UK: Perspective - No chat, please, we're commuters.

UK: Perspective - No chat, please, we're commuters. - Ignore your fellow travellers, set yourself a problem, and solve it on the way to work. Winston Fletcher on how to make that morning journey a more productive experience.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ignore your fellow travellers, set yourself a problem, and solve it on the way to work. Winston Fletcher on how to make that morning journey a more productive experience.

The IBM System User magazine published a study some time ago which showed that top managers were spending 13.1%, and all executives 6.4%, of their working hours in travelling. Since then, overcrowded airports, the growth of rail passenger traffic and recurring motorway traffic jams tell us that everyone is spending more and more time rushing hither and thither.

Telephone conferencing, the internet, e-mail, incessant faxing and all the apparatus of modern communications, which should, in theory, be supplanting such personal travel aren't doing the trick. People still want to meet people, face to face.


The IBM journal's percentages related only to working time. They excluded the time spent travelling to and from the office. If you commute for only an hour a day, 30 minutes each way, that will equal about 10% of your working week. So even if you don't frequently flit between Brussels, Berlin and Buenos Aires, you probably spend at least 250 hours a year - about 30 working days - traipsing between domicile and desk. It is almost inconceivable that you couldn't use that time more productively than you do.

Commuting time need not be wasted time. Hours you spend in transit can be some of the most creative and productive of the day. Since it is all too easy to fritter them away in a pleasant, vacuous trance, it is essential to begin by listing some of the things to be avoided, the don'ts, before focusing on the do's.

Don't play talk radio. If you commute by car, driving time should be thinking time. So don't switch on the radio for background buzz. Some people find that music helps them concentrate but nobody can think clearly when voices are prattling away in the car.

Don't set off on your journey at the last minute. The only predictable thing about travel is that it is unpredictable.

All travel involves delays. (This will hardly be news to train travellers suffering post-privatisation blues.) So get in the habit of leaving 10 minutes early. You will generally arrive at work a few minutes earlier than necessary, which is not catastrophic. And if you're driving and a car ahead of you breaks down or has a shunt, you won't be stuck motionless behind the wheel, fuming and frenzied.

Don't play with your mobile phone. Unless it is absolutely essential to have it on, switch it off. Otherwise the temptation to make and receive unnecessary calls can be irresistible.


Don't hold commuter parties. If you commute by train, don't become matey with the other passengers. If this sounds unfriendly, that's because it is unfriendly. Once you become chummy with fellow commuters you'll end up chatting, drinking, playing cards and doing just about everything except work. You will need an iron will to remain as silent as a Trappist monk but it will prove worth it.

Don't wallow in newspapers. If you casually open the paper as you get on to a train, you will probably still be reading the thing when you get off. Skip-read the headlines, key items and any material relevant to your business either before you leave home or over coffee at work. Reading other newspaper features is a leisure activity, not a priority.

Having considered the habits to be avoided, let's turn to those to be adhered to, starting with car travel and then moving on to trains.

Set yourself problems. Far and away the most enjoyable way to spend driving time is to set yourself a business problem to solve by the end of the journey. Obviously you cannot write or do complicated calculations. But it is useful - particularly if you are as absent-minded as I am - to keep a small dictating machine to hand, to remind you later of your thought processes and conclusions.

Go on a cassette course. Do you want to learn a language, or more about salesmanship or accountancy? Piles of training courses are now available on audio cassette, and driving is a perfect time to learn from them.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. You can talk to yourself in your car without anyone thinking you're off your rocker. You can rehearse presentations and speeches against the car clock until you become word perfect. (And the dictating machine can be pressed into service again, if you find it helpful.)


In contrast to car travel, the overriding benefits of train travel are that you can write and read. Many great authors, including John Le Carre, have written entire books on trains. And that was long before laptops were invented. So it should be relatively easy for you to tap out or scribble documents while you are on the move. The following hints will facilitate the process.

Surprising though it seems, I find it best not to sit at a table, at least when handwriting. Train seats and tables do not move together in harmony. Instead, I make my own table - a briefcase on my knees - which makes writing far easier.

Do not plan to write documents for which you need lots of source material.

You will never remember to take all of the necessary material with you and, even if you do, consulting it will be a pain for you and your fellow passengers.

Avoid writing, or reading, highly confidential documents unless you are sure you are alone. The sniff of even a whiff of confidentiality will guarantee that neighbours will take a peek, even if they aren't really that interested. 'To travel hopefully is better than to arrive,' claimed Robert Louis Stevenson, the great Scottish writer. I've never been sure about that. But I'm absolutely certain that to travel creatively is best of all.

Winston Fletcher is chairman of advertising group Bozell UK and a visiting professor at Lancaster University.

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