7 Things Engineers Can Do On Their Commute

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7 Things Engineers Can Do On Their Commute

· Agile Zone ·
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Editor's Note: We don't recommend doing most of these things if you drive to work. :)

I commute. About two hours on the commuter rail, daily. Nothing exciting there. A lot of you do the same. But it's the activities that I try to focus on during my commute that gave me the idea for this article.

Leonardo da Vinci once said:

Time stays long enough for anyone who will use it.

While I agree with Mr. da Vinci, the practical question is how to use it!

I confess, I still occasionally have a hard time trying to do something productive while on the train, because the environment does not naturally lend itself to being “productive”. When I first started commuting via rail, I usually wanted to catch some Zs or scroll through Facebook incessantly. But these days I usually do one of the following, which I recommend.


1. Start with a clear desk
For most of us, our laptop is our mobile desk. Start by clearing the outbox/inbox rack by answering emails or writing down thoughts.

I recently read through Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky and one of the prime suggestions by Belsky is that we need to set some time aside for our creative work. Clearing your desk sets you up for it, otherwise it piles up and you have creative work debt.

2. Make a To-Do list
Over the years, this silly little exercise has proven to be the best investment in a good day’s work. I learned to use the Get Things Done (GTD) method and I am currently using Trello for the filing system, but for time management, I use Stephen Cover’s First Things First approach

This list may include work as well as chores that may you need to do AFTER work. Our day doesn’t end on the way back home and not taking notice of things to do overflows to the next day.

3. Code Review
Doing code or peer reviews during your creative time can be a drag. Your commute is a great block of time to put in your important contributions. Also, you always learn a thing or two from your teammates.


The following may be done both during morning and evening commutes:

4. Write blog posts
Yes, my favorite activity in recent months! Chances are we are introverted as engineers. But we have a lot of thoughts that we want to share. Just logging thoughts, ideas, good-to-know things, things we have learned, etc. really helps in a fulfilling and therapeutic way. Even if you are not ready to share your thoughts with the rest of us, just creating a notebook for it in Evernote will do wonders.

5. Books / Articles
If you are lucky to have a book club at your work, like I do, this option is great. Awesome engineers get together every Wednesday and discuss chapters they cover incrementally as a group. Even if you can't participate consistently, trying to keep a pace with them while commuting is great if you have the e-Book version of the book handy.

You can also catch up on reading articles that you may have clipped on Evernote. Chances are you are reading this on the train!

6. Sketching
I got this book on basic sketching techniques from Barnes and Noble. Not only has it helped me sharpen my sketching skills that I can show off, but it has also helped relax me after a day’s work, especially after he one that has had multiple tough meetings, if you catch my drift.

7. Focused Breathing Meditation
Focused breathing
is the most useful and rewarding activity you can do while commuting--even with a train full of people around you. The technique I learned is part of a bigger technique called Vipassana. It helps relax and sharpen the mind. As an engineer, a good sleep and a fresh mind the next morning without a lot of clutter are a great things to have.

Things to Avoid

On a side note, here are a couple of things I would advise against for the evening commute, based on my own experience.

  • Writing code
    It is the end of the business day, so give your mind a rest. You are getting ready to crash, so unwind. The quality of your code is not top-notch when you are tired. Reading code at this time can also cause frustration if you find yourself asking “who the heck wrote this?” :-)
  • Playing video games
    Play 2048 and Luminosity instead. I found these two games (exercises, rather) to be cool mind sharpening tools. Think of it as sharpening your knife at the end of the day in the kitchen. These are much better than some of the arcade and first person shooter games that instigate anxiety. Sudoku is up there too.

FWIW, I wrote this on my way back home yesterday :)


agile, code reviews, productivity, time management

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