For many of us the daily commute is a necessary evil; not all that enjoyable but unavoidable if we want to keep our job. While it might not be your favorite part of the day, there are plenty of ways you can make the most of your time stuck in traffic or wedged between fellow passengers on the subway.
Get to know the area
If you can, take different routes to work each morning and try out a variety of coffee bars, sandwich shops and parks to see which suit you best. Stick to the same way of getting from A to B, and you never know what might be just around the corner, or how much time you could save by taking the route less travelled on your way into the office.
If you add some element of variety in every day, it won't take you long to vastly improve your knowledge of the part of the world in which you live and work. It's not just to satisfy your own curiosity, either. The next time there are roadworks or six inches of snow and you need an alternative route, you'll be far more clued up about the options available to you. You might even discover new bars and restaurants that you can check out when you're not trying to get to or from work.
Catch up on your reading (part I)
There just aren't enough hours in the day to catch up on a whole internet's worth of quality reading material in the space of 24 hours. If you find yourself missing out on the content created by your favorite websites, then the journeys to and from work can be the perfect time to fix this. Sign up to a read-it-later service such as Instapaper or Pocket and you can save articles during the day or evening to browse through on the bus or subway train.
The best read-it-later apps (such as the two we just mentioned) include support for offline reading and the ability to share interesting articles on your social networks of choice. Even if you lose signal going underground you can still catch up on the latest news and views from Gizmodo, then tweet about something great you've just read.
Speaking of social media, resist the temptation to pass your commuting time refreshing Facebook and Twitter every two seconds; everyone else is stuck on the train too, so you're not missing out on much. Instead, reply to those messages from family and friends that you never get round to, and give your social circles some love. The same goes for emails: save the work-related ones for the office and instead use your journey time to reach out to someone you haven't heard from for a while. You'll probably arrive at work in a much better mood.
Catch up on your reading (part II)
With e-reading apps widely available across the big mobile platforms, you don't need to take your e-reader device on your commute (though by all means, if your bag is big enough). These apps will sync your reading position with your Kindle or Kobo so you can pick up where you left off when you get back home. Even if you only get through a few paragraphs on the bus, it can make a big difference in the amount of reading you get through if you do it every day.
Then there are audio books of course, great for both the car and public transport, and an even better option now that Amazon has integrated Audible into its iOS and Android apps—that means you can switch between reading a novel and listening to it with a tap on the screen, and there's no danger of you losing your place either. Listen to a book in the car, then get back to reading it once you get in the door.
Not that there's anything wrong with good old-fashioned paperback books either. You'd be surprised at the difference that an hour or half an hour a day makes in the number of novels, plays or poems you can enjoy. When you've finished reading something you love, you could always pass it on to a fellow commuter so he or she can enjoy it too. Setting up a book-sharing club for your subway carriage might be going a bit too far, but it's an option.
Improve your brainpower
Sure, you could spend half an hour on the subway playing Candy Crush Saga, but what have you gained at the end of it? Improved thumb-eye coordination perhaps, and an better high score, but you can do better. There are plenty of apps out there designed to help boost your brainpower, though we can't vouch for the effectiveness of all of them, what we do know is that exercising your brain and memory keeps them in good health.
Try Clockwork Brain, Luminosity Mobile, Fit Brains Trainer or Coach Memory, just some of the many memory-testing and brain-exercising apps available on Android and iOS. Spend a few minutes on one of these apps each day and give your mind a workout even if your body is stuck in one cramped position. There are also plenty of lateral-thinking puzzlers, crossword apps, and clever games to get the grey cells buzzing by the time you start work.
Podcasts are probably worth a mention here too, though no doubt many of you already make use of them on the way in and out of work. Try mixing up your regular dose of entertaining podcasts with some educational ones that challenge the way you think too. Whether you want to learn more about the latest happenings in tech or brush up on the history of Rome, chances are there's a podcast out there to match.
Learn a language or skill
We've mentioned apps that can improve your brainpower and memory, but also worth a look are apps that teach you something new. Language learning is the obvious one here, because you can be listening to spoken dialogue while cycling into work or tapping your way through reading comprehension exercises on the bus ride home. There's plenty of choice when it comes to apps of course, from Babbel to Rosetta Stone, so check which apps fit your needs, devices and budget.
Outside of languages there are a variety of other skills you can be learning during your commute, though the likes of juggling and archery are probably off the agenda. Anything that can be learned by listening is worth investigating, though if your mode of transportation, signal strength, and data plan allows you could check out any number of educational videos on first aid, DIY, public speaking or cooking (though you won't be able to practice yourself until you get home). If your travel plans allow you to open up a laptop, then you could learn to code apps or design websites.
Another option is to get creative while you're on your way to and from work. You could blog about your dog or your daily commute on your phone, start writing that novel you've always wanted to get around to or create a unique art project using whatever you have to hand. This is easier on public transport where you don't have to keep your eyes on the road, but even if you're driving you can dictate some words for a book or blog post using your voice and a suitable companion app.
Support a cause
If you're going to have your nose in an app while you're riding the bus, train or subway carriage into work then you might as well make it a worthwhile one. You could help researchers monitor the spread of noise pollution or improve techniques for beating cancer, for example, while Google's One Today app lets you discover a different non-profit organization every day (and support them financially if you wish to). Instead is another good choice, showing you how you can change your daily habits to improve the life of someone else in a different part of the world.
We've left out some of the more obvious ideas, such as listening to music, improving your Dots high score, and idly browsing around YouTube, but you can always fall back on these should you need to. If all else fails, you could try talking to the person travelling next to you—who knows, you might make a connection that changes your life. If you have any unusual and productive ways of making the most of your daily commute, we'd love to hear about them below.