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144: Are We There Yet? - The Unexpected Perks of a Commute

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144: Are We There Yet? - The Unexpected Perks of a Commute

Jun 27, 2023

What if your daily commute wasn't just about getting from A to B, but a pivotal part of your mental health? The Who Cares guys explore a fascinating research article on the unseen mental health benefits of daily commuting. They delve into the importance of transition times and liminal spaces for men and their mental health, and discuss how each host builds these valuable transitions into their day.

Episode Transcript

This content was originally created for audio. Some elements such as tone, sound effects, and music can be hard to translate to text. As such, the following is a summary of the episode and has been edited for clarity. For the full experience, we encourage you to subscribe and listen— it's more fun that way.



Scot: On the podcast before, we've talked about having a morning ritual, but I have a question for you guys. Do you have an after-work ritual? I'll start with you, Troy. Do you have an after-work ritual?

Troy: Usually, because my shifts are ending somewhere between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., it's come home, go to sleep. Drive home, sleep.

Scot: Fair enough. Mitch, do you have after-work ritual? When 5:00 strikes or whenever your workday is done, a little something you do before you go on to the rest of your evening?

Mitch: Not currently, but it sure sounds like a nice idea.

Scot: Yeah?

Mitch: Yeah.

Scot: Well, this got a little shocking. At one point, a lot of men had an after-work ritual, but they didn't even realize that it was a ritual, and it was actually benefiting them. And then some of those men lost that ritual, and it impacted their emotional health. And that's what we're going to talk about today, is that after-work ritual, and the importance of it, and what was the one that some men lost.

This is "Who Cares About Men's Health," with information, inspiration, and a different interpretation of men's health. My name is Scot. I bring the BS. The MD to my BS, Dr. Troy Madsen.

Troy: Scot, I'm here and I'm so excited to hear about this ritual, because I want to practice it. This sounds interesting.

Scot: He's a full-on "I care about my health" convert now. We love having him on the show. Welcome, Mitch.

Mitch: Hey, there. I love the mystery. I'm excited to hear what this secret ritual that everyone lost was.

Scot: Yeah. Well, not everyone, but a lot of people because of COVID, they lost this after-work ritual. And that ritual was . . . And even before work. It was their commute.

Mitch: Oh.

Troy: Okay.

Scot: The commute to and from work, and COVID changed all that. And afterwards, you would see stories in the media about people talking about how they missed their commute to and from work.

Troy: Interesting.

Scot: And I was one of those people. And for me . . .

Troy: You actually missed it then?

Mitch: Really?

Scot: Yes, I did.

Mitch: Oh, wow. Okay.

Scot: For me, it was a transition from work life to home life, or home life to work life. It was my time. I drove, so I was by myself, and I could listen to music. I could listen to podcasts. I could sing at full volume. I could narrate what other people were saying when they were talking on their phones in the car next to me. I'd make up little stories about them.

Troy: Nice.

Scot: Or I could just sit in my car in beautiful, glorious silence.

Troy: Right. There is something to be said for that, yeah.

Scot: Mitch, did you have a commute before COVID, and after no? Do you miss it? Where are you at on this commute ritual?

Mitch: I've been very kind of blessed to not. I mean, I've been working from home since even before the pandemic. The majority of my work was at home editing media, and the only time I would commute is to go teach classes at SLCC or whatever. I don't like commuting. So it was never really a ritual for me in my adult life.

Last semester, SLCC gave me some classes that were quite a ways away and I had to commute twice a week, and I hate it. I can't. I absolutely . . . it's not part of my enjoyment of life right now.

Scot: Troy, how about you? Do you commute? Well, yeah, you commute because you have to drive to the ER.

Troy: Yeah.

Scot: So that really never changed for you.

Troy: That piece didn't change. But I will say the one thing that did change . . . because being in academics, I'm also doing research and lectures and that. The big thing that did change is I was doing all these lectures remotely and joining lectures remotely. I missed the commute from there. Saying that, I can't say I missed the commute, but . . .

Scot: Sure.

