For many of us in 2020, the mind-numbing morning commute became a thing of the past as the pandemic forced us to embrace working from home. Crowded subways were replaced with competing desk spaces with partners and kids’ online learning. Slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic was replaced with anxiously awaiting that fresh pot of coffee before a Zoom call.
Whether it’s one day a week (or a year-and-a-half now), teleworking has many advantages. It can save you money, give you more time with family and at home, reduce your carbon footprint and even slow the spread of COVID-19. But darn it, if you aren’t now reminiscing about (and maybe even longing for) those moments being crammed into the train or stuck in traffic.
The reason we miss our daily commute
“Even though commuting is another task, it gave people quality time doing mental preparation for the day,” said Srinivas Dannaram, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, AZ. “The commute sets the brain to a default mode of transition, either from home to work or vice versa. This state allows the brain to warm up slowly to prepare for individual situations based on the destination, preventing any stress related to sudden changes or surprises.”
Cruising to work, by car, bike or the subway gave us just a moment to ourselves to transition from mom, dad, partner or roommate to employee and friend. It helped us mentally prepare for the workday and maybe even process work-related issues.
“Our routine day-to-day structure is on autopilot in most situations, with not much conscious cognitive effort,” Dr. Dannaram said. “On the other hand, preparing for work may need some systematic approach to handle problems without warning. Work-related challenges may dynamically change based on an individual's role in their organization. Commuting helps process the upcoming day and assist in mental preparation for the events, thereby boosting the confidence in handling work stress-free.”
Home life + work life = not good for some
“Working from home was exciting news for most of us—at least for the first few weeks,” Dr. Dannaram said “That’s because we unconsciously perceive home as a place of relaxation, which is true if you can separate it from work.”
The trouble is that many of us are working longer hours and are struggling to strike a balance between working from home and just being at home—the lines now seemed blurred.
Many of us aren’t smoothly transitioning from home to work and work to home throughout our day. We’re often shifting between being a parent/partner and an employee multiple times a day. Talk about burning your candle at both ends all day every day. This may be why some are on a fast track to burnout, both mentally and physically.
“Work from home may sometimes take away all boundaries and leave people in a worked-up state, which can lead to high stress and anxiety or a lack of recovery from each phase (home and work),” Dr. Dannaram said. “Either way, the brain is subjected to significant stress, leading to short attention spans, concentration with worsened mental fatigue and even lack of sleep. This phase mimics adjustment reaction and, if prolonged, could lead to a lack of drive and pleasure.”
If you can’t physically commute, what’s the answer? It could be what many are calling a “fake” commute.
Introducing the fake commute
A fake commute is a ritual or routine that you perform marking the start of your workday and the end of your workday. It may look like a walk around the block, a bike ride or even a short drive around your neighborhood. Or for those who don’t have the luxury of leaving the house (i.e., parents), it could be walking on the treadmill, riding a stationary bike or doing yoga or meditation to mentally kickstart the workday. By adding a fake commute, you can incorporate many important components of physical and mental health into your daily routine.
“It will be a conscious process at first, but with dedicated time and consistent efforts it will become something you do unconsciously to start and end your workday.” Dr. Dannaram said. “You could think of it as a warm-up for work and a cooldown when you return to your home environment.”
Tips for setting up a fake commute
To help you reenact your work commute, here are four tips to get you started.
- Follow the same commute schedule. If it took you 20 or 30 minutes to get to work, use that time for your fake commute as well.
- Get dressed. Many of us may have gotten really comfortable with our stretchy pants, but it’s time to shake the dust off those dress shirts and tops in your closet. Wearing comfortable work-appropriate clothes can make you feel good and signal a shift in your day.
- Establish “Do Not Disturb” work time. Set specific times that you require uninterrupted work time. A family calendar can help with this—especially for families with older children. Turn off any phone notifications (except maybe the ones you need in case of emergency) during a specific window of time, so you’re not distracted by rings and buzzing.
- Shut down your computer and work email at the end of the day. Set clear-cut boundaries that at 5 p.m. you shut down your computer, switch off your work emails on your phone and take this time to cool down and focus on yourself and your family.