Commuting the Madness: Achieving a Positive Work-Life Balance
I spend over 800 hours every year on a train. Not to go on holiday or explore the Great British countryside; not even to explore London. No, I spend 800 hours every year going from my house, to the office, and back again. 400 hours in one direction, 400 hours in the other. That’s a total of 48,000 minutes or 2,880,000 seconds, equivalent to 48 return trips to New York.
But I’m not gazing out on Madison Square Gardens or the Empire State Building, I’m staring at the same adverts in the same tiny metal tube, day after day after day...
Sound familiar? Feel trapped, maddened even, by the daily commute? It’s a common feeling and something that a lot of people overlook when they’re applying for jobs. The thing is, not only is the daily commute dull (and often fraught with the stress-inducing irritations and uncertainty of delays, cancellations and – God forbid – strikes) it’s a monumental time sink. Those 800 hours I spend on the Victoria line aren’t productive: no one’s paying me for that time and what I achieve personally is limited.
Worse still, my commute can be regarded as one of the best in the country because I can use reliable public transport (though try explaining that to the woman with my armpit in her face at 07:30 in the morning!). At least on the tube I can feasibly open a laptop, read a book or check through emails on my phone – for the 67% of Brits that drive to work each day, even these escapes aren’t an option.
Now some of you are probably reading this and thinking: “It really isn’t all that bad”. A common response runs along the lines of “Well, what else would you be doing?”, and that’s a tricky question to answer. Priorities differ from person to person, making an ‘ideal’ work-life balance impossible to pin down. For some it means more time with family, for others it could be time spent on hobbies, others still just like to switch off with some TV or video games. The point is, though, that whilst we might all spend that 800 hours differently, if we had control then very few of us would choose to spend it commuting.
The vast majority of people I speak to consider the commute, and particularly the length of time it takes, to be a major factor when choosing a job. In fact, a resounding 84% of those I surveyed had set an upper limit of an hour on the commute they’d be willing to make on a regular basis.
Setting a personal limit when looking for a job is a solid starting point and will ensure that whatever commute you end up with won’t drive you too mad – just make sure that you’re honest with yourself first, and actually stick to your plan! But that advice doesn’t help if you’re already in a job, slowly being worn down by seemingly endless travelling. If that sounds like you, then what options do you have? What can you do to, well, commute your commute? (I’ll let myself out…)
- Change your job
A little drastic, sure, but ultimately if your commute is causing a huge amount of stress or is just a blocker to you enjoying your life, then it might be time to consider jumping ship. Working closer to home is a surefire way to reduce the time you spend getting to work (obviously), giving you back precious minutes to spend however you want.
For a lot of people, that could mean a drop in salary. For some, that’s a big sticking point, but if you add your commute onto your working day and adjust your per-hour wage accordingly, you might find the drop isn’t as big as you thought it was! As one very honest jobseeker put it to me recently:
“You could give me all the money in the world and I still wouldn’t commute into London again!”
After years of commuting into London every day, this individual made the decision (like so many others) to give up the commuter life and take a reduced salary closer to home to get back that desirable work-life balance.
- Change your home
Possibly even more drastic, but if you really don’t want to leave your job (which is perfectly understandable – great jobs don’t come along every day!) then perhaps you can be flexible with the other side of the equation.
One of the few upsides of people renting much later in their lives is that it provides a lot more flexibility in living arrangements. Even with a mortgage, you may find it favourable to sell and move, or even rent out your old place to cover rent elsewhere, becoming a landlord yourself (though be careful that the extra time gained from a reduced commute isn’t lost on extra admin).
A big objection I hear about moving is increased living costs, particularly as companies tend to group around major transport hubs and prestigious postcodes, meaning sky high prices. However, the cost saved on travel can often make up most, if not all, of the extra expenditure. Even where that isn’t the case, it’s not like you need to live next door to your office. Simply cutting the commute in half could result in a healthy balance across savings in both time and money.
And you don’t just save on travel – it’s surprising where else you see costs decrease living closer to work. You might find that an extra 30 minutes in the morning means you eat breakfast at home, for a fraction of the cost of the alternative at Pret or Starbucks. Then, in the evening, you might choose to meet friends at your house rather than at the pub, reducing costs once again.