Troy: But the thing I did miss was that separation of work from home, where it was just . . . It was kind of surreal, and still is a little bit, when we do the remote meetings and lectures to be in my home life and then within seconds suddenly be with all of my colleagues and feel like I have to act a little differently than I would around the house. So maybe in that sense, I missed it. Just that separation.

And like you said, Scot, you do have that time in the car that I think puts you in more of that work mindset where you then miss that when you're just jumping on your computer and transitioning quickly from home life. So I think I have missed that piece of it.

Scot: Yeah, I hadn't even thought about during the day, those transitions. I think that could be another podcast, or actually maybe even what we learn here can be applied to that as well.

And I know that there are plenty of people like Mitch that just don't like commuting, right? I think after we've done this for a while, we've seen the benefit of not commuting. For some people, they had very long commutes. It was an hour and a half out of their day that now they get back to do what they want, to concentrate on their health or their family, or whatever.

But what changed is they may have lost that commute and they may have loved that, but they also lost that ritual. And according to the article, "The Psychological Benefits of Commuting to Work," which you can find in RealClearScience, the commute was for many that transition. And without that, people miss that transition.

I think that's what they were talking about when they say they miss a commute. That would be for me too, going to and coming from work. And if you don't have that transition, research has shown that that can lead to stress and burnout.

Any thoughts on that? Because you don't have that commute to . . . Wait, let me start over. Any thoughts on that, Troy?

Troy: Yeah, Scot. I think it's a time, like you described, where you're just under no obligation to do anything. All you have to do is drive and it's pretty mindless, because you've done it hundreds or thousands of times. And you can think, you can process things, you can not think. For me, I like to listen to audiobooks. It's the one time during the day where I can just listen to audiobooks completely uninterrupted. I'm sure there are psychological benefits to that.

There is the stress of the commute sometimes when you're in that stop-and-go traffic. And I think that's probably a little detrimental to mental health sometimes. But that being said, just the fact that you know the route, you're kind of on autopilot, you can just kind of think, and it's your time, and you don't really have to do anything else. You're under no obligation to family, to work. It's your time, and it's built in, and it's kind of guilt free because you have to do it.

Scot: You're right, it is an active thing a lot of the times, but you are on autopilot because it's such a routine for you, really. And that's the benefit of routines, right? Your brain doesn't have to actively be engaged all the time.

Troy: Exactly.

Mitch: Well, I find that interesting, because I love road trips. I just took one a couple weeks ago and I listened to audiobooks. I don't have anywhere to be. I really do appreciate and find myself going into a really cool Zen state road tripping.

I do not get that same thing from commuting. I am stressed about what I have to do when I get there. I'm stressed about all the other drivers on the road. I have a time that I have to be there and whatever. Yeah, it's interesting I experience the same benefits, but it's not with commuting.

Troy: I'll say, since we're talking about it again, I didn't really miss the commute so much just because I still had it with the ER, but I do enjoy it. And maybe it's for me, more with the ER, my commute is generally during off-hours when roads aren't as busy and it is kind of a time where I can just . . .

Definitely coming home, I think that's the part I really appreciate. Because if I had to walk out of the ER and two minutes later be home, it just would not be a good transition. I just need that time to kind of detox, just to kind of let it go, maybe process things a little bit, get back into that home mindset. So I think that's the part of the commute, that return home, that I really appreciate.

Scot: Yeah. The thing is, though, just like so many things in our life we're unaware of, I think a lot of us didn't realize how beneficial that commute was, right? And it's not the act of driving, but it's just kind of that time. And scientists/researchers have a name for that. It's called liminal space. That is free time from both work and home roles. You don't have either one of those roles on you at that point. It's like that buffer zone, right?

And when researchers talk about liminal space, it serves two purposes: detachment and recovery. The first is psychological detachment from the work role, so you're disengaging from the demands of work, whatever happened there. The other thing is the psychological recovery from work, rebuilding your mental energy used during work. Those are the two benefits you get during that liminal space that a lot of people get on their commute.

And it doesn't matter how you get or go home. If you're in the car, on the train, the subway, whatever, you get those benefits.

