Things I learned during a year of four hour commutes

Okay, I lie. It was only 9 months. But it was a bloody long 9 months of 4 hours a day on trains, tubes and buses and if I get nothing else out of it, I have read a lot of books.

It all started when I was offered a job by one of the world’s leading digital consultancies. I was enraptured. I have done my share of agency and client side work but had never really broken through to the “interesting” projects, where clients will pay you to come up with innovative ideas. I’ve been responsible for some pretty darn good websites, some of which have even been highly commended at industry awards, but I’ve never had the chance to push at the boundaries of digital marketing and production – and by the great god Google, I’ll admit I wanted to.

So I took the job. It was a substantial pay rise over my existing role and I’d just bought a flat with my other half where the monthly mortgage rate had ended up being a touch over (read double) what I’d paid for my previous place.

I thought an international consultancy might involve a lot of travelling. I saw myself on planes, in business class, working on a Mac book. I thought I might be able to accumulate miles and fly off on holiday at a minimal cost to myself.

Instead I got Crawley.

Now, no offence to anyone who lives in or comes from Crawley. It seems like a perfectly reasonable commuter belt town, with the standard brutalist concrete town centre that has been a curse on so many mid-size British towns in the twentieth century. It even has a Debenhams. And a Millie’s Cookies. Which have proven helpful for last minute Christmas presents and workday snacks, respectively.

No, my major problem with Crawley is that no matter how I spin it, or which route I take, Crawley is almost exactly two hours travel (on a good day) from my lovely flat in Hackney.

In each direction.

But, and this leads me to the first thing I learned while commuting, if you’re going to have to spend 20 hours a week on a trains, getting a seat is essential.

1. Reverse the polarity

I’ve been travelling from central London to commuter belt land every day which means I’ve been going in the opposite direction to most of the people.

Yes, there are a lot who go to Gatwick, but I travel from London Bridge station and due to everlasting upgrade and improvement works, there aren’t that many Gatwick trains going from LB. Victoria is the place to be for the express after all.

So while I am spending hours of my life at the mercy of Southern trains, I’m doing it in the opposite direction to 95% of their traffic.

Which means I have not yet not had a seat. Most days I have a table, nearly always only shared for part of the journey (the part around East Croydon).

If you’re going to have to commute, reverse commuting is the only way to handle it.

2. Your Kindle is your friend

Feed your Kindle, charge your Kindle, love your Kindle.

Now it’s not that I’m against paper books. I love paper books. I have shelves and shelves of them. Moving boxes full. I’m the kind of book owner who really should just convert the spare room into a library already.

But paper books are so much hassle when you’re carrying your entire office on your back. It’s just one more thing to find space for in an increasingly crowded backpack and straining handbag.

The kindle fits. When I finish one book I can immediately start another. If I decide to back track to an old favourite I don’t have to wait until I’m back in the my library (spare room) to pull it off the shelf.

Amazon has made a lot of change to the publishing industry. Some good, some bad. But in making the kindle they really did do the whole world a favour.

3. You will never write that novel – and that’s okay

You’d think commuting would be the best for picking up on hobbies and projects that you’ve let slip over the years. For me it’s my second novel (the first one being already available to buy here).

My second novel is horrendously overdue. I should have finished it last year. I should have finished it while commuting. And I tried.

But commuting does not encourage a creative mindset. It can be done: I wrote my first novel on my phone, using time on buses to bash out 50,000 words in a month. Somehow trains are just not as inspiring as buses for me. And trying to make them so added even more stress and anxiety to my day.

Occasionally I had an inspired journey – this post was begun on one such journey. But most of the time the sheer drag of commuting means I’m barely up for more than reading my book or checking my phone.

And that’s okay, because if we try and use every available second of our time we as a species will go insane. Your brain needs down time. Your brain needs space. Give it space.

4. But you can still learn a lot

Podcasts are a saviour. Ted talks (https://www.ted.com/talks) specifically. You might not have the brain juice to crank out 1,000 words of prose a journey but you can sure as hell listen.

I also spent some time learning Italian via Duolingo (https://www.duolingo.com) and the Michel Thomas ( http://www.michelthomas.com/) app. Muttering Italian phrases to myself while watching grey English countryside pass by is a surprisingly effective way of lifting your spririts. If I learn how to say “another bottle of red please” in Italian now, I will find a way to use it in my near future. Rome beckons.

5. Choose your seat with care

Avoid any seat within 6 feet of a train toilet. Avoid that seating section which doesn’t have overhead storage. If you want a table to yourself try and be in the first or last carriage of the train. Don’t be a single person sitting in the 6 seater – teenagers will come and take up the other 5 seats and make more noise than you’d think was possible.

6. 8 litres a day!

I have a reusable water bottle that I fill before every journey and was recently gifted with a thermos flask the exact right size for one cup of fruit tea. Both have been life savers.

7. Battery packs die quickly

Buy a new battery pack once a year and keep it charged. They say they last forever and they lie. The charge decreases.

And carry charging cables with you. No point having batteries if you can’t connect them.

8. Make a sensible headphone choice

I bought some wireless beats before I took this job. And then there’s almost the crappy headphones I got with my iPhone.

One of these sets has perfect sound, is very comfortable and stylish but is very large and has to be carried in my backpack. The other fits in my handbag.

Guess which one I use the most?

The crappy iPhone headphones. Because they are easier to reach.

I literally only wear the beats if I remember to put them on before I leave the flat. The rest of the time they are just another weight in my backpack.

9. Speaking of which, get a good backpack

I use the Riut bag (http://www.riut.co.uk), which as well as being near impossible to break into is nicely padded and has a perfectly designed pocket for the stupid 15” laptop my office insists I carry everywhere. It also has two beverage side sections which are cut to sit inside the line of the bag. External pockets that don’t stick out. One for water, one for tea. This bag is a dream, seriously.

10. Learn the timetable

It will save you so much stress to figure out a couple of alternative routes home.

A good travel app can do this for you, though I never found one that covered all the possibilities. Google maps, TfL, and the National Rail app all had their advantages – the latter was especially good for real time updates.

But a journey that could cover pretty much every form of transport London and the south have to offer (aside from riverboat) is hard to map at the best of times.

You’ll feel less stressed if you can memorise a bit. Plus it saves your iPhone battery for important things, like gifs of baby animals and Plants Vs Zombies 2 unending vase breaker levels.


I don’t claim to be an expert. These tips might not work for you and your commute. But these are the lessons I learned. Get a seat, drink some water, read a book, learn Italian.

I hope my next project doesn’t involve quite so much daily travel. But if it does, at least I know I can handle it now.

Ciao.