Like many others, I’m sure, I do not live near where I work. Work is actually about 55 miles away from home. Some of it is lack of available jobs in my field near where I live, some of it is lack of options for mass transportation from where I live to where I work, some of it is lack of affordable housing near where I work. Most of it is I love where I live and I love where I work, and don’t see a need to change either.
My commute takes me roughly 4 hours a day, it’s just the area I live in. I drive about 35 miles to the Metro, then ride the Metro for about 45 minutes. How do I do it? I don’t know, I just do. I have my routines and the commute is a routine. On the weekends, I meal prep breakfast to save some money and make sure I have a healthy breakfast. When I make dinner, I make extra portions to take as lunches, also to save money and make sure I have a healthy lunch. At night, I lay out my clothes, put my food and beverages for the next day in the same spot in the fridge. I put my keys and cigarettes in my purse on the table and my lunch bag next to my purse so I can move fast and get out the door. I check to make sure my work badges and Metro card are in my purse since going back for them if I leave them at home isn’t an option. Trust me, it’s happened.
If it sounds like my commute takes over my life, it’s because it kind of does. Every decision I make on a work night has to factor in the commute. Because my work day is so long I am tired before I get home at night. So I don’t often feel like going out, sometimes it’s even too much just to go to the grocery store. If I need gas, I have to do it on the way home from work no matter how tired I feel, because a lot of gas stations in my area aren’t even open early enough. The mornings are a rush to get out the door in case of an accident or Metro delay, just trying to not be late to work. Weekends are for cramming in as much household stuff as I can while also trying to make up for sleep. The concept of work/life balance has started to feel a little foreign to me. It’s like…the only time I have for myself is that time I am on the road to and from work. I’m working on that, because I recognize that it doesn’t have to be true. I can change the story and make time for myself. It’s a process.
My employer has helped, their telecommute policy has evolved over time and now authorizes me to telecommute twice a week, so I only have to do the commute 3 times a week instead of 5. My manager is flexible so if something comes up and we need another day, in cases of being too ill to come in but not to ill to work, or something personal coming up, he’ll authorize it as long as we don’t abuse his flexibility. My manager has even helped me with adjusting my hours so I don’t have to leave as early in the mornings to be on time for work. The policy is more than fair, the flexibility is great, and it helps.
What do you do when things change?
Enter COVID-19, a disease caused by a novel virus for which there is no vaccine, treatment, or natural immunity. A highly infectious disease with an incubation period of up to two weeks, which spreads before people even realize they are sick.
Enter social distancing, self-quarantine, and employees (myself included) suddenly working from home full-time.
For the most part, social distancing hasn’t changed my life too much. With the job and commute, on top of which I am pursuing my Master’s degree…I don’t go out much anyway. I’m also really strongly introverted so home with my husband and our dogs is where I like to be. I’m not anti-social. I do enjoy the company of people I care for or have even warmed up to, I’ve even been known to be a good time at a party. But I am accustomed to staying home and just doing what I do, and I am comfortable with that.
The biggest change for me is the sudden absence of a commute. And I have been handling it badly. “I can stay up late because I don’t have to get up and drive in the morning, so it’s okay!” Except it’s not really okay. I still have to work, I still have to be alert and functional. And I am sure that I am not alone in that, so I wanted to share my experience and see if maybe what’s helping me could help someone else, even if they don’t have a long commute. The change from having a commute to not having one doesn’t really depend on how long that commute is.
Keep your routine
It’s important to keep in mind that this situation isn’t permanent. While telecommute policies could change as a result of having actual concrete evidence that we can do our jobs remotely, we are still likely going back to our commutes. And as much as it is tempting to use the lack of commute as a way to get some extra sleep in the morning, it’s not permanent. And having to go back to the old way of life doesn’t have to be a complete shock to our systems.