Troy: Yeah. And it's interesting to think about that, because I'm just kind of thinking through the day and when else do you really have that time? The only other time I can think where you kind of have that is maybe as you're winding down for bed, where maybe you're not so much dealing with home responsibilities, you've addressed all those things, you're not hopefully thinking about work, you might be, but you're certainly not at work, you're not meeting those demands.

So that's probably the only other time where you really get maybe that 10, 15 minutes as you're winding down. But during the course of the day, there probably aren't a lot of other times.

Scot: What does that mean? That means that maybe we should consider building that into our lives.

Mitch: Yeah. So what I keep thinking about is my time during the COVID pandemic, I suddenly got a full-time remote job during the COVID pandemic and there was something about being on the clock and you're then off the clock, but you're in the same space, and you're looking at the same screens, and you're looking at the same whatever. I just remember how tiring and worn out I would feel because it felt like it's the same day over and over again. It's the same experience. There are no breaks to any of it. And so if I was feeling stressed at work, I would continue to be stressed.

And so it is interesting, because without reading the research or anything like that at the time, I did find myself trying to find ways to build that kind of stuff in.

Troy: Yeah. And the other piece of it too is, I think, again, kind of that work-home separation. I think one of the challenges is you're a different person when you're at home. You're more relaxed. Your guard is down. But that transition is kind of like . . .

Scot: Well, maybe you are.

Troy: You're not relaxed at home? Your guard is up? Hopefully, your guard is down and you're relaxed.

But I think there's a flip side to that. When you are quickly transitioning to work tasks, particularly email, I think there is a possibility of sometimes sending emails you wouldn't send otherwise.

I can't say I've said anything necessarily on a Zoom meeting that I wouldn't say otherwise, but I think it's a little bit more challenging where you don't have that transition to transition into work mode and think, "Okay, I'm going into work. I'm now my work person."

We all are different people at work in at least certain ways than we are at home. But I found I am a little more attentive to that in terms of just being careful about maybe not being so unfiltered as I might be at home in speaking about work or having conversations about work topics.

Scot: So I think the thing that we can take away from this is we can be mindful about creating these transition zones. For example, if you don't commute anymore, or let's say your commute doesn't provide the recovery you need. The researchers did discover that longer commutes often lead to higher levels of detachment and recovery, but stressful commutes, less detachment and recovery. So if you're getting home and you're still exhausted, maybe even an additional ritual at home might be a good idea.

So how do you create your own liminal space if it's not built into your routine, and it's not something you have to do because you had to drive to work and drive home at one point?

The first thing is to be mindful of the benefit of liminal space, and I think we made that point. And what you want to try to do is create an opportunity to relax as much as possible. You want to try to let the workday go. Don't ruminate on things that happened.

I think Troy talked about processing. What do you mean by that? Are you letting the workday go by processing, or are you ruminating? I'm curious to hear what that looked like for you there, if that goes contrary to this advice.

Troy: For me, a lot of it is thinking about interactions I may have had, which may not have been very positive interactions, and maybe thinking about it and thinking, "Well, what happened there exactly?"

Unfortunately, in the ER, those interactions happen on a regular basis. So a lot of it is kind of thinking, "Okay, did I say something wrong there? What happened there exactly?"

A lot of it also is just saying, "Hey, that's just kind of what happens in the ER, and I just need to let it go and I cannot bring this home with me, whatever emotional response or whatever feelings I may have."

So I think there's a certain amount of kind of thinking through what I'm feeling at that moment, and thinking what may have led to that, and then hopefully letting that go and not taking that home with me.

Scot: Yeah, that kind of sounds like psychological detachment. You're disengaging from that demand at work. You're trying to disconnect from it. So yeah, that's cool.

Troy: Yeah, try to disconnect or make sense of it, rationalize it a little bit, think through things, maybe think how I could approach things differently. So not so much compartmentalizing. There's maybe a component of that, but hopefully processing through it a little more and taking something constructive from it, or, like you said, just letting it go altogether.

Scot: Yeah, and mindfully doing that. Otherwise, it'll kind of stick with you, and it'll be in your personal life.

