Requiem for my commute
The bright side, in retrospect. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Sometimes, you don't appreciate what you've got until it's gone. Case in point: Commuting.
No, I never liked being forced to commute. I wasn't a fan of getting up early, or rushing around in the morning, or crowding in with other people—whether it was cheek by jowl on the subway, or bumper to bumper on the highway.
But, a few years ago, my family moved from the so-called “Sixth Borough” (Jersey City, which is directly across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan; we could see the World Trade Center from the street in front of my apartment building) to a close-in suburb.
My commute changed from a 20-minute ride on the PATH (basically riding a crowded subway) to about 50 minutes on a pretty decent commuter rail. To my surprise, I found that the time I spent traveling to and from work turned into some of my most productive times of the day.
I read and researched things I needed to tackle before meetings.
I spent time working on long-term plans.
Most habitually, I wrote freelance articles, largely for Inc.com.
Truly, if you read and liked something with my byline between 2017 and 2019, there's a very good chance I wrote it as a rough draft on a NJ Transit train to Penn Station one morning, and then edited and polished it on a train home that evening.
In other words, I actually grew to appreciate my commute, even if there were still days I didn't want to do it. But then, I went to work for myself, and not long after that the pandemic set in, and I stopped going to the city.
In February, however, I took a ride down memory lane. I rode the commuter rail during commuting hours for the first time in years—so that I could transfer to an Amtrak train to Connecticut, and meet my parents and my brother for lunch in New Haven.
Reader, I couldn't believe how much work I got done.
There was something about sitting there, knowing that nobody was likely to interrupt me, and that I had a set period of time (50 minutes each way on the commuter train, then close to two hours on Amtrak, each way), that helped me get squarely into the zone.
I burned through projects and to-do list items that I know would have languished if I'd stayed home that day, working from the same home office I've now used for five years.
I broke down some big projects into smaller tasks I could get done more easily.
I stepped into the vestibule between the train cars, and did two long interviews that I'd been struggling to arrange.
I used my mobile phone’s personal hotspot so I wouldn't have to use public Wi-Fi, and took care of a business banking issue that I'd been meaning to tackle.
I wrote the rough drafts of several days of this newsletter, and for old times' sake, I even wrote an article for Inc.com. I told my wife afterward how productive the whole experience had been.
For a New York minute I thought about simply riding the rails occasionally with no destination, to recreate the experience.
I haven't quite reached that level of idiosyncrasy yet, but I did think through how to recoup some of the advantages of commuting without actually having to commute.
Here's what I've come up with, and what I've been doing for the past month and a half, as a result.
Find a place to go, and stay for an hour or so. A decade ago, I used to work in coffee shops all the time. I've literally written entire books at Starbucks, Dunkin', and a few independent places. They've reopened, so this has become my in-lieu-of-commuting destination.
Make it a routine. Check. In my case, I've started blocking out 60 to 70 minutes most mornings, after dropping my daughter off for school. Instead of coming straight home, I carry my laptop to a fairly dingy coffee shop not far from where I live.
Make it sort of comfortable. The train was functional as a place to work, in that I was sure I'd have a seat, my mobile coverage was mostly sufficient, and I'd either be able to plug in my laptop, or else the trip wouldn't be long enough to tax the battery. It's key to be able to recreate at least those benefits so that you're not spending time trying to figure out where to work on any given day.
But don't make it too comfortable. Truly, I think this is the secret sauce. I'm not going to coffee shops now at which you'd want to spend all day. In fact, while I don't want to call them out in an article that they might see, I admit my go-to spot is not the cleanest or most welcoming spot. It's a 5 out of 10. But that's perfect, because when I sit down, my goal is to get through the small number of tasks I've set out for myself, and get out.
So far, it's working. At the very least, I can pick out the one thing I want to do the least each day, and tell myself that when I get it done, I can leave the coffee shop. Ingenious, actually; and it costs almost nothing except the price of a coffee.
Granted, I might not be in a position to appreciate my old commute if I'd been driving, or if I'd been riding a more crowded train, bus or subway.
But let's add this as one of the silver linings of the pandemic: the realization that you might be able to recreate some of the good from the good old days, without copying the things you didn't like so much.
7 other things worth knowing today
Police body camera video released Tuesday showed the chaotic moments when police arrived at the scene of a mass shooting at a bank in downtown Louisville that killed five and injured eight others, as the shooter they couldn’t see from the street rained bullets down on them. A rookie officer was shot in the head within minutes of arriving at the scene, as his partner was grazed by a bullet and sought cover while still trying to take down the shooter. (AP)
A small Texas county is weighing whether to shut down its public library system after a federal judge ruled the commissioners violated the constitution by banning a dozen mostly children's books and ordered that they be put back in circulation. (NBC News)
A small number of NATO special forces troops are already on the ground in Ukraine, according to the massive hack of intelligence documents I mentioned yesterday. According to the document, dated 23 March, the UK has the largest contingent of special forces in Ukraine (50), followed by fellow NATO states Latvia (17), France (15), the US (14) and the Netherlands (1). (BBC)
Several states (Arkansas, Utah, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas) are pushing legislation that would curtail online access and social media use by kids, setting up yet another potential confrontation between states and Congress on technology policy. Related: Montana might just flat-out ban TikTok. (Roll Call, NYT)
NPR has quit Twitter after being falsely labeled as 'state-affiliated media' on the platform. For the record, NPR is a bit left-leaning, but it's a very legit news source to my experience, and gets on a small percentage of its revenue from government sources. In fact, it's such a small percentage that you really wonder whether it's worth the hassle. (NPR)
A big law firm associate’s presentation to new colleagues, including an admonition to be available 24/7 with ‘no exceptions, no excuses’ went viral, sparking a debate over whether the expectations are unreasonable or exactly what you're supposed to expect when you land a high-paying job right out of law school. (ABA Journal)
Prince Harry will attend his father King Charles III’s Coronation next month. But Harry’s wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, will remain in California with the couple’s two children. The May 6 date of the coronation at Westminster Abbey coincides with their son’s birthday. (AP)
Thanks for reading. Photo by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash. (This photo is Grand Central Station, which is much nicer than Penn Station, to which I actually commuted, but what the heck.) I wrote about some of this before at Inc.com. See you in the comments.
Hey Bill thanks for clarifying the use of the glorious picture of Grand Central Station with the reality of commuting into Penn Station. I did notice. Good you mentioned the Twitter NPR designation as a US state-affiliated media. I don't really consider them Government-funded Media either which they are listed as of now. The team that runs the fund-raising campaigns I expect are not happy.
Nice post! Reminded me of my 2 hour commute from the burbs to DC for 18 long years. I don’t really miss it any more and made a concerted decision to work from home for kids and family and that illusive work-life balance, but I know what you mean! For me, what I loved most about my MARC train commute was my customary 20-min deep slumber from DC Union station to Laurel on the Dorsey line, and then chatting with buddies. Did you know, on the commuter trains in Mumbai (fabulous network even today, by the way!) where I grew up, women even chop veggies for their evening meal?:)