched jobs earlier this year mainly because the commute was a consistent day-ruiner. Can you switch up the time you get to work, so that you're leaving at a time with fewer people sharing subway space with you?
posted by troika at 1:12 PM on August 29, 2012


Other good podcasts: RadioLab, This American Life and The Moth.

During a 9 month period in Atlanta, I tried to give the various transit systems a try. I went back to car commuting, but during the time I was on the bus/train, I made serious headway in a Read-All-The-Great-Books project I was tackling at the time.
posted by jquinby at 1:12 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Reading, definitely. I barely even notice what's going on around me while reading, while i find music means I can't do anything but watch what's going on (plus, there's a good chance it's obnoxious for everyone around you... said as someone who hateshateshates sitting next to someone who's listening to music on a crowded train, because I can always hear it).
posted by brainmouse at 1:19 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Could it be the job that's the problem?
posted by rhizome at 1:21 PM on August 29, 2012


Mrs BinaryApe knits on buses and trains. She finds it relaxing, enjoys making things, and also believes that wiggling knitting needles helps to preserve personal space. Doing something crafty with her hands lets her brain relax.

Could you try origami or sketching?
posted by BinaryApe at 1:21 PM on August 29, 2012


I experience the same thing. Mornings, I'm zoned out, time flowing quickly. Afternoons, I'm really wound-up, the journey seeming to take forever. One thing that can help me is to turn my focus to my breath, to try to take slow complete breaths, and to lower my eyes (somehow this has a calming effect on the psyche). In general, I think learning yoga or meditation can help you improve your ability to deal better with these stresses. More prosaically, you could also insert into your schedule something to do for a while in in the area your workplace before facing the train, e.g. workout after work at a gym near the office. This has the added benefit of possibly letting you miss rush hour altogether.
posted by Paquda at 1:22 PM on August 29, 2012


Instead of going right from your job to the subway, could you do something else for 15 minutes that brings your stress level down a bit? Maybe walk to a different stop or get a coffee or something.

Also, are there cars on the train that are less crowded? That depends a lot on the position of the doors vs. stairs but if the last two are usually less crowded, even if they're less convenient for entry/exit, that might help.
posted by marylynn at 1:24 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I used to commute by car 1.25 hours each way when I worked in Michigan. It definitely led to a deterioration of my mood and outlook, so I understand.

But, assuming you have an mp3 player, I would try podcasts. For humor and pop culture, there's lots of great stuff on the maximum fun site. Stuff you should know, On Point with Tom Ashbrook, and Radiolabs are my favorites to think and learn things.

But you also mentioned physical discomfort. I would practice some simple breathing techniques (which you could find online) or start taking a morning or noon yoga class. Or run really hard for 20-30 minutes.
posted by SpicyMustard at 1:29 PM on August 29, 2012


I always read on the subway too.

Something that helps me with commuting is switching it up a bit. Is there any way you can, say, take the F train home one day a week, for variety? Or walk to a different stop along the E? Or just do something else to break up the monotony of the same old commute?
posted by mlle valentine at 1:29 PM on August 29, 2012


Can you exercise/take a class/hang with friends/a combination of these near your office before you head home? Even just a couple days per week? This will help you decompress and put you on the train a couple hours later, which may mean less people around.
posted by justjess at 1:33 PM on August 29, 2012


Yeah, the nice thing about reading is that, if you're really engrossed, you're looking at your book/magazine, and not at what's going on in the subway car. I find it more absorbing than listening to music, though you can do both (or read while wearing noise-canceling headphones). I used to commute from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, and it was the only time in my life that I finished the New Yorker every week.

If you're not really into reading, maybe you can look for something else that occupies you visually--watching tv/videos on your smart phone, playing Angry Birds, doing crosswords, etc. (Though the latter two might be frustrating with the swaying of the train...)
posted by pompelmo at 1:33 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Assign yourself into a standing position that can allow you to perform isometric exercises along the entire subway ride. I wish I could take a train to work so as to make better use of my time rather than sitting in the car--listening to the radio doesn't help me much, nor does learning German, etc.
posted by waving at 1:35 PM on August 29, 2012


I have a tough time listening to books and spoken word, for some reason. Just annoys me, even in non-stressful situations.

