Wait Time? Work Time! How to Make Travel Time Pay


1220282_subway_stationI use public transport a lot. And where I live, public transport is notoriously unreliable. This was getting to be quite annoying, since waiting for trains and trams meant wasting precious work time. Or so I thought.

But then one day, standing on a deserted platform having missed my train by seconds (and facing a 70-minute wait for the next one), I decided to take matters into my own hands. I decided to make wait time into work time.

Here are my tips for not wasting the time you might spend in a bus, train or plane terminal, or actually on public transport without decent web access. Carry a compact notebook and pen, and you won’t even need a seat. You can undertake most of these work tasks without power, too.

1. Brainstorming

In my work, there are always new ideas that need to be conceived. But we all have professional problems to solve, or solutions to ponder. Whatever the case, time spent waiting for your next scheduled service can be seen as quality free-thinking time — if you let it!

I often use this time to brainstorm, usually wildly, and jot ideas down for later revision and refinement. This kind of brainstorming has a light, casual feel to it, so I tend to think more freely, and write down less concrete, less thoroughly-thought-out ideas than I might if I was sitting at my desk on “work time”. Interestingly, these casually conceived ideas usually lead to productive  projects — as you might have guessed, the idea of writing this post came to me while I was waiting for a train.

2. Work reading

Carrying a magazine or reference you’ve been meaning to dig into for work? Now’s the time to sit back and take the good advice in. Often, I find it difficult to justify simply sitting down and reading a text — even for work. It just doesn’t feel like “doing.” But if you’re stuck on a bus with no alternative but staring blankly out the window, reading might be a very productive pastime.

These days, I carry a few work-related magazines with me at all times — they’re light and thin, so I can carry more than one, and they provide me with ample food for thought while I’m on public transport.

3. Returning calls

Usually, my travel time occurs before or after a meeting and often I’ve received a call or two while I’ve been in the meeting. Rather than be frustrated that I have to wait forty minutes for the next train to my town, I can use the time productively by returning those calls, scheduling resulting meetings, and noting any to-do items that come out of the discussions.

This task doesn’t require you to have a seat — though you might prefer a quiet, reasonably private spot, so a platform at a station may not be the ideal location from which to return those calls.

4. Voice note-taking

If you’re not into physical note-taking, you might find a voice recorder — or voice recorder app for your phone — an extremely handy addition to your travel kit. Speaking rather than writing notes can be an easy way to track your thoughts and make yourself reminders. Best of all, you only need one spare hand.

Voice recording can be a good way to capture more elusive, less-concrete thoughts, so it can be great for brainstorming, as well as noting reminders, drafting emails and so on. Of course, you might not feel comfortable to do it if you find yourself with a seat-buddy on your public transport option of choice.

5. Responding to email and online communication

This item comes last, because frequently I find myself without web access when I’m waiting for, or traveling on, public transport. But if I do have access, I can make the time worthwhile by checking my email, formulating and sending responses, scheduling tasks in my online calendar, commenting in forums, and so on.

Again, you may be able to do this on a platform or in queue, though if you want to respond to a message with a call, you’ll need a quiet space to do so.

I usually carry a notebook and pen, my phone, and some work-related reading material with me when I’m out and about. This way, whether I have a seat, a traveling companion, or a quiet place, I can use my travel and transit time to my advantage. And for me, this means less travel-induced overtime.

What tricks do you use to ensure your travel time isn’t wasted?


Greg Strosaker

I’d propose another idea, maybe it’s a 1A: do a brainstorm to capture all outstanding that are on your mind, or maybe loosely strewn on post-it notes in your bag. This is a GTD tool but you don’t have to use the full GTD approach to gain from this process. If you have the time, you can then input the list into whatever mechanism you use for task management, you (usually) don’t need web access to do this.

I find it hard to dedicate the time to doing this well at the office as too many new distractions arrive.

Priyanka D

I think this wait time is a good way to catch up with friends. I walk to my office.. and this the time that I call my friends. Rest of the time in office it would be too distracting.


I enjoyed the article, and these are good ideas, but IMHO, I think you are wound up way too tight. You should really try to relax a bit more. I know because I’m the same way. I have to always be about my job. I had to learn to ease down. You should too. Just a suggestion.

Georgina Laidlaw

I hear ya, Louis ;) Boy, do I hear you.

But a 70-minute wait in the middle of my day right now usually means I’ll need to work back later at night. It’s one of “those times” for me, so I really need to use all the hours I can get during the day, if I don’t want work to encroach on my personal time.


I’m listening to podcasts while walking into the office. Actually have cut them into slices lasting exactly from leaving home until arriving in the office.

For longer travels, listening to podcasts also has the positive side effect of shutting out all that public noise around you.


I actually work opposite: as in, I don’t work extensively on the commute so I can work better when I’m actually in my office. For example, I’ve self-limited my Facebook and Twitter usage to only on public transportation on my phone. I don’t check it anywhere else. Ever. Meaning, I have 40 minutes or whatever it is a day to check social sites, and so when I’m in the office I don’t have that as a distraction.

Conrad Buck

I totally agree with this and I also restrict my time to Twitter and Facebook on my blackberry when I am waiting, traveling rather than in the office. I can scan through Tweets and if something is really appealing I email the tweet to myself to look at later. Twitter is essential but can be draining and a distraction. Only checking Twitter and FB on the move at least gives you that block of time when you know you can catch up with goings on.


We’re actually working on a mobile front end, possibly an app, for our customers to comb through their bug queue in the morning. Therefore developers can setup their project, approve or reject their software testing bugs on their commute, and get to work on those bugs as soon as they get into the office. http://www.pay4bugs.com

So I would say, if more productivity applications have a “planning” mobility page/app, commute time can be better utilized.

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