Death to Commuting

My least favorite activity, probably ever

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March 13, 2020 is a day that will be forever remembered in history.

It's the day that Augusta National announced they were postponing the Masters Tournament to a later date, courtesy of COVID-19. The Masters being postponed was a BIG deal. The last time the Masters was threatened by cancellation was in 1942 — months after the US declared war on Japan and then Germany in, yep, freakin' World War II.

March 13, 2020 basically marked the unofficial beginning of the pandemic in the US. And as of late, it's a date that's come back into fashion because of the recently announced student loan forgiveness by the Biden Administration.

It just so happened to be the date that federal student loan payments were "paused", alleviating the heavy financial toll the pandemic was expected to take on many. During the "pause", borrowers weren't required to pay their monthly minimums and could sleep at night knowing they wouldn't accumulate interest.

Today, if you have student loan debt and make less than $125,000 as an individual (or $250,000 for households), you qualify for up to $10,000 in student loan forgiveness, and up to $20,000 if you're a Federal Pell Grant recipient.

For me, this was a bit of a kick to the nuts. I had just paid off the last of my student loans at the end of 2021 after more than 12 years of having them on my balance sheet. While I was super happy for my girlfriend's $17,500 debt to be wiped, I couldn't help but feel a little cheated. However, I soon learned that you could request a refund for any payments made during the "pause" from your federal student loan provider (e.g. Nelnet), and they're obligated to return your money.

That's when I became hype af.

I had about $9,000 in payments made during the "pause", and now that money is on its way back to me as we speak, which means eligibility for student loan forgiveness is back on the table. Big win for Team Jason.

That whole experience got me thinking about other things that have happened since the pandemic. Namely, the desirable death of my commute to and from work.

The end of an era

At the end of February 2020, I was up in New York City doing contractor work for the MTA (NYC's Subway authority). News of the pandemic had started spiraling out of control, and there were breaking stories of an outbreak in the exact location of Manhattan where I had been working. After a few phone calls with my boss, we agreed it was in my best interest to get the hell out of there and back home to South Carolina.

I packed my things and booked the next plane home. I still remember the eerie 28 Days Later-type feeling while walking around LaGuardia Airport. Masks weren't a thing yet and everyone was paranoid. While waiting for my flight, I remember buying a mini pizza from an Italian joint and choking on it halfway through. No joke I considering choking to death instead of coughing out loud. I was that spooked. I honestly felt like someone might've yelled "BURN THE WITCH!" and lit me on fire right there in front of everyone.

Anyway, I made it home safe and without disease. After quarantining at home for 2 weeks, I was cleared to go back to the office. Except the thing was, no one was back in the office. All the major non-essential businesses were closing their doors and telling people to work from home (WFH) if they could. My engineering firm was one of them.

I didn't know it, but I had already made my last unwanted commute, and my God, what a glorious time it's been.

I hate commuting

Absolutely despise it. Nothing is more riling than sitting in traffic every day, wondering why the f*ck yet another person had to cause an accident. "Surely this won't happen tomorrow," and yet it did. Every. Time. I can think of a few medieval torture methods I might enjoy more than having to endure the 21st century's ultimate test of mental fortitude aka "commuting".

Despite how I feel about it, my daily commute back then was actually a rather "easy" 25 minutes in the morning and 35 in the evening during rush hour. A pretty short commute all things considered. But let's run the numbers. We'll keep my daily commute at an even 60 minutes and ignore all the extra time I spent sitting on I-85 in ridiculous traffic several times a week. That means 60 minutes a day, 5 days per week, 47 times per year accounting for vacation, sick time, holidays, etc.

Doing the math yields 14,100 minutes per year or roughly 235 hours (!!) of time spent traveling to and from work. That's almost 6 full workweeks (assuming 40 hours/week) of my time gone, not to mention a buttload of gas and car maintenance. Absolute insanity.

The funny thing is that that 30 minutes to and from work had been by FAR the shortest commute in my adult life. Before that, I had worked for several firms in the nuclear industry at actual power plants. As you may or may not know, nuclear plants tend to be out in the middle of f*cking nowhere, which meant my commutes were, at minimum, 50+ minutes each way. At worst, when I lived in Asheville and commuted to Columbia, SC, my commute was more than 2 hours — a total abomination but a price I was willing to pay for the money at the time.