- Make Your Work Your Home
No, I don’t mean you should start sleeping at the office (although…), but instead look into whether your company offers a ‘work from home’ scheme. As more roles become digital-first, and more companies embrace Cloud technology, employees are increasingly released from the confines of the office desk, especially in the tech sector. We've seen a noticeable shift in certain markets towards working from home, particularly amongst Ruby developers where both employers and employees are getting on board – as Sam Murray, our Ruby specialist, notes:
"There are a couple of key benefits [to working from home] that I have heard Ruby Developers mention: it enables them to reduce the cost and time associated with travel, as well as letting them work in an environment which they have more control over. They can use their own device, setup, and are less likely to encounter disctractions than in the office. With the rise of platforms such as Slack, Skype, Trello and numerous chat platforms, there is very little need to meet face-to-face. With the increasing adoption of serverless architecture by more and more companies, working from home is becoming the new norm."
You likely won’t be able to work from home every day (though if you can: congratulations, we’re all very jealous) but even skipping the commute one day a week drops those 800 hours down to 620 – a sizeable reduction!
But what if your employer doesn’t have an option for you to work away from the office? Don’t despair just yet, perhaps they might be happy to grant flexible hours instead. For a lot of people, simply leaving the house 30 minutes or an hour later can mean they miss rush hour congestion, reducing both total commute time and related stress significantly.
- Take Back Control (Where you Can)
If none of the above are options then it can feel a little hopeless, but there may yet be something that you can do. Take a step back and ask yourself what, specifically, it is that you hate about your commute. Once you’ve worked that out, focus on fixing that aspect directly, rather than targeting the commute in entirety.
For example, perhaps what you really object to is the loss of productivity, the feeling that your time is being wasted. That’s perfectly understandable, but you can probably do something about that by using your time more effectively. Pick up a book (or listen to one if you need to be hands-free) and get lost in a story. Reading not your thing? Technology is incredibly portable these days, so if you can do it on a PC, you can probably do it on the move. Play video games, write a blog, watch TV, learn guitar – the possibilities are endless!
Or maybe you object to something else completely. A Technical Writer I recently spoke to told me that their source of commuting stress was the cost and confined atmosphere, but once they realised this they found an easy fix:
“I started taking the bus. It ended up being a really simple solution; despite taking an extra 20 minutes I no longer hate my commute. It costs half as much, sometimes less, and I pretty much always get a window seat, so I arrive [at work] both less stressed and more awake – plus, if it’s a nice day, I can get off a couple stops early and walk through the park!”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it. By changing your route you might find a more comfortable commute, even if it takes a little longer. After all, stress stays with you, making you less productive at work and meaning the workday cuts further into home life. By cutting out stress points or creating a more flexible travel plan, you should be able to take back control.
So, hopefully that’s given you some ideas to help reduce the hold your commute has over you. However, if you’ve read this far and are thinking that you just don’t mind commuting, that’s fine too! After all, even my own research showed that 16% of people don’t consider the commute when choosing a job.
Most of those applicants were young, entering their first or second job at the start of their careers. When you’re trying to get that first foot through the door, it’s understandable to place less importance on the commute, plus flexibility can feel like a desirable trait when applying for jobs.
The thing is, long and stressful commutes can have a huge impact on your performance at work and your enjoyment of life outside of the office. Even if you feel that your commute is fine, it still might be having a negative effect and should be a factor that you at least consider.
I can attest that a lot of the people I’ve seen take long commutes have ultimately either burned out or chosen to move on fairly quickly. London is vast and, despite having great public transport across the capital, the nightmare of rush-hour can wear you down over time.
Personally, location has become a real focus when I consider job roles. With Talent Point, I actually took my own advice and am moving closer to work to reduce my commute in the next few months. Improving your work-life balance can have a positive effect on your health and even lift your morale.
After all, your time is valuable (otherwise you’d work for free) and you should try to keep that in mind when considering those 800 hours you spend just getting from A to B.