Commuting is psychological torture

Not doing that commute gave me 15 hours per week of my life back

Thanks for reading. Please check out some recent issues of Hell World including a devastating essay on loss during Covid and a dispatch from India.

Subscribe to read those two and everything in the archives.

Get 20% off for 1 year


“I am never going back to that commute five days a week every single week again,” a friend told me recently. Before Covid he was spending about three hours a day in his car driving back and forth. When things started to shut down last year his employer was staunchly against people working from home at first, but before long it became unavoidable. 

“I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I don't need to actually be in an office every day to perform at a very high level at my job,” he said.

After the past year the long drives or train rides that he and many of us have long taken for granted as necessary now seem ridiculous in retrospect. A vestige of a bygone era. 

“I got used to the commute, but it was like Stockholm Syndrome,” he said. “I just talked myself into thinking it wasn't so bad. But it was. It was. Not doing that commute gave me 15 hours per week of my life back.”

“I got hours of my life back” was a common refrain from the dozens of people I heard from this week. “It’s allowed me to spend more time with my children,” many others said. People can exercise now or get an extra hour or two of sleep or actually make it home in time for dinner they said.

I wanted to know how working remotely, and more importantly, not having to commute anymore, has improved people’s lives. Some had made the switch from commuting years ago before Covid was even on the radar. To be fair some also said they miss having boundaries between home life and work, but by and large the stories were very similar: “Commuting is psychological torture,” one person told me. 

What are we even doing here? What have we been doing this whole time?  

Personally speaking I haven’t had to commute anywhere in a long time aside from short drives to a restaurant for years. Now I just sit here like a fucking slug. I have done various types of commutes in the past however — the get up at 5 am to beat traffic on 93 to Boston and still sit there eating shit for 90 minutes type; the John Cheever-ass Metro North train ride into New York City type; and the harried bus-to-the-subway during rush hour type — and they all sucked my fucking asshole. Commuting is so bad. I’m sorry I don’t have a more eloquent way of saying that.

When I was young I used to have to get up at dawn to drive long distances to work on construction sites during the summers, something I watched my dad do for as long as I could remember, (the crackle of 1030 WBZ AM gives me Pavlovian shivers to this day) and I decided then and there: I am not going to do this for the rest of my life. Whatever it is I end up doing it will not necessitate sitting in a car for this long I said. May or may not have fucked up on that choice but here we are all the same. 

The prompt for my question about commuting came from a widely mocked article published in the Boston Globe this week.

Look at all those happy commuting faces.

“Working from home can be too convenient,” Jon Levy wrote. “Things that are convenient aren’t necessarily good for us. Lifting weights is hard, but it makes us stronger. Similarly, it is more convenient not to have a commute or change out of our pajamas, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Having some commuting time, whether it’s walking, on public transit, or in a car, gives us an opportunity to let our minds wander and explore ideas.”

I love to explore ideas.

It was just the latest in what has become something of a trend of micromanaging bosses and corporate real estate landlords and the people who want to kiss them both who are all very eager for everyone to “get back to the office” as soon as possible. For completely innocent reasons of course like this next guy. 

“People are happier when they come to work,” Sandeep Mathrani told The Wall Street Journal this week.  

Mathrani is the CEO of WeWork, the company that rents out office space. 

“Those who are uberly engaged with the company want to go to the office two-thirds of the time, at least,” he said. “Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home.” 

If you want to be uberly engaged with your company why don’t you fucking ask it to marry you?

“People worried about recouping their corporate real estate expenses are gonna use every lie and find every ‘expert’ possible to tell us why we don't actually enjoy the new model, and we should be mindful of that and learn from McDonalds and Chipotle workers about simply saying no,” another friend told me and he’s certainly not wrong about that. 

Workers at those restaurants and others have begun walking out and protesting the pitiful wages they’re paid around the country. Of course many millions of workers like them have not had the privilege to be able to work remotely throughout the pandemic like most of the people I heard from for this piece.

For more in Hell World on how workers in restaurants and supermarkets and in healthcare and sanitation and other fields have fared over the past year please go here or here or here or here or here or here. For more recent labor stories from Hell World please see this piece by Em Cassel on why restaurant workers are actually leaving the industry of late; this one about a beloved record store chain in New Hampshire abruptly firing its entire staff in one location, possibly because of impending labor organizing efforts among workers; this one by Bill Shaner on a nurses strike in Worcester, MA; this one about how service workers can no longer afford to live in the cities they work in; or this one about cafe workers in Boston unionizing.

