The death of the commute

Getting from A to B: always literally, sometimes mentally too.

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The daily commute: the curse of the white collar worker. A faustian pact in which you trade roughly an hour of freedom, 5 days a week, for potential riches. Anyone who lives in London knows their commute down to the minute, and can embellish their daily schlep with a unique set of intricacies: “Yeah, 43 minutes, door to door, I can shave it down to 41 but I need to switch lines at Liverpool St and I can’t always get a seat on the Central Line ...”

Did you drive to work? All good, so long as traffic was too. Having the wind in your hair on a bicycle is fantastic, but the upsides come with a higher risk, and your mileage may vary (literally) based on the weather. Some SF colleagues used to come to work from the East Bay by boat, which seemed wonderfully decadent. A shorter commute was always seen as better. This was backed up by data: a 2017 report concluded that an extra 20 minutes in transit per day had the same impact on job satisfaction as a 19% paycut.

Then, sometime around March 2020 (depending on where in the world you found yourself), everything changed. For a very large number of us, the commute was on hold, indefinitely. And after a year of living with the shortest commute we will ever have (“45 seconds, breakfast table to desk, maybe a few minutes longer if I stop to make a coffee first”) I've found myself yearning for it again. But why?

A huge caveat before we get into this: I don't want to go back to the commute. For too many of us, it took precious time away from our family. Getting home late and missing bedtime completely. Your kids might see you on the weekend, and then not again until Friday evening. Whether you love your job or not, it was too much.

So no, I'm not missing it. But I'm missing the opportunity it provided. A solid chunk of the day that was unmistakably yours—even if you had to share it with hundreds of others, occasionally nestled into someone's armpit. A time to read, to listen to a podcast, to while away 90 hours of Persona 4 Golden on the PSP Vita and miss your stop at least once a month (this one is probably a tad too specific?)

The commute provided all of these, and something else. It was about getting from A to B. Always literally, but sometimes mentally as well. A place to transform. To take a breath. To context switch between work life and home life, changing from a father to a worker, like Clark Kent in the phone booth, and back again at the end of the day. If you were smart about it, it could be a place to shake off the stress of the office, leaving it on a seat alongside a discarded copy of a local free paper.

I was talking to one of my oldest friends last week (oldest as in "friend I've known the longest" not "the friend who is the oldest person"). He said as he's hitting 40 he's realising "my time is my wealth." He works as a psychologist in the army—so he knows all about the importance of decompressing from stressful situations—and said he sees this context switching problem in soldiers coming back from combat zones today. They used to return slowly—a few weeks on an boat that would ease you back into your old life. But now it's a straight flight from the battlefield to the family home, with no time to decompress. The bends for your brain, leaving you high and dry.

The new normal is anything but

According to what you read (and whether you believe Boris Johnson or not), the commute might never be the same again. Big companies are starting to tout their hybrid office offerings, and companies like Twitter and Spotify are wooing potential candidates (and widening their talent pool) by going fully remote. You can work wherever you want for Coinbase (so long as you don't talk about your local politics, or any other politics in fact.) Whilst not all companies will follow these remote working trends at first, my hunch is that the market will eventually force their hand, as the best talent gravitates towards companies that offer the most flexibility.

In this new world we find ourselves in, what’s a dad to do? Well, here's four things I've found helpful lately:

  1. Invent a commute. Before I start work, I take the dog for a walk and get a coffee. It's short, just 20 minutes, but it's a bit of time out of the house where I can gather my thoughts for the day. I listen to a short podcast and get myself into a different frame of mind, ready to start the day.

  2. Working during work time. One difficult thing about working from home is getting distracted by a never-ending list of household chores and life admin. It's too easy to start doing things around the house, only to realise you've spent two hours you should've been working doing something else entirely. I've had to learn to stop worrying about everything else around the house, at least for the hours I'm trying to work.

  3. Set work boundaries. My top tip for work-life balance when I was at Google was to leave my laptop at the office a few evenings a week. It meant that I wasn't completely offline, but it limited the amount of work I could do. I could answer email, but anything else would wait until the morning. As I'm working with teams on a 9 hour timezone difference right now this one is proving to be a bit tough. But I'll get there.

  4. Creating an end of workday ritual: Something I'm thinking a lot about are rituals to signal the end of the workday, and a shift to the rest of the evening. Something akin to the bird whistle that heralded freedom from the grind for Fred Flintstone. This could be a certain album that you put on, a change of clothes, the sound of a beer opening, or something you can do at the end of the day to create the pavlovian conditioning required to help your mind unwind. My all-time favourite end of workday ritual was an old colleague who used to sing "Let's fuck off home" to the sound of her Windows XP work machine shutting down. That one is hard to beat.

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3 things to read this week

  • I've made no secret of my love of TikTok and the wealth of great parenting content on there. But (as with most of these big platforms) there's a downside too. Parents shaming their kids on TikTok"In a TikTok video that went viral, a father swears at his daughter and smashes her laptop because she had it in bed with her when she was supposed to be sleeping. The girl appears to be suppressing laughter, and the father, responding to criticism in the comments section, stated that it was fake. He couldn’t be reached for comment."

  • A few months old now, but I'm sure you'll find something useful in this list of effective psychological tricks. I'm a particular fan of this one: "My 4-year-old got into the 'Why?' phase a little while back. I read an article that said the best way to get them to stop was to ask them, 'I'm not sure, what do you think?' It is a godsend."

  • Do you find yourself yelling at your kids more than you like? Don't beat yourself up about it. Whilst some studies label parents who yell as "weak" and "stupid", this article extols the virtues of yelling less, but better: "A widely known concept in studying family interactions, “rupture and repair,” describes the importance of the repair process after a negative interaction. A regrettable moment can become an opportunity to model positive conflict-resolution behaviors while also maintaining closeness."

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Good Dadvice

One thing to watch with the kids this week

There's something wonderfully mesmerising about watching 6 minutes of David Hockney flicking through his sketchbook. No commentary, nothing fancy: just one man and his work.

Previously on The New Fatherhood

In Friday's open thread I asked "What's your happiest fatherhood memory?"

  • "Mine is a bit of an odd one. It is seeing the absolute joy on my wife's face (and hearing it in her voice) when she told me of the awesome and emotional bond she felt with our two after their baths the other night. This is often a time when they act up, find is difficult and become a bit disregulated so this was a big deal."David

  • "I'm a huge Prince fan, so... Our daughter is 2.5 now, but about a year ago — during the worst of the pandemic — she started singing along with "I Would Die 4 U," including doing the hand motions when the Revolution performs it (she definitely saw me and wife doing this). My heart basically went supernova."Dante

  • "Not my favorite, but my most recent: seeing both girls, aged 9 and 6, climbing up the rock wall at the gym without fear, something I couldn’t have done at their ages, nor now."Jeremy

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