So the researchers say to be mindful of it, create an opportunity to relax as much as possible, try to let that workday go. Music and podcasts are kind of the default. Mitch talked about those, right? I mean, that's the easiest thing to do in the car.

Mitch: Sure.

Scot: That doesn't mean that's the only way that you can engage in letting go of your day, the detachment and the recovery aspects of it.

The researchers suggested maybe even talking to a friend on the way home.

This was interesting. Take the scenic route home to avoid a stressful commute. So maybe you lose five or 10 minutes, but maybe you minimize the stressful commute so then you can maximize more your recovery, right?

Mitch: Oh, interesting.

Scot: And for me, I've been very fortunate. I've had both. I've had rough commutes and I've had commutes where I drive through lovely neighborhoods. And I think you both know which one is nicer, right?

Troy: Right.

Mitch: That's interesting, I guess, to me because I'm so time focused sometimes. It's just like, "Ugh, it's a super terrible commute. Let's just get through this. Yeah, I might have to sit on the freeway for a little bit longer, but let's just get home, get home, get home." But this idea of, "Hey, let's treat the commute not as a time-sensitive activity, and instead it's something that you get to take some time to yourself, by yourself," that's an interesting perspective I didn't have before.

Scot: There will probably be some people that are going to take five hours to get home.

Troy: Exactly. Yeah, but there's a lot to be said for just taking your time and trying to enjoy it, not being stressed, not feeling like, "Ugh, I left late and I'm doing this every day," and giving yourself a buffer there to get there. So I think that definitely helps with that.

Scot: And that's a double benefit, right? Not only are you reducing that stress, but then you're maximizing your ability to get that liminal space.

So other ways. Let's pretend somebody does work at home, or they have a rough commute, and they get home, and they've decided they're going to take five or 10 minutes, what are some other ways? We don't just have to think about music and podcasting. Do you have any thoughts?

Troy: A couple of things. Exercise, especially stuff where it's not changing a lot of tasks or doing a lot of things differently. Just exercise that's fairly routine. Again, running. I love to talk about running. I try to avoid talking about it too much. But running, for me, provides a lot of that, where I'm engaged in an activity, but I'm just kind of doing the same route I've done before, and it gives me that time to process things.

The other thing you may not think about a whole lot is just fairly straightforward cleaning tasks, like vacuuming or something like that. You just kind of vacuum or you're dusting around the house, whatever it might be. Again, stuff where you just kind of engage in the task, but it's pretty straightforward. It doesn't require a lot of thought, and it allows you just to kind of let your mind wander.

Mitch: It's funny you mention that because when we were first chit-chatting about this, I kept thinking, "Oh, man, the best times that I've had liminal space is oddly enough the Mid-May 5K, the Who Cares About Mitch Mid-May 5K," because I would run in the afternoons and I would do it after work. And that felt really good.

Then I think about the seven-challenge thing that we did a couple years ago, where you do the seven things a day, and I used to read after work. I would take 10, 15 minutes to just read nonfiction. And I felt really good then.

I'm just thinking to myself, "What am I doing now?" And it's cleaning. The thing for me is I put on a murder podcast. I put on an apron because that gets my brain turned into whatever space it needs to. I live alone these days, and so it's like, "Let's take the time to just make the space good for yourself." And just listening and washing dishes or giving a quick vacuum or a sweep or whatever. I do that for like 20 minutes and it's been extraordinarily helpful to help transition from work to home and not get burnt out.

Scot: You get stuff done, which is great, right? I mean, who would think that coming home and maybe taking on a cleaning project right away or maybe deciding to hop into the kitchen and cook dinner right away would actually be a good thing? But if done right, it could really give you that liminal time.

Mitch: And it's the approach too. It's not like, "Oh, man, I have to do this." It's like, "Hey, I'm getting to do this for myself. I get it. I get to just listen to this podcast. This is for me. This is what I'm doing."

Troy: Yeah, exactly. And similar to exercise is walking your dog. I think that's one thing too where it's just like, "Hey, I'm taking the dog out," and you're engaged in a task that's helping the dog if the dog is getting out and stretching their legs, and you've just got that time to think.