Anyway, back to math. I was interested in seeing how much of my time I've regained since the unofficial start of the pandemic on March 13, 2020. To do that, I retraced my steps over the past 2+ years.

From March 13, 2020 to July 2, 2021 I worked — from the comfort of my home — for the company I mentioned above. That's something like 67 weeks of service but let's call it 60 to account for miscellaneous time off. Using the same 60 minutes/day value from above, that's 18,000 minutes or 300 hours of my life back.

On July 6, 2021, I began a new job that I'm still doing today. Though the worst of the pandemic is behind us, my new boss recognizes the value of working from home and continues to let me do it every day. My new job's commute (when I decide to show up) is a whopping 5 minutes shorter on average, or about a 25-minute drive total each way. It's been roughly 62 weeks but let's estimate about 55 for the time off I've taken since then. That gives us 13,750 minutes or 229 hours, for a grand total of...drumroll please...

529 hours of my time regained not having to commute. 529 beautiful hours that, instead of spending tired or pissed off in traffic, I've spent:

  • Sleeping in

  • Exercising

  • Stretching

  • Goofing off

  • Making breakfast

  • Learning new skills

  • Doing more actual work

  • Spending time with friends and family

  • Getting more things done around the house during the week

529 hours in a little over 2 years is no joke. I don't even want to do the math for all the time I've spent commuting since graduating college, so I won't. It would make me vomit, or worse.

Sadly, the 200-400 hours per year range is how much time a MASSIVE portion of the workforce wastes commuting to and from work. Even people who live in major cities who don't drive and instead take public transportation — while not having to endure driving in traffic — still have to find ways to pass the time than the more important/enjoyable things they'd rather be doing.

Making the case for working from home

Commutes make sense for people who actually have to be "in the office". Hospital workers can't do their jobs from home. Neither can grocery store workers, restaurant employees, or manufacturers. But number crunchers, email responders, and spreadsheet junkies like many of us? We can do all that crap from home. Despite what your stuck-in-their-ways bosses are trying to tell you, working from home is more than just an option in today's technology-driven world — it's an advantage.

Advantage #1: Better quality of life (QOL)

You've seen from my example above how much time you save each year by cutting out commuting. Imagine how much better your life would be and what you could do with all that free time! The wonderful thing about WFH is that it's your choice. You have the freedom to do whatever you want with that extra time, which leads to a massive improvement in QOL.

And let's not forget the health advantages. Based on the research, commuting is linked to an increased risk of obesity, stress, back and neck pain, insomnia, heart disease, depression, and incredibly enough, divorce. Simply put, your commute makes you unhealthy and miserable, and may even ruin your marriage. Take away the commute and you alleviate all the pain and stress that comes along with it. If you're smart enough to use the extra time you regain even just partially for healthy activities, that's a massive swing in the positive direction.

No commute --> healthier you --> QOL goes up.

Advantage #2: Saving you AND the company money

The bean counters will love this one.

In the book Remote, authors Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson share the story of IBM and how their telework strategy has saved them Billions, with a capital B.

"Through its telework strategy, since 1995, IBM has reduced office space by a total of 78 million square feet. Of that, 58 million square feet was sold at a gain of $1.9B. And sublease income for leased space not needed exceeded $1B. In the U.S., continuing annual savings amounts to $100M, and at least that much in Europe. With 386,000 employees, 40 percent of whom telework, the ratio of office space to employee is now 8:1 with some facilities as high as 15:1. Who can argue against billions saved? Certainly not the gang trying to get you to save on staplers and printing paper."

But the savings aren't just for the businesses out there. While your company saves a buttload of money on office space, utilities, amenities, and toilet paper, you save a pretty penny on gas and car maintenance. About $10,000 per year, on average, at least according to Fried and Hansson.

AND, in addition to saving all that money, if you do what I'm doing and spend some of your regained time working on the side, you could even earn some extra money.

Advantage #3: Saving the planet

This is worth mentioning at least until the majority of vehicles go electric and we figure out the Lithium mining and disposal situation. An immediate positive effect of no commute is less CO2 emissions to the atmosphere.