Keep a consistent work night bed time. Keep a consistent work day wake-up time. Allow your usual amount of sleep so you don’t have to readjust when things go back to normal. For me, this is allowing myself 7-8 hours of sleep (6 at a minimum based on my personal needs). While my wake-up time is a little later than it would be if I was commuting, it’s only by a half an hour. So I fight to go to bed by midnight so I can get up at 7. And when things go back to normal, I only have to adjust by a half an hour rather than if I started setting alarms for 2 hours later than I would need if I was still commuting.
What do I do with the extra time in the mornings? I give myself that time to do something for me. I get up, I put on some comfy clothes, I take the dogs out and feed them. I take a walk around the loop of our neighborhood (this is just under two miles). I take a shower when I get back and change into clean clothes. Yeah, sometimes it’s pajamas, but can you blame me? I eat a breakfast I can make that morning, rather than reheat, if I want to. It’s been wonderful to have that time for myself. And if I don’t feel like going for a walk? I could start a load of laundry or deal with the dishwasher, or whatever I want in that time frame. Me time. Something I’m not used to, but am quickly loving. Getting up early, not because I have to, but because I want to.
Have a dedicated work space
When you are working from home, it’s easy to get distracted by home stuff. I need to empty the dishwasher, or I need to start a load of laundry…any number of things. But it’s important to know that even if you are at home, you’re at work. And you need to be able to separate home stuff from work stuff.
Having a dedicated area to work from helps because it reminds you that when you are in that place, you’re at work. Even if it’s at home.
Know what day it is
It’s really easy when your routine changes to lose track of what day it is. For me, I’m used to Wednesday and Friday being my work from home days. But now they’re all work from home days. And this change is unsettling because it feels like there is a mismatch between what day it is and what day it feels like it is.
There are a couple of quick fixes, here. Get one of those daily calendars where you rip a sheet off every day and the next morning you can see what day it is. I bought a digital clock (ignoring that it’s marketed toward senior citizens) that has a large display that shows the day of the week, the time, and the current date.
Talk to people
Like, actually talk to them. Not just an email or an instant message. Hear their voices, see them if video chat is an option.
I am happy to sit holed up in my office and not actually speak to people outside of meetings. I happily come to work, get my stuff done, and go home. The introvert in me is pretty strong.
But what I didn’t realize before all of this, is that as much as I am happy in my little world without actual contact with others…is that I still need them around. Voices in the background, seeing people as they pass my office…that kind of thing. Those are actually important to me. I am alone, but among others so I am not lonely. Right now, my dogs are my office mates, but they sleep all day and the extent of our conversations is usually determining who is such a good boy (they both are!). My husband is essential personnel so he isn’t home as much as I am. I am suddenly really alone. And it can get lonely. Even for me.
It’s important to have contact with people. Instead of trying to work out an issue or have a conversation over instant message, call people. Video chat if you can so you can actually see them. Use whatever technology you have available to keep a personal connection with your coworkers.
Keep. Your. Schedule.
For me, this is the most important thing.
It is super easy to log on early, forget to take breaks, or stay logged on late when you’re working from home. Everything is right where you need it and it’s not like you have to leave earlier if you want to get started early and you’re going to get home any later if you stay logged on.
My husband had to stop me from logging in this weekend. Something I was struggling with on Friday suddenly became very clear and I wanted to just log on and fix it. He reminded me that people need time to themselves to regroup and relax, they need their personal lives. He convinced me to email my thoughts to my work address and let it lie until Monday. When I am supposed to be working.
Full-time telecommuting does not mean we are 24/7 employees. Keep your schedule, take your breaks. We need them so we can balance our lives with our work and not stress ourselves out unnecessarily. I know there is this mindset that working remotely means we have to work harder to prove that we can be as, or more, productive from home as we are in the office. But this simply isn’t true. We do not have to make up for a lack of commute by giving so much of ourselves that we become exhausted and burnt out anyway under different circumstances.
You do you, I’ll do me
What is helping me helps me. But we’re not the same. I hope that my advice is helpful, but situations are different from person to person, from family to family. All that we can expect of ourselves is to do what’s best for ourselves in any situation. Nothing more, nothing less. Whatever it takes, though, just be sure to take care of yourself in these uncertain times. Stay healthy, stay sane.