As always please subscribe to get every issue fresh off the tap in your inbox and access to all the archives.

Get 20% off for 1 year

Where was I? Oh right. Last week, rather hilariously, Cathy Merrill, the CEO of the Washingtonian magazine, wrote a very thinly-veiled threatening op-ed in the Washington Post about how important it was for her own employees to get back into the office. Come have birthday cake with me in the office or I might have to violate labor laws and illegally misclassify your employment status, she wrote. Essentially.

While some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like. I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — “extra.” It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to “contractor.” Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes — benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation. Not to mention the potential savings of reduced office space and extras such as bonuses and parking fees.

Her employees immediately went on a work stoppage the next day in protest lol. 

So how has not having to commute every day changed people’s lives this year and in the recent past? Here’s some of what people told me below. Responses have been lightly edited or condensed. There are a lot of them so you know maybe you don’t have to read them all but who cares.

  • No one’s stopping anyone who works from home from going out and riding in circles on the subway for 30 minutes before they go back to their desk.

  • This is a big whiny baby boy response to that Globe article, but I’ve had so much more time to decompress without a commute. Driving on Storrow Drive before and after work doesn’t get me “in the right headspace for working,” it makes me want to drive off the fucking road and drown in the Charles. Nobody is happy driving, and if you don’t drive you’re subject to the whims of the MBTA, which has either not sent buses when I took the bus, or the trains are so full I can’t even get on, or they’re delayed horrifically, turning a 20 minute commute into 60-90 minutes. I’ve saved money and been able to use that time to work out, go outside, not hate myself, etc. I swear to god the boomers wanting to go back to the office just hate their family and have no friends so the office is the only “social” interaction they get because the captive audience of coworkers can’t afford to tell them to suck it like their kids did when they realized their parents were lame sacks of shit.

  • I save roughly $100 a month now. I have time in the morning to take my dog for a long walk every day. I have time in the evening to cook dinner. Commuting is psychological torture and my physical and mental health is significantly better without it.

  • The three hours I spent commuting is now an extra hour of sleep, 30 minutes of exercise, two meals with my family, and 30 minutes of more actual work. I'm happier, healthier, and a better employee, but these fucking vampires want me to be in the office more for some reason.

  • Any unpaid commute is wage theft.

  • When my wife and I were both commuting into the city we spent over $650 on monthly passes for trains that were on time 80 percent of the time if we were lucky. I doubt I’ll ever take a city job again.

  • I love to drive 30 minutes to stare at a different computer

  • This story and others like it are propaganda pushed out by office space landlords. A small increase in people working from home makes a significant dent in rental income and value of properties. You can take time to ponder life without commuting.

  • I’d like to call bullshit on the “office forces breaks” argument, as my breaks at home involve petting the dog, fussing over my garden, playing loud music on speakers etc. Office breaks can’t even compete.

  • Biking to work was a good way to force myself to get exercise, but other than that, who the fuck would miss commuting? I now have two extra hours in my day. I am well-rested for the first time in my adult life because I can get up at a reasonable hour.

  • I miss the stress of not knowing if the train will get me home in a half hour or two hours.

  • As a father of two little ones, I have to say my 45-60 min on the bus and train with noise canceling headphones and a novel was often the most relaxing part of my day and I miss it dearly. It was occasionally stressful but usually coveted “alone” time.

  • Best case scenario, SEPTA is on time and the trains aren’t overcrowded, so maybe I can read or knit on my commute. But it goes down in any kind of weather, or else it’s packed, and the lady next to me coughs all over me for 40 minutes and I catch her cold.

  • It’s absolutely been a game changer. Then plus hours a week given back to me by the commute gods. I think my commute (NYC, packed train) made me more tired than my job.

  • I can't even calculate the savings in gas, wear on my car, etc. But I can tell you that with nearly two hours back in each of my days, plus the extra 40 minutes or so of making myself presentable to be in close proximity to others, I have been able to reinvest that time in myself. I have been eating better, I have time for the gym, I have time to give my dogs the exercise they need. I know this year has been mentally taxing on so many, but I've found these changes work so much better for me.

  • I would never, ever want to go back to when I had to drive to and from work, but I have noticed that my daily subway rides were very much a time for me to listen to music and read in a way that I haven't been able to easily get into my schedule when I work from home. This is probably more about my own inability to ignore distractions than it is any type of praise for the concept of a commute, but having clearly delineated “This is home, this is work, this is how you move between them” times was kind of good for me.