Something that helps me with commuting is switching it up a bit. Is there any way you can, say, take the F train home one day a week, for variety? Or walk to a different stop along the E?

Yeah, I do this sort of thing a lot (esp. on the local). It is marginally helpful but there are only a few alternatives.

Could it be the job that's the problem?

Well, the field is pretty stressful (software). My job is about as good as it gets however. I am also trying to mitigate work stress, always a challenge...
posted by zvs at 1:35 PM on August 29, 2012


Watch a tv episode on your smartphone?

Have you tried podcasts? I used to be annoyed at books on tape and assumed it would be the same with podcasts, but it's not. Maybe something shorter and funnier than the hour long shows.

Can you bring exercise clothes to work, and do a workout or nice walk before heading home? Even walking a mile or two might take the edge off.
posted by barnone at 1:45 PM on August 29, 2012


Maybe try different music?

I'm the kind of person who loads their ipod with music they like, but then ends up pressing the forward button to get to the next song at least half the time.

So I switched to different, more relaxed music. For me, that was a switch from rock/indie to jazz and swing. After the switch, I have no inclination to always be a button-presser now and I can just relax and enjoy my Chet Baker and Louis Armstrong.

You may not be anything like me, but I thought it might be worth mentioning in case you are.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:48 PM on August 29, 2012


Where are you in Queens? Would you be able to bike part of the way, to eliminate some of the train time? I would kill myself if I had to take the train every day. I find that bike stress is way more manageable than train stress.

Barring that, "Radio Lab" podcasts. (But on preview, I see your follow-up.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 1:49 PM on August 29, 2012


I have a tough time listening to books and spoken word, for some reason. Just annoys me, even in non-stressful situations.

You don't have to listen to books -- you can just read them. Occupies your eyes and your mind. There's lots of very light/nonstressful fare out there.
posted by brainmouse at 1:52 PM on August 29, 2012


Where are you in Queens? Would you be able to bike part of the way, to eliminate some of the train time?

I live near the 82nd St #7 train, and generally walk to the E/F at Roosevelt Ave; I work on 14th Street.

Even at my best biking, I'm slower than the train from Roosevelt to Queens Plaza, so if I did that the travel time would be lengthened. (Nor would I want to leave my bike at Queens Plaza all day.) Sometimes I enjoy the bike ride (not in summer) but there's just a huge amount of terrible drivers between here and there, no matter how you go.
posted by zvs at 1:53 PM on August 29, 2012


I have to listen to music while reading to drown out all the other passengers. Just listening to music isn't enough and just reading isn't either, but the two together works. Same with podcasts - I listen and do Sudoku or draw on my iphone (okay, "draw" is a stretch - I make fun patterns and color combinations).
posted by valeries at 2:02 PM on August 29, 2012


Instead of getting on the subway straight away after work could you take 15 minutes to decompress first at a coffee shop or something, a snack and a coffee to avoid cranky low blood sugar problems before hand might make the trip less stressful too.

Do you do something to distract your eyes as well as your ears? It's a lot easier to ignore what is going on if you aren't seeing it. Crank up your music and do a puzzle or read a book, or play some games on your phone or even watch a movie.
posted by wwax at 2:05 PM on August 29, 2012


Oh and wear sunglasses on the train too, it helps you feel a bit more distant from what is going on around you. I hate crowds and the feeling of hiding behind my sunnies really helps me.
posted by wwax at 2:06 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hmm. At first I thought you meant lower Manhattan when you said downtown and was thinking of suggesting you take the East River ferry to LIC (where you could get the 7) once in a while. That doesn't really work from 14th St though depending on where on 14th you work you could take the 15 bus up 1st avenue and then take the ferry across the river from 34th St. It would be longer and more expensive but might be a nice break in the routine sometimes - being on the river is nice!

