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Rise Above Your Awful Commute

Delays and commuter complaints are mounting on many of the nation’s largest transit systems, including those in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Boston. New York’s governor has declared this the “summer of hell” for commuters. San Francisco’s rapid-transit system has been plagued by overcrowding and equipment breakdowns and Chicago’s commuter-rail system was stalled earlier this year by computer problems.

And the Federal Transit Administration says $90 billion in mass-transit repairs are overdue nationwide.

The big question for workers with no alternatives: How to make peace with your commute?

Some New Yorkers recently were stuck on a crowded subway car that stalled between stations without light or air conditioning. Dread of being trapped like that haunts accounting manager

Matt Hopkins.

He battles claustrophobia while commuting to his job in Manhattan by reading books on his e-reader—if he can find a seat. If not, he dons earbuds, closes his eyes and immerses himself in podcasts or a meditation app on his phone.

He tries not to take it personally when other commuters slam into him while rushing through the subway doors as they close. And the moment he emerges onto the street, Mr. Hopkins says he practices “wiping the entire experience from my mind.”

Brad Westley of Silver Spring, Md., builds a buffer into his daily schedule to allow for commuter-train delays en route to his Washington consulting job. Breakdowns on the city’s mass-transit system have risen steadily in the past five years, federal data show. Mr. Westley can’t predict whether his commute will take the usual 25 minutes or twice that long, so he avoids scheduling any meetings until more than 90 minutes after he expects to arrive.

When a brake fire broke out on his train, he had to wait for the next one on a platform so crowded that he could barely move. “People are literally pushing you onto the train so they can squeeze in behind you,” he says.

Having to exercise so much restraint and self-control before you arrive at work can hurt productivity later in the day, says

Kathleen Vohs,

a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota and author of 180 studies on self-control and related topics.

Employees whose self-control has been depleted by mental strain are less likely to take initiative on the job, she says. Rather than trying new ideas or wrestling with tough choices, they tend to punt and think, “I can’t deal with that right now.”

“If choosing the status quo is an option, people who are mentally fatigued are likely to choose that,” Dr. Vohs says.

Commuters can stay productive by modifying their expectations: Prepare to be delayed, says

Cali Yost,

a Madison, N.J., consultant who advises employers on flexible workplace strategies.

Fully charge your phone, tablet or laptop, carry backup batteries if needed, and download work, podcasts, books or projects you can focus on during the trip, says Ms. Yost, author of “Tweak It,” a book on making small changes to feel happier.

Not everyone has the patience to dive into work in crowded conditions. But some commuters use travel time to focus on an absorbing project, such as writing a presentation, which helps distract them from the frustrations, says New York stress coach

Jordan Friedman.

Another approach is to think of your commute as a buffer period when you can prepare mentally for the workday, then retreat into your thoughts, says

Jon M. Jachimowicz,

a doctoral candidate at Columbia Business School. Commuters who were assigned to ask themselves, “What steps can I take to accomplish my career and work goals?” and to plan those steps en route to work, handled commuting hassles better, according to a four-week study under review of 443 U.S. commuters led by Mr. Jachimowicz.

Mindfulness training, which includes stopping your mind from wandering and directing your attention to what’s happening in the moment, can build resilience and help people get through periods of heavy stress with their cognitive resources intact, according to a 2016 study.

And trying to act compassionately toward others in day-to-day settings can help you feel closer and more relaxed around them, a 2017 study shows.

Susan Arons

actively resists lapsing into a dark mood during her daily bus ride from New Jersey to Manhattan, which has been stretching to two hours from the usual 40 minutes. “I do conscious things to get out of that head space,” she says. A managing director at a New York public-relations firm, she swipes her transit fare card for fellow commuters whose cards have expired.

And when she walks the final leg of her commute, she smiles and greets shopkeepers out sweeping or hosing down the sidewalk. “People sometimes think I’m crazy, or a tourist,” she says, but she takes comfort in fostering a sense of community. Amid all the stress, “you’re still part of a neighborhood.”

How to shake off a disastrous commute when you finally arrive? Consider taking a walk around the block before hitting the office to calm your nerves, Ms. Yost says.

A comforting ritual can help.

Rick Gould’s

usual one-hour commute from Long Island to his office near Penn Station is taking up to 2½ hours. Then he’s frozen for several more minutes on the steps of his train car by human gridlock on the platform at “Pain Station,” as he calls the terminal. “It’s so jammed and you’re sweating already,” says Mr. Gould, managing partner of a Manhattan M&A firm.

He regains energy by downing a large coffee with an espresso shot and humming “God Bless America,” Mr. Gould says, with irony. “It reminds me of the freedoms I have,” he says, “when I’m not sitting on the Long Island Rail Road.”

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at

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