Beginning your evening commute at 6:00 p.m. before you've eaten dinner and without something to sustain you is always a bad idea. Carry granola bars or dried fruit, or if it's convenient, stop by a local juice bar or cafe and pick up a small smoothie to drink in the car. Otherwise, you will succumb to the call of Popeye's Chicken, and it won't be pretty.
You could try packing a healthy dinner in the morning along with your lunch and eating that on the way home, but honestly, given your hectic schedule, will you really be able to keep that up for long? If you have ready-to-eat snacks available at home, all you have to do is shove a few in your purse or pocket before you head out the door. And if you're not starving as you crawl down the interstate, you'll be able to wait to have a relaxing dinner with your family or curled up on the couch watching an episode of House.
Make Some Calls.
I have no problem with making a few cell phone calls while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. If you're barely moving, who are you going to hurt? (And what cop in a Ford Crown Victoria is going to go to the trouble of singling you out in that mess — especially if there's a guy in the next lane reading a newspaper or someone doing 60 up the shoulder?)
While you're alone in your quiet car, get a few obligations out of the way. Call your mom back to tell her you can meet her for lunch on Thursday. Set up an appointment with your hairdresser. Leave a message for your friend about the new Radiohead album. Instead of contacting people during work hours when your boss might walk by at any moment and overhear you, save your calls for the end-of-the-day odyssey.
If the cars around you start picking up speed or you see a black-and-white motorcycle straddled by a pair of shiny black jackboots nearby, though, it's time to hit the end-call button.
Try a New Route.
Sometimes you just need to get off the freeway. Taking surface streets may eat up as much time as sitting in traffic, but it can be much more pleasant. Enjoy the scenery as you drive through a peaceful established community in the foothills or happening downtown scene. Take note of places you might want to visit with friends and family. Check out neighborhoods you might want to move to once you're making enough to escape the distant suburbs. Watch interpersonal dramas unfold on the sidewalk as lovers quarrel and security guards chase homeless men away from women sitting at the bus stop.
Plus, you just might find a shortcut you can take advantage of when there's a gasoline spill on the turnpike and everything but the carpool lane is shut down. Every commuter should be aware of alternate paths since auto accidents happen frequently in crowded metro areas.
If you have a radio, keep it tuned to your local public station. NPR features fascinating and very informative programming. If you have a CD player, check out audiobooks from the library and listen to them while driving. Never got around to reading The Brothers Karamazov or Beloved? Now you have the time.
You might even want to invest in a few courses on CD from The Teaching Company's Great Courses series. According to the company's website, "Since 1990, great teachers from the Ivy League, Stanford, Georgetown, and other leading colleges and universities have crafted over 200 courses for lifelong learners." Their offerings cover topics ranging from fine arts and music to business and economics.
Talk to Yourself.
Is your inner artist being stifled by your drone-appropriate job? Turn your vehicle into your creative cloister by using commuting hours to compose poetry or song lyrics, outline the plot of your novel, or brainstorm a unique concept for a short film. While some of us are blessed with stellar memorization talents, your best bet is to purchase a handheld tape or MP3 recorder. Try out lines of verse by speaking them. Sing a chorus or two of your ballad-in-progress. Practice pitching your screenplay in less than a minute.
You can also use this time to practice making speeches, negotiating a raise, pitching potential clients, or any other work-related competency that requires verbal acrobatics. Though you may have less time to improve your Excel skills as a result of your daily treks into and out of the city, you can enhance your career by working on your presentation and persuasive capabilities.
Finally, talking to yourself in the car could help you come up with a solution to a problem or develop a plan for your life. And you may be able to craft an airtight argument to make to your spouse for moving closer to your employer. So what if someone sees you? Your car provides anonymity, and if the worst thing you're doing on the road is moving your lips, trust me, no one cares.