Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Considered Harmful: Long distance commuting

For over ten years, I lived 45 to 60 miles from my office. For most of this time, I spent about two hours each day five days a week traveling between my home and office. That's two hours each day that could have been spent doing something more productive.  Even after accounting for holiday and vacation days, that's over 450 hours a year -- the equivalent of adding an extra 12 weeks of work to each year.

For nearly 10 years prior to my long distance commuting, I lived about five miles from the office. I could drive to work in about 12 minutes; or bicycle in about twice that time.  I could go home for lunch. I was minutes from home in case my wife or children needed me.

I gave up my near-home work experience for long distance commuting after moving my family from Arizona to Colorado.  And, I did it in an attempt to be closer to family -- closer to my parents and siblings.

Rather than move close to my employers' offices in the Denver metro area, I chose to live near (and later in) Colorado Springs so that I could be closer to extended family and find cheaper housing.

I told myself that the commute wasn't so bad.  I believed I could earn more money in Denver than in Colorado Springs. I believed I could find cheaper housing near (and later in) Colorado Springs than in the Denver metro area. I wanted to be closer to family that was in Colorado Springs.  I believed the time on the road would be good time to think, listen to audio books, and transition myself between office and home.

I reasoned that my long distance commute wasn't so bad because some of my colleagues who lived much closer to the office spent just as much time on the road as they fought city traffic. I told myself that I had it better than all those people in California and New York who spend multiple hours getting to and from their offices.  My hour plus on an open highway each day wasn't nearly as bad as some others had to endure.

In retrospect, my reasons for choosing a long distance commute don't seem very good.

Commuting long distances separated me from my family. I spent about two hours a day driving to and from work. (And Friday evening commutes typically consumed an additional hour.) I spent time fueling the car every other day. I spent time getting frequent oil changes. However, the time away from my family wasn't all spent on the road and caring for my vehicle.

Working far from home made it difficult to be involved in family things during the day. I couldn't easily go to work a little late or take a long lunch break or leave a little early so that I could participate in an event at my children's school. I couldn't easily have lunch with my wife. I couldn't easily take care of personal business on weekdays. I was away from home during the day.

Being the workaholic that I am, I used the interruption of a long drive home as an excuse to justify working late. Sometimes I'd work late to avoid traffic. (There were times that staying an extra two hours at the office only got me home an hour later.) Some days I just didn't feel like driving. And, there were many days that stopping my work in order to drive for an hour seemed too long an interruption for a task that was nearly done or a problem I believed to be nearly solved. It became easy for those "just a few more minutes" to turn into a few more hours.

Plus, there were many times that the monotony of the drive encouraged me to try alternate routes -- routes that took me much longer to get home. I often got to see lots of great scenery getting off the Interstate as I traveled through Colorado, but this added to the time I was away from my family.

Commuting long distances was expensive. Before I started long distance commuting, I did the math. I estimated the time and cost of the commute. I compared the cost of the extra fuel and higher insurance rates and extra vehicle maintenance to the money I could save on housing. It seemed to make financial sense... on paper... for a while.

I failed to understand the extra time and cost of the drive in cases that my wife and I needed to meet in the middle of the day.  The distance also then added the cost of eating meals at restaurants rather than at home. And when the distance makes good things difficult (like going to see the doctor), it becomes easier to excuse putting them off.

I failed to sufficiently consider drastic changes in the cost of fuel. I was only a few weeks into my long distance commuting when gas prices climbed over $1.50 per gallon, and all my estimates were blown away. Filling up the fuel tank ever other day gets costly. During my decade of long distance commuting gas prices topped out well over $4 per gallon. Rather than saving me money, living in cheaper housing was costing me more money -- sometimes significantly more.

As fuel prices fluctuated, I experimented with public transportation and carpooling. The long distance commuter bus was almost as costly as driving myself and it dropped me off two miles from the office. This required I take a local bus, walk, or arrange for a colleague to help me get between the office and the bus. For a while, I even kept an extra car in a Park and Ride lot for my travel between the bus station and the office. When it was my turn to drive, carpooling added the additional travel time to drop off my carpool buddies at their offices. Both the bus and carpooling restricted my schedule and added significant time to my commute.

Commuting long distances made friendship difficult. In my years of long distance commuting, I had separate groups of friends (and acquaintances with potential of becoming friends) in two cities with over an hour of highway between them. The people in my weekdays and weekends rarely converged. It was as if I was living two separate lives -- and my family was only part of one of them.

Commuting long distances harmed my health. Being in the software business, I work a sedentary job. Spending a couple extra hours sitting on my butt in a car didn't help. About half way through my decade of long distance commuting, I moved even farther from work -- adding an additional 25 minutes to my daily roundtrip commute time. I put on the pounds to match.

Commuting long distances added stress to my life. Over the years, most of my reasons for choosing the long distance commute were invalidated. It separated me from my family, my money, my friends, and my health. In retrospect, I could have managed some of these better but there is only so much that can be done about the time and financial requirements for a long distance commute.

In the final few years of my long distance commuting, I began working from home one day a week. This helped but it increased my dislike for those days I had to make the long drive into the office.

It took me over 10 years to give up my long distance commute for something more sane.  I only wish I had given it up sooner.  If you have a family and are considering a long distance commute, I highly recommend finding an alternative.

About five years ago I traded in the long distance commute for a quick five mile drive, and later a 13 mile drive that took about 25 minutes. After going back to a five mile commute for a couple years, my just-under-the-national-average 25 minute commute was seeming to take way too long.

"When you look at Americans' day-to-day activity ... the top two things we hate the most on a day-to-day basis is, No. 1: housework and No. 2: the daily commute in our cars. In fact, if you can cut an hour long commute each way out of your life, it's the [happiness] equivalent of making up an extra $40,000 a year if you're at the $50- to $60,000 level. Huge ... [So] it's an easy way for us to get happier. Move closer to your place of work." - Dan Buettner 

I cut my commute out of my life. I am happier for it.

I now work out of office.

This mostly means that I work from my home. Email, instant messaging, and video conferencing keep me connected to my colleagues -- both those in the office and others who, like me, work out of office.

I've realized that now that my children are grown, I'm not even constrained by home.  I plan to experiment with transforming "work from home" into "work from wherever".

I plan to share my journey here -- and get others to join in. Do you have an out of office work story to share? Contact me if you'd like to contribute to this blog.

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1 comment:

  1. Great write up. I had the same experience...1 hour commute twice a day for 12 years. I would add the added danger of weather. Can't get into a car accident when your sitting at home. I now telecommute from my RV and absolutely love it. It's truly changed my life and given me back those 10 hours a week