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The Brazen Careerist

Long commutes stall careers, lives

If you have a bad commute, you are probably not very happy. A bad commute spills over into all aspects of your life. Raymond Novaco, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that bad traffic on the way home makes for a bad mood in the evening. This is true regardless of age, gender, income or job satisfaction. In fact, your commute might even kill you, because an increase in driving distance relates directly to an increase in blood pressure.

Many people don't need to wonder if their commute is ruining their lives: It's obvious. When I commuted from Los Angeles to San Diego, I sure knew. Even though I made that drive 10 years ago, the two hours I spent going each way was so bad that I still talk about it. I didn't eat well because I was driving during breakfast and dinner times. My love life suffered because the only thing that excited me was sleep. I called my friends from the car, and my repeated interruptions ("Hold it, I have to change lanes") annoyed them so much they would use any excuse to get off the phone.

I justified the commute by telling myself that the job was great. In fact, the job was great, and when I later took positions at companies closer to my home, it probably helped me to make huge leaps up the corporate ladder. But that period in my life is a black hole -- figuratively and literally -- because I never traveled in daylight hours (too much traffic). When I left I was so relieved that I wished I had made the decision sooner.

If you're wondering how bad your commute is, try asking the people you come home to at night. If your roommate says you're a monster until you've had two beers, you know you're in trouble. If your roommate is a cat, you might not get such helpful feedback, but you can take a look at averages.

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The average commute in the U.S. is about 25 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The shortest commutes are in the 17-minute range for people living in the Great Plains states (Wichita, Kan.; Tulsa, Okla.; Omaha, Neb.) New Yorkers have the longest commute, clocking in at 38 minutes, six minutes longer than workers in the Windy City, who came in second.

I've heard many terrible suggestions for making a long commute seem shorter, or at least more pleasant. For example, learning a language. But really, who has ever learned a language this way? With luck, you may learn how to say, "How much does this cost?" or "Do you want a date?"

Another favorite, talking on the phone while driving, is about as safe as driving drunk. The one I tried, listening to a book on CD, required very good listening skills. You don't realize how much you tune in and out of conversations until you spend an hour listening to a book and have no idea what happened. I realized that if I had good enough listening skills to follow an audio book, I could make enough money to have a chauffer drive me to work.

Which is really the best idea. Commuting seems less stressful if someone else drives. Take New Yorkers, for example. Many take the train or subway, so even though Big Apple employees have the longest commutes in the U.S., they're stoic about it.

But 90 percent of U.S. workers go to and from work in a car. My experience tells me that once you're in the car, there's not much you can do to make the commute tolerable. So the shorter the better. And the best way to get a short commute is to choose a job that's closer to your home (or move closer to work, but who's going to do that?).

Not convinced this is a valid job-selection criterion? You will be if you think about what that car time is worth to you. For instance, if you were earning $40,000 a year, would you accept a two-hour one-way commute (four hours round trip) to make an extra $40,000 a year in salary? In other words, would you work an extra four hours daily at a terrible second job -- driving in traffic -- to double your salary? Sure, it's a lot of money if you have nothing else to do with your four hours a day. But if you have to miss seeing your kids every day, the money might not look so good to you.

Sure, I'm being dramatic; most peoples' commute choices are less black and white. But when you really think about what you're getting -- and what you're losing -- because of your miserable commute, you may decide you're better off working as the night manager at your neighborhood McDonald's. Maybe you could even walk to work.

-- Posted: March 1, 2004
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