But yeah, I like the cleaning thing. And for me . . . again, I hope Laura is listening to this. She's going to give me a hard time that I'm even talking about vacuuming. But I enjoy vacuuming.

Mitch: Really?

Troy: I should be careful about saying that.

Scot: How many dogs do you have? It's good that you enjoy vacuuming with, like, eight dogs.

Troy: Yeah, it's something that should happen around here very frequently. So I really should do this on a daily basis to get in my liminal space.

But yeah, there's something about vacuuming in particular, I think, where you can just kind of tune everything out. It's so mindless, and you're just kind of moving around with the vacuum, and . . .

Scot: You're contributing. And the thing I love about what you said, Mitch, too is . . . Or no, actually it was Troy that said walking the dog, right? That's something that has to be done, so what a built-in excuse. Somebody is not going to say, "No, you can't do that. You have to do something else," because that is one of the tasks. Or vacuuming even. What a great excuse just to escape from everybody and do that.

Those are some great ideas. Other things I've heard are to actually play music. If you have some sort of a hobby, maybe engage in that hobby for 15 minutes. They did mention reading, Mitch, so that was good.

So create that liminal space if you don't have that in your life, or if you're not finding that you are recovering well after your commute. And remember, the objective is to disengage from the demands of work and rebuild mental energy. So what are the things that are going to help you do those two things? How can you maximize that and know that that's the purpose and maybe why you missed your commute? And it's something that we need, so if you don't have a commute, you have to be mindful about building it in.

Any takeaways?

Troy: I was going to say one thing, too. Since we talked about taking the dogs for a walk, one thing Laura loves to do is take the dogs out for a treat, just take them out for a little ride down to the gas station and get them a beef jerky or something, and they get so excited for it. So it's kind of like her commute in a way where she just gets out and the dogs enjoy it.

But anyway, takeaway for me is it's something I feel like I have with the exercise piece, and certainly with the ER commute, that kind of thing. But that being said, maybe I'll try vacuuming more.

Mitch: Sure. For me, I think the thing is that I have kind of accidentally stumbled upon this stuff, and just knowing, "Hey, I've got to do something to swap between work and regular life, etc." But taking the mindset of making this a priority. Make this something that if you're going to help yourself along and not burn out and have more energy in the evenings, etc. I'm thinking I'm going to make sure I prioritize the dishes and a cult podcast or something. That's what I'm going to do.

Troy: Nice.

Scot: My takeaway is creating this space is important. And I've experienced this firsthand. During the workday, I will take 15 minutes, and I'll make my tea because that's my thing now. You're going to get tired of me talking about tea. I'll go into a room where there's nobody else and it's quiet, and I just breathe, I sip my tea, and I just have some quiet. It's my detachment and recovery time during the day. So this idea of creating space is important, but also creating it throughout the day.

I think another thing that's changed is, for many of us, when we used to maybe go into the office, conversations with coworkers or lunch breaks were those built-in things. But I find a lot of times I stack stuff back to back to back to back in my day, and maybe that's not the best thing to do.

Troy even talked about making those transitions between "I'm at home, but now I've got a meeting." Maybe you have a little five-minute transition if you can do it. And building those things in not only in addition to before work starts and after work is done, but maybe even during the day. Or even don't stack the weekends quite so tight, right? Try to maybe have some liminal space during the weekends too. So that's my takeaway.

So the challenge to you, the listener, is how can you maximize your commute for detachment and recovery to help you be more present for the last part of your day and those relationships and obligations you have? Or how can you work those times into your day if you don't have a commute so you are present for those things that you want to be present for?

And maybe consider creating an end-of-day ritual that can create that liminal space. I mean, journaling was one we didn't even mention, right? A lot of people do that at the beginning of the day. Why not as a ritual at the end of the day? That might be a way to process.

Do you have a way that you create liminal space in your life? If you do or if you have any thoughts about this episode, you can reach out to us, That's

Thanks for listening, and thanks for caring about men's health.


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