  • I used to commute two hours each way. By bus was wonderful actually. I took a nap, wrote a novel (literally). The main challenge was childcare. Commuting by car because a bus won't work is difficult, stressful, and costly. The stress of losing a functioning car equals losing a job, and then the domino effect on my housing, healthcare, etc. was insanely stressful.

  • My commute is a 35 minute walk or a 15 minute bike ride. When my work wanted me to mostly work from home this year and last I really missed my commute. But I realize that's uncommon.

  • Telework is good until you're soft-expected to work all day (yes, a labor issue, but nonetheless true) with no change of venue to psychologically break from work. The commute is a transitional period from work to non-work. It's a boundary. Usual caveats apply: I'm in a managerial class-type job that let me telework before the pandemic, and have been employed the entire time. I'm sure my perspective would be different were I in a different situation, but “living at the office” sucks for a lot of reasons.

  • Not commuting is by far the best part of working from home. I get 10 hours per week of my life back

  • For the last 14 months I have realized the conveniences of working from home.  First off, I wake up at 6:59 and connect to work at 7:00. Neither my wife or I need to coordinate schedules around the kids because I am home all the time. Also gone are the processes of making a lunch, commuting, and sitting in traffic.  Traffic is THE WORST.  

    The advantages are numerous and I hope I can do it forever.  I am a family man first and foremost and being her to put kids on the bus and get them off are a couple of the highlights I will remember five years from now when my kids hate me.

  • I used to bike commute, year round. I haven’t been to the office since March 2020. I’ve gained ten pounds and my work life balance sucks now. I kinda miss the old world.

  • The two to three hours I've saved every day by not commuting has been replaced with exercise and walks and doing things for myself. That is 1000000000% more helpful than “processing my day” on a crowded train, and this guy knows that, but wrote this nonsense anyway. Not to mention I didn't get a cold or flu this year from sitting in an office listening to the accounting department cough directly into the HVAC system.

  • I work mainly at two different schools over a single school year. For eight months I’m a ten minute bike ride from one school and the other four I’m a 50 minute bus/train commute away each way. My energy and job satisfaction are much higher at the closer school.

  • It’s not that I love commuting, it’s more that my life is so atomized that getting on public transit is the only time I get to be near other people. I really miss being near other people and feeling that sense of being part of the world.

  • I've worked from home since the pandemic hit. I see my kids a lot more which is nice. I no longer spend about five plus hours in a car each week, spend less on gas, there’s less hassle with traffic and parking. But I also am getting pretty sick of the screen and miss live, in person, people. It's a double edged sword, a trade off.

  • Not having to make the commute every day in is the best. It saves a ridiculous amount of time for me. I do still like going into the office in a hybrid model, not just because there are some things that just can't be done from home, but also for the change of scenery and a chance to connect with coworkers. That being said, being able to have the flexibility to stay at home, especially to help with child care, is something my family couldn’t live without.

  • Without commuting I learned to cook. I learned to sing. I lost 10 lbs and I actually gave more to my job.

  • People will bend the contours of their lives toward work, and work will happily take it.

  • I do miss my 20 minute drive home that allowed me to switch from work brain to home/dad brain.  Now I just step out of my bedroom and it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.  I should probably just take a walk at the end of the day but it’s a tough sell.

  • The number of times I’ve had to do the 93 to 95 during rush hour commute have taken years off my life and pushed me closer to self-harm.

  • I used to commute 60-90 minutes each way to work. It was miserable. Now it's ten minutes. It changed my whole life.

  • I'm not in the car for three hours every day any more. I drop off and pick up the kids at school. I make my son's baseball games. I cook dinner at a reasonable hour. I'm saving on gas. My insurance company called out of the blue to offer me a discount for not driving so much.

  • I get the point but also the promise of 60 minutes where I don’t interact with anyone in my home and I can’t be asked to do anything other than sit and listen to podcasts sounds incredible after 18 months inside.

  • Before Covid my daily commute was an hour and fifteen or so each way. Three hours a day in my car.  My work was really against work from home.  Covid forced the situation so we had to work from home and I will say this: I am never going back to that commute five days a week every single week again. I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I don't need to actually be in the office every day to perform at a very high level at my job. 

