According to "boundary theory," a daily commute gives us time to do the emotional work of switching roles and establishing a separation between work and home life.
After a year of working from home, writes Jerry Unseem in The Atlantic, "[m]any people liberated from the commute have experienced a void they can’t quite name." Without the daily trip to and from work, "[t]here are no beginnings or endings. The hero’s journey never happens. The threshold goes uncrossed." Useem questions what role the commute plays beyond getting people to and from work.
"In 1994, an Italian physicist named Cesare Marchetti noted that throughout history, humans have shown a willingness to spend roughly 60 minutes a day in transit," a constant that has held true, for the working class as well as the wealthiest industrialists. Today, the average American one-way commute clocks in at 27 minutes.
Participants in a UC Davis study gave a number of reasons for wanting a short–but not non-existent–commute: "the feeling of control in one’s own car; the time to plan, to decompress, to make calls, to listen to audiobooks." According to Gail Sheehy and a body of research known as boundary theory, "[y]ou get a very strong feeling of two lives with the train a bridge." The commute "is actually a relatively efficient way of simultaneously facilitating a physical and psychological shift between roles."
Useem recommends a set of habits that can help us set boundaries when working from home. Clothing, he writes, can make a big difference in your focus. "In office attire, you can’t take out the trash or water the lawn without a strong feeling that you ought to be doing something else. Like your job." He cites other examples from corporate-ritual designer Ezra Bookman, such as "lighting variations, warm-up stretches, cellphone-free walks, and, as he demonstrated to me over Zoom, shrouding your computer in a fine blue cloth when you log off, as if it, too, needs a good night’s sleep."
Ultimately, Useem says, creating new rituals can help you "replicate what the commute did for you"–the benefits we didn't appreciate until they were gone.
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