"That same IBM study showed how remote work saved the company five million gallons of fuel in 2007, preventing more than 450,000 tons of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere in the United States alone."

Advantage #4: Focused work

My favorite part about WFH is being able to slap on my noise-canceling headphones and sit down to actually WORK. I'm talking deep, focused work. Not work that gets interrupted by coworkers who stop by your desk, pull you into meetings, and all the other BS that comes with the office environment.

Yes, WFH has its own set of distractions (which I'll touch on in a sec), but there's no question it's much easier to get your work done in the peace of your own home, on your terms.

The counterargument

As with everything, there are two sides to this story as well. WFH is no "free lunch".

For starters, there are definitely distractions at home. You may not be dealing with bothersome coworkers, but you'll likely be fighting the urge to:

  • Play video games

  • Browse the internet

  • Tackle miscellaneous projects around the house

It's much harder to manage yourself and stay disciplined to do your work with no one breathing down your neck and a myriad of other fun things to do within arm's reach. I'm certainly not immune to this (video games tend to be my vice), but I force myself to be disciplined enough to get my job done. Mostly because I enjoy my freedom, want to do good work, and don't want my privileges taken away from me.

Second, your daily schedule is much more fluid. At first glance, this seems like a positive, but trust me when I say that the loss of structure and the imposed regimen from your job is not to be underestimated. People LOVE structure. It's the basis of many things we do in human civilization. Without it, it becomes difficult to function. WFH requires you to be good at defining your own structure, albeit a looser one, that you can work to.

And last, let's not forget about the mothers and fathers out there with families to manage. Working from home can be a challenge with various distractions from kids and partners. Boundaries must be set and a system should be defined to allow the time to get your focused work done.

All that said, to me, the upsides far outweigh the downsides, and it's basically a no-brainer if you have the discipline to manage yourself effectively.

So why aren't more companies on board?

I'll refer back to Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson who describe the WFH situation wonderfully:

"If working remotely is such a great idea, why haven’t progressive companies been practicing it all along? It’s simple: they couldn’t. The technology just wasn’t there. Good luck trying to collaborate with people in different cities, let alone halfway around the world, using a fax machine and FedEx.

...Technology snuck up on us and made working remotely an obvious possibility. In particular, the Internet happened. Screen sharing using WebEx, coordinating to-do lists using Basecamp, real-time chatting using instant messages, downloading the latest files using Dropbox—these activities all flow from innovations pioneered in the last fifteen years."

Remote, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

We used to not be able to work effectively without being together, collaborating in an office. But now, we have more than enough tools to do our jobs and more. The problem isn't technology, it's an unwillingness to adapt.

"The technology is here; it’s never been easier to communicate and collaborate with people anywhere, any time. But that still leaves a fundamental people problem. The missing upgrade is for the human mind."

Remote, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

But not me, I'm all for it.

Since I've been working from home, I've been able to replace that dreaded commute with all that good stuff I mentioned above (and more). Plus, I'm happier, healthier, way more effective, and am eternally grateful to my company for letting me work this way. Many businesses struggle with employee turnover and would kill for some loyalty from their employees. WFH is the way to do it. When a company and boss respect you enough to let you do your job, you naturally want to do more for them.

Sure, WFH is not without its own challenges. After all, inherently lazy workers will want to be lazy. But, the good workers will find a way to get their shit done.

At the end of the day, it's the actual WORK that matters, not where you are, who you're with, or how it gets done. Progressive (and smart) companies recognize this, and they're already reaping the rewards from it:

  • Cost savings

  • Happier employees

  • More loyal employees

  • Better talent (you can recruit from anywhere in the world)

As long as the work gets done, who cares if I'm in my PJs sippin' on some fresh-squeezed OJ? Death to unnecessary commuting I say. I know for damn sure I've wasted enough of my life doing it — let's end the suffering for others and future generations. The technology is here, we just have to be willing to do it.

I encourage you to run the numbers and plead your case with the powers that be. If you do, shoot 'em my way. I'd love to see how many hours you personally waste commuting each year (or how much you've already regained) and the things you'd rather be doing with that time instead.

Let's give WFH the extra nudge it needs.