    I got used to the commute, but it was like Stockholm Syndrome. I just talked myself into thinking it wasn't so bad.  But it was. It was. Not doing that commute gave me 15 hours per week of my life back. Yeah, some of those hours went back into work, and not my personal time piggy bank, but I'd gladly do that instead of sitting in my car.  This is not even to mention the money I save on gas. 

    The most important thing is that before this I never got home in time to have dinner with my kids or anything like that. I'd barely make it home in time to put them to bed. I have thoroughly enjoyed having that extra time with my kids. Not to mention the flexibility. When I commuted I always had to think about what time it was before I got on the road. If it was like between 3 p.m and 6 p.m....don't even bother. I would just sit there on the highway for two hours, so shooting home early to catch them at a play or whatever wasn't even an option. I'd basically have to take a day off for stuff like that. Anyway, it's made a massive difference in my life and I'm never going back to that grind. There's no reason.  

  • Prior to the pandemic I had a daily commute into Cambridge, seven years of which was commuting on the Red line from Quincy, and then a few months on the commuter rail from Weymouth. The Red line from North Quincy was sometimes so crowded that I’d either wait three trains to get on one, or I’d take a train to Quincy Center to get on earlier so I’d be able to fit. Then there were days where I’d get on the train and door to door it would be 30 minutes. I think the inconsistency was what made it so anxiety provoking for me, everything was out of my control. There were many nights where I’d go to leave work and the Red line was so messed up that I couldn’t get home for hours.  

    I have been working from home since March 2020, and my husband has been home with our son. I got over two hours back in my day every day, and at least one of those went right to sleep. My son was only eight months old when the pandemic hit, so he was waking us up in the night a ton still, so getting to sleep in even just a little more was a godsend. Working from home also meant I was able to continue breastfeeding him for much longer than I ever think I could have, even with excellent pumping rooms and everything at my work. Lugging breastmilk back and forth on the commuter rail was a ton of work and I felt like a dairy cow. I was still pumping since I was working and couldn’t have a baby on my lap but passing off a bottle to my husband versus it sitting in a breakroom fridge was much easier. 

    This “extra” time with my son is something I never would have got to have, and I honestly don’t know how I would have coped without it. Thanks to it all being remote now, I was able to finally start doing therapy for the first time in my life to work through things I have been dealing with since childhood. I just never had the time before.

  • I was commuting four hours a day, so yeah, not commuting has improved my life by a lot. I also realized I wanted a full remote job and switched jobs because I never want to have a commute like that ever again. Not even every murder podcast I’m addicted to made it bearable. Not being tied to a commute also allowed me to finally move to New Hampshire, which I’ve been wanting to do forever. 

  • I used to have to leave the office at 4:15 in order to race back via commuter rail, walk 15 minutes to my car to then race to the daycare before it closed at 6. I ended up hiring a driver to get my kids because it was too fucking much. I gave 2/3 of my paycheck away to childcare and drivers.

  • When I was pregnant, my commute, on a good day, was 50-60 minutes. Sometimes it took 90 minutes or more. The train routes are always insanely packed, and people don’t always give up seats because they're looking at their phone. One time a man gave up his seat for me and unexpectedly I started crying I appreciated it so much.

    It was awful. I refuse to ever do that again. It's insane. Even before I was pregnant it was miserable, but when I was I'd literally get home and not be able to get off the couch. All the crowding and jostling and standing and changing trains.

  • My four-person team is entirely made up of other API women, and the escalating violence towards the API community has impacted us all differently, in terms of our sense of safety while taking public transportation. One team member continues taking the subway without hesitation, while another worries more about her grandmother than herself. Our other colleague isn’t taking the subway at all for now. I’ve always enjoyed taking the subway, being part of a crowd of people headed somewhere, whether to school or different places around the city. 

    However, I realize now that I might never feel completely safe taking the subway again. These endless attacks on the API community have stirred up a surplus of memories, of being called a racial slur in public and private spaces, of being flashed a sign or body part or even followed. If I instead drive into the city, I worry about being harassed by other drivers or pulled over by a cop. And what if I need to call the police because I’ve been attacked? Will they also brutalize me? I’ve already had many of these experiences before.

    Commuting on its own is soul-crushing enough without constantly worrying that someone will emerge out of the crowd with the aim of hurting you. Suddenly, everyday routines feel like a deadly game of sorts where my community is being hunted.

  • I changed jobs so I wouldn’t have to commute five days a week again. I have so much less general anxiety or Sunday Scaries now, but remote work has its challenges too, such as the work day bleeding longer and longer with no definitive end times.

