How to decide if your commute is too long

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The average daily commute in the U.S. is about 25 minutes. The shortest average daily commute is about 15 minutes for people living in Midwest cities like Witchita, Omaha, and Tulsa. New Yorkers have the longest commute — 38 minutes, which is six minutes longer than the average commute time in Chicago. The average commute is increasing across the board, including the number of people who have extreme commutes – 90 minutes or more.

A lot of people try to justify their outrageously long commute. I think this is delusional, and I would know, because I used to have one: Two hours each way between Los Angeles and San Diego. Two hours, that is, if I left home at 5 a.m. and went home at 8 p.m. I thought it would be okay because the money was so good, but actually, I nearly lost my mind.

So think twice about accepting an outrageous commute in order to make outrageous amounts of money. Especially if your extreme commute means that the time outside of work for family and friends is gone – to the car ride. Nattavudh Powdthavee of the University of London published research to show that if you are going to take a job where you will give up seeing family and friends on a regular basis, you would need to earn $133,000 just to make up for the lack of happiness you feel from being away from those people.

The idea that you move deep into the suburbs to get a huge house is pretty much over. Gen X and Y don’t believe in McMansions, which is why there’s a glut of them on the market right now. But Gen X and Y do believe in maintaining nimble, flexible careers, so it’s surprising that this trend isn’t the nail in the coffin of deep suburbia. Because Brendan, at The Where Blog, points out that the values we hold highest – marriage, community, and extra time with the family – are falling apart in the face of a long commute as we are in our cars commuting for so long and spending days far away from our communities during the day.

And, if the city is too far to justify driving in for a part-time job, then your commute limits the way you can structure your family. For example, polls show most mothers would rather work part-time than be at home full-time with their children, but Wendy Waters points out, in her blog All About Cities, that the possibilities for part-time work are severely limited if home is a long commute from the city. For both spouses.

But even if you are not killing your spouse’s career potential with your choices for a commute, the amount of stress a commute brings on is bigger than you could imagine and it’s uncontainable.

This is because a bad commute is bad in a different way every day, and you can’t predict it. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains (video) that the human mind is great at adapting to things that won’t change: we convince ourselves we will be fine, and then it becomes basically true that we will be. But if things change all the time, we cannot use that adaptive part of our brain. In this way, having a bad commute is worse than losing a limb.

So if you have a bad commute, you are probably not very happy. And you should know that a bad commute spills over into all aspects of your life. Raymond Novaco, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that bad traffic on the way home makes for a bad mood in the evening. This is true regardless of age, gender, income, and job satisfaction.

A lot of managing your daily commute comes down to making compromises in terms of limiting where you can take a job, what kind of job you can take, and how big a yard your kids can have to run in. For most of us, a long commute is about getting a better job in exchange for less personal time. But the decision about how far to commute is like most career decision points in that you must consider that your biggest problems will not be solved by getting a better job or more money, they will be solved by spending more time with friends and family, or getting to know yourself better.

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  1. chris
    chris says:

    Oh, as to my above post, I am really starting to lose my mind, and i mean lose it bad. As much as I love my family, and though I would never leave them, The thought does cross my mind more and more each week cause I just simply cant take this anymore. I will never leave them but at the same time, if things dont somehow change, i might just totally lose it and snap one day and run away from everyone and everything.

  2. Belle
    Belle says:

    I would love to give up my current job. As I could likely find equal if not better paying jobs closer to my current location and any sort of learning or career advancing potential of this job pretty much ran all of their course. It’s no use to me now. But after seeing half of my saving get zapped in the course of 18 months spooked me. I would like accumulate a bit more in the savings before I call it quits and take a short break in between jobs to get some schooling in so I could sit the CPA exams. That’s the only reason why I put up with 3 hours drive everyday and being called cranky, mean, whatever because I’m a possible alcoholic (I touch liquor like once every few months).

    It would be nice though if the person that I’m living with don’t expect me to find him lying at the couch the entire day watching tv with cable which I paid for because I don’t want to ask him money for it as he’s unemployed then told me he just ate some cookies for lunch as he was too lazy to cook for even 5 minutes then expect me to cook dinner for him when I was planning to eat leftovers myself.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I once had a 30 second walking commute for a year. The amount of time & money you save is ridiculous! My avg commute is 20 minutes, and I think that is maximum for me. Ideally I’d like to have a 5-10 minute walk commute which passes some cafes or groceries and goes through a park. To me THAT is the dream!

  4. Driver
    Driver says:

    My girlfriend who I intend to marry can’t work where I live, and I have two kids from a previous marriage so I can’t move. Her suggestion is to take a job 2.5 hours from here and for me to work in the middle some days and near my kids other days, which I can do with my current job, and be here the days I have my kids and be there the days I don’t. I would end up with a 1 to 1.5 hour commute each way on most days, but not all. Too much? Or is this possible to do and be happy?

    • Jeff
      Jeff says:


      I have drivne 220 miles round trip Monday – Thursday for a couple of years now… I love it! Sure, I’d prefer not to drive, however I love Sirius Radio and all the other smart phone apps that allow you to listen to many, many entertaining shows, podcasts and books. I also call clients, friends and family members…

      I will admit, I do make a nice living and own my own business…However, I used to travel and live on the road, airports… so this is a major plus for me. Sleeping in my own bed every night is a HUGE positive.

      Good luck!

  5. Frank Androski
    Frank Androski says:

    The important aspect of a long drive is that this gives you time to decompress from the day. You listen to the radio, or recorded books on tape, or talk hands-free over the phone. So that by the time you arrive at home you are ready to relax. This avoids the use of coming up quickly and having to decompress in front of the family and drinking. This way, no drink is needed, you are ready to enjoy life. This is way people make stops to do things on the way home so they can decompress, stopping to get milk when you don’t need it, for example. It doesn’t matter humans need to decompress after 8 hours of work, and they either do this one way or another. The whole “what about my family” thing is totally overplayed. Who wants a parent who arrives home upset from work, better to have a nice long drive to listen to good music to be ready to enjoy the family instead of tolerate it.

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