Making the most of a daily commute (guest post)

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Amy Parachnowitsch is an ex-pat Canadian scientist, who studies the evolutionary ecology of plant-animal interactions and floral traits. She is halfway through a 4-year assistant professor position at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Maybe it is the recent discussion about field sites both far and wide (both highlighted here) that has got me thinking about distances and research/work. Or maybe it just because I’ve been sitting on a bus trying to make the most of my newly acquired commute. Whatever the reason, I have been thinking about how travel, whether daily or to your field sites, can affect how you arrange your work.

A little context: this summer I moved from the town where I work to one an hour away. There were a lot of personal reasons that went into the decision but one of the main factors was my work flexibility compared to my husband’s. Unlike him, I can use the commute to work and have shorter days in the office. A good theory but now I’m actually testing it during the one hour (each way) I spend on a bus. Right now my days are about two hours shorter in the office than they were when we lived a ~15min bike ride away.

So far, I am seeing some pluses to the arrangement. When I’m in my office, my time tends to get fragmented during the day by various interruptions. An hour on the bus is long enough to pull something out and get somewhere with it. One of the big benefits is that I am not completely connected; I do have a smart phone but I keep my computer off-line. So far this has functioned to give me some solid writing chunks during the day. There is lots of advice out there about writing daily and it has always seemed like a good idea to me. But this commute is the first time I’ve been consistent with a daily writing routine—we’ll see if it results in more submitted manuscripts as I hope. Another long-term advantage is that it will also be much easier on the family when I go away for conferences or research (we have a 4-year old). Even short trips were difficult for my husband to manage both child-care (e.g. dropping and picking up from daycare) and a long commute. Although I did a number of work-related trips from Uppsala, there have been opportunities that I haven’t taken because it was too much to ask of my very supportive husband. All in all, it will probably take a while for us to fully realize the advantages of the move but I am hoping that it will make me more effective and freer to participate in the things that interest me.

The disadvantages are of course the commute itself. I’d rather bike or walk to work than ride the bus. It will also mean that staying late or popping by my office or lab is more difficult. On the small scale—a long daily commute can have some of the advantages/disadvantages of long distance fieldwork: when I’ve left for the day, I can’t go back. The change won’t be so dramatic for me because I was already limited in doing ‘off-hour’ work by my child (and commuting husband). And unlike data collecting, I can always bring a lot of my work home with me. But I’m not sure how my shortened campus time will function once the semester is in full swing. I’ll get a better feeling as the fall progresses if there are any hidden costs to regularly leaving early. Commuting also changes the timing of the kind of work I can do during the day because now there are many things that I won’t be able to do in the commuting hours such as meetings, lab work, extensive literature searches, adding web content to lectures, etc. I think it will take more time to know if this is a plus or minus for me.

Unlike your field sites (or lack thereof), choosing where you live seems more a personal choice and might be limited by many factors (e.g. city university vs. college town). But as I have experienced from moves in the past, where you live can also effect how you work. Gone are the days when I could do that one last thing before rushing off to pick my daughter up from daycare. I don’t know if this will make me more disciplined with my time in the afternoon or more likely to give up a task earlier so I don’t have to stop in the middle of it.

Overall, I think I will be very motivated to keep my commute productive because the alternative is really long workdays. With a young child, I think it is especially important that we have some time together each day. If I spend 8 or so hours in my office, I’ll rarely see her.

I’ve known lots of different styles of professors: those that are always in their office, those that leave early to pick up kids, or come in late because they work better at night. One of my colleagues even commutes on a weekly basis from Norway. Ultimately, academia is a job where your accomplishments often matter more than the time you do it and we’re generally given a lot of freedom to arrange how we work.

I’m curious about other people’s decisions. How do you schedule your day and what do you find to be most effective way to do your work? Does where you live effect how you work? Do you use your commute to work/think about work or is it a time-out in the day? Above all, any advice from long-distance commuters would be greatly appreciated!