  • My husband and I ended up with six plus months of a new-baby-bubble where, even when we each returned to work, we didn't have to actually leave her or each other. In Other Times that would have been cut way shorter.

  • I haven’t had to commute and it’s killing me. I like to get out and experience the outside world even if any given day’s commute sucks. Working from home makes me insane.

  • I was commuting by car for around 15 years. The exhaustion and stress was definitely getting to me, waking up at 5 am so I could leave the house by 6:15 am, so I could be there for 7:30 am. I sure as hell don't miss those wasted two plus hours of the day. Mentally, I'm in a much better place. The time and energy I was wasting I've definitely been able to spend being more productive around the house, finally getting to projects I never had time to start before, or just being able to tackle chores without waiting for the weekend. I don't plan on going back to commuting full time ever again, and our company is already figuring out what it will look like. Most likely, if I ever have to commute again, it would only be one or two days a week.

  • I was commuting by bus for just over a year. Three miles should have taken 20 minutes. It frequently took me an hour to an hour and a half one way, due to bus schedules, and (surprise!) canceled buses. I switched to a new job in March of 2020, at the start of the lockdown. My life has improved immeasurably. I am almost dreading going into the office next year, and it's only a 15 minute walk from my place.

  • I find it hard to turn the computer off in the evening without the car or the train time to shut the work mode brain.

  • I used to have at least a 45 minute to hour and fifteen commute each way. Since Covid and working from home I’ve filled my gas tank maybe ten times (versus twice weekly), am saving 250+ miles of wear and tear a week, have saved a bunch of money, and I’m never late. Also it let’s me get to things before and after work that I could never do due to the commute. I can get a lot done around the house when I have down time. My stress level is down 65%.

  • The lack of commute saves me so much time, money and often stress, too. However, I would often do some portion of the commute on my bike, which naturally built in exercise for my day, which I miss.

  • I get more work done and have more personal time, which results in more exercise, more cooking, more time with the family and doggo and more time to devote to my extracurriculars.

  • Sorry to undermine the thesis but I did really like using my commute as 30 minutes each way that no one could talk to me. At work my boss talked to me. At home my wife talked to me. On my commute only my podcast friends could talk to me.

  • I haven’t commuted full time in four years. It’s the greatest thing. While I do get a little stir crazy, I’ve started new creative projects and taken better care of myself. I’m able to be with my dogs all of the time. Now, with a senior pug who needs care, it’s truly a gift to be here for him. My car has 8,000 miles on it. I bought it in 2019.

  • My commute was only 10-15 minutes, but add in the time to get ready/presentable for work in an office every day and it's easily saving an hour. I'm at my desk most mornings by 7:30. Working from home can be a bit lonely and isolating, but I've been highly productive. I've also lost 15 pounds due to my Peloton and not eating a big take-out lunch every day.

  • From 2014 to 2018 I commuted by car. It was about 40 mins to an hour each way in a crappy Honda Civic. There were plenty of days where I did not really mind the time — 45 minutes or so is a really good time to get through half of a podcast or listen to a full album — but when the job got bad, the commute made the whole situation invariably worse. I already felt like I was wasting my life at my job and having 90 minutes to two hours every day stuck in my car ate into my brain and I couldn't stop thinking about how I wasn't just being forced to waste my life for eight hours a day at work, but that the extra time commuting was salt in the wound. The job plus the commute combo put me into the worst mental state i've ever been in.

    In 2018 I left Boston for Austin and worked from home for 9 months. There were times here where I actually missed commuting. It would have helped me feel more like I moved to a new city, but moving to a new place and then just working from home makes it hard to feel like you've really started a new life in a new place.

    In 2019 I got a new job based in an Austin office. The job did not have strict hours, and it was about a 35 minute walk from my apartment or a 10 minute bike ride. I would always be sweatier than I wanted to be, because I am a naturally sweaty person and I live in Austin where it's often 75-80 and humid by 8 am, but it was honestly pretty wonderful as far as commuting to a job goes. I was able to connect with the city and other walk/bike commuters every day in some way shape or form and I was able to come and go as I pleased.

    I hate when people say that they enjoy commuting because they can listen to audiobooks or podcasts and reflect on their day. You can do that shit at home, idiots. The only “good” commute is when you're able to enjoy things that aren't at your home or in your office. Like good coffee or nice riverside trails.