Commuting was the worst. So why do we miss it?

Consider the morning drive in. While superficially a matter of on- and off-ramps, it also initiates a sequence in which the feelings and attitudes of home life are deactivated, replaced by thoughts of work. This takes time, and if it doesn’t happen, one role can contaminate the other—what researchers call “role spillover.” “If you respond like a manager at home, you might be sleeping on the couch that night,” Jachimowicz explained. “And if you respond like a parent at work,” it’s weird. He and his colleagues found that workers who engaged in “role-clarifying prospection” during their morning commute—deliberately thinking about plans for the workday—reported higher levels of satisfaction with both their work and home lives than those who either zoned out or ruminated on personal problems. Skipping this cognitively difficult task left them in limbo, making each place more stressful. Technology can help. In a 2017 experiment, a team at Microsoft installed a program called SwitchBot on commuters’ phones. Before the start and end of each workday, the bot would pose simple questions. A morning session helped the participants transition into productive work mode, while prompts to detach at day’s end—“How did you feel about work today? Is there anything else you would like to share?”—brought forth something unexpected. “People apparently would just spill out their day,” Shamsi Iqbal, a researcher who helped design the study, told me. In reliving their day, they “relieved themselves” of it (and sent fewer after-hours emails as a result).