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Faking your commute is the psychologist-approved tactic for holding steady when your routine is whack

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsApril 7, 2020

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A mere month ago, I spent my commute on the subway to and from work listening to trashy relationship podcasts. The world has since changed: the 1 train is empty, the majority of us are practicing social distancing, and the only “commute” I have is the twenty steps it takes me to get from bed to the refrigerator. With our schedules out of whack, psychologists say it’s more important than ever to draw a line in the sand between work and leisure. And one way to do that, they say, is to “fake a commute.”

“Creating space between ‘home’ and ‘work’ is helpful in setting and keeping boundaries between the two, and creating a routine,” says Kristen Scarlett, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor and co-founder of Octave, a virtual service offering online care. “Having a routine or schedule, even one that is self-imposed, helps us feel ‘in control’ of our time, especially when so much in our lives feels out of control.” In other words, replicating your journey to and from work in some small way can give you that semblance of control that’s so damn scarce right now.

“Creating space between ‘home’ and ‘work’ is helpful in setting and keeping boundaries between the two, and creating a routine.” —Kristen Scarlett, LMHC, licensed mental health counselor

Beyond offering a brief respite of control, acting out a commute also gives our newfound reality a hint of normalcy that can be immensely comforting, says Jennifer Teplin, LCSW. “I do believe that attempting to live life as normal as possible is a great way to normalize what’s going on, and to take back the control that we have had removed due to COVID-19,” she says. If you usually listen to your Spotify Discover Weekly on your Monday morning commute, for example, replicating the ritual by listening as you walk up and down the stairs or around the backyard could help you feel like you kicked off things in the “business as usual” kind of way that we’re all nostalgic for right now.

Of course, there’s no denying that things are different now. And while we can make things seem normal for a commute-long amount of time, they simply aren’t. That’s why clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, is a fan of remixing your old commute with a new ritual that honors both where you have been and where you are now. “If you usually walk or drive to work and recreating that is safe, go ahead for as long as it makes you feel better. If not, make a new morning ritual and repeat it until it feels normal,” says Dr. Daramus.

Feeling a little daunted? Here are some tips for designing the perfect work-from-home “commute” to help you feel a bit more normal in these uncertain times.

1. Create a “pros and cons” list of your previous commute—and only keep what you loved

Amelia Aldao, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders at Together CBT in New York City and member of the scientific advisory board of R3SET Stress Supplements, has a WFH commute idea that will appeal to the Virgos among us.

She recommends a classic pros and cons list to architect your new commute. “Take 15 minutes to write down all the things you enjoyed about your previous routine, whether it was walking the dog in the morning, listening to a podcast on the way to work, or spending time every night planning what outfit to wear the following day,” she says. “Be very specific about the frequency and timing then rank these on a scale from one to 10 based on the level of comfort and happiness that they made you feel.” Then, you’re ready to enact the parts you like and jettison the ones you don’t.

2. Go for a one-minute walk, twice a day

You might want a longer walk than just a minute, but Teplin says that even 60 seconds can help your mind switch gears from home to work. (Then, later, from work to home.) “Walk outside even for a moment before starting work and after ending your work day,” she says.

3. Try a stretch both before and after work

Sandwich your day with some stretching if your goal is to get more flexible, or relax before and after work. Eventually, your brain will recognize that stretching is a pregame and postgame to your day, and you’ll (ta-da!) replicate that commute feeling.

This stretch sequence will get you started:

4. Keep your workspace separate from your main space, and consciously transition between them

“It is important to break up spaces for different behaviors: we eat at a table, we sleep in a bed,” says Teplin. “Similarly, we should ‘work from home’ at a certain space, work out in a certain space, etcetera. When we can dedicate specific behaviors for specific spaces we’re creating a functional living environment.” Meaning: To the best of your ability, keep your desk separate from the rest of your living situation. And when you do—at last!—rise from your desk chair, consciously say in your head or aloud to your dog: I’m leaving work now and going home.

Alright, but what about setting boundaries with the people you live with? We’ve got the scoop on that, too. And if you’re into the idea of meditating on your “commute,” these apps will let you do it for free

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