If you can come up with a list of different options (besides the E and the F what about the 2/3 to the 7, or walk over to Union Square and take the 4/5/6 to the 7; once in awhile you could even walk on the High Line a bit and get on the E farther north) you might want to think of a system for switching them up - I have a bunch of different options for my commute but I would always default to the one that was easiest by a tiny margin just because I didn't have the energy to pick an alternative at the end of the work day. So I wrote a little program that will randomly tell me which route to take, which is kind of silly but works for me. The nice thing about switching it up is you incorporate different parts of the city into your routine (although I guess for you it would just be different blocks of 14th St which is not so exciting).
posted by yarrow at 2:46 PM on August 29, 2012


I use my commute to read Ask Mefi on my smartphone (coming to you live from a train platform!)
posted by Cheese Monster at 3:16 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a long annoying train commute as well. I know what you mean about mornings being easier and afternoons being kind of like a nightmare.

To pass the time I try to get immersed in smartphone games, read the newspaper, listen to music, or podcasts if I'm in the mood. I also sometimes have a hard time listening to people talk on headphones; something about it addles my brain, unless I'm in a receptive mood.

I think where you might be going wrong though is here:
I'm usually trying to decompress from a long day of mental focus, the train gets very crowded, and my stomach tenses and my posture gradually becomes uncomfortable, regardless of how I sit.

The only way I find my afternoon commute bearable is by trying to be very Zen and very accepting of the whole thing - "Yes, the next two hours are going to suck. Here we go...". I find that listening to a podcast about Buddhism (it's called Against the Stream) on the way there in the morning (where I'm more likely to be in that receptive mood) helps me not be stressed out on the way home.

Perhaps you're getting stressed out because you're trying to decompress when it's not time to decompress yet. Apart from the work stress that you're bringing home, the discomfort from the actual trip itself comes from your body and mind trying to get a result (de-stress) that's incompatible with the present circumstances (stress). Plus, it's super boring. I want to be home already!

Here's what I would try if you haven't already:
-It might be less stressful to be more aware of your surroundings, not less, so all of your attention is tuned into all the things that are subconsciously demanding your attention.
-Try to keep the momentum and focus going that you had during work until you're actually undressed, on the couch, drink in hand. That's what I do.
-I guess there's a subtle difference here between zoning out and passing the time. I do things to pass the time, but I'm never trying to zone out. Because that would be really frustrating, because it's not possible.

Sorry if this all sounds a little woo-woo; I'm not religious but I find that it really does help me get through it to think this way.
posted by bleep at 5:20 PM on August 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


For biking, have you tried going down to the Williamsburg Bridge via the 2nd Ave. protected bike lane, then up the Kent Ave bike lane? Those route is pretty well protected from terrible drivers. If you got a folding bike you could ride that up to Queens Plaza and take the express out from there.
posted by akgerber at 8:24 PM on August 29, 2012


The best thing you can do for yourself, in my experience with such matters, and as noted above by wwax, is leave the office to go do something local to the office that you enjoy, and then wander over to the subway when you're done. Don't think "oh my day is over and now I have this shit commute home"; think "oh my day is over so now I get to have my twenty minutes of peace in the coffee shop" or "oh my day is over so now I get to go read books at B&N without paying for a bit" or whatever. Disconnect the commute from the job.
posted by davejay at 10:50 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


One thing I've done to make the pm train ride more bearable is to save something that I've been looking forward to and reward myself with it on the ride home. It can be anything: a new album, a Radiolab podcast, a good book, an episode of a tv show on my phone, even just a cup of tea. For the morning ride, I can pass the time with work email on my phone or calendaring or whatever, but it helps me to look forward to the ride home when I know that I'm going to get to do something I've been looking forward to all day.

It also sometimes helps to listen to Eno's Music for Airports, close my eyes and zone out. That album helps me be alone with my thoughts in a crowded space (as it's intended to).
posted by mmmcmmm at 6:18 AM on August 30, 2012


For biking, have you tried going down to the Williamsburg Bridge via the 2nd Ave. protected bike lane, then up the Kent Ave bike lane? Those route is pretty well protected from terrible drivers.

Yeah, I actually go via the WBB more often than the QBB (I worked out a route through Maspeth; Kent is kinda far). The LES -- and grinding crosstown traffic to 8th Ave -- is pretty unpleasant, although better than 2nd Ave from the 50s to the 20s. I've worked pretty hard to optimize the bike commute, but there's no getting around the fact that it's 10 city miles.

Thanks for the tips, all. I've got a number of things to try.
posted by zvs at 7:15 AM on August 30, 2012


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