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Making Lemonade

Finding a Silver Lining in the Shadow of the Dark Gray

I want to preface this article by saying a heartfelt thank you to all of the people in this country who are required to go into work to help others during this crisis, putting their lives on the lines as medical workers, emergency personnel, grocery store clerks, delivery people…the list goes on and on. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The rest of us are trying to do what we can by staying home.

For those of us in the “stay at home” category, the COVID-19 pandemic still brings risk, fear and the potential of lost wages. But for some of us, it also brings a bit of a gift that we may be overlooking. The benefits of this gift, of course, pale in comparison to the gravity of where we are, but it is a subtle gift that seems too important to go unnoticed.

For those of us whose daily commutes to the office have been temporarily suspended as we shelter in place, we have been given back some time, one of the only non-renewable resources in the universe.

We are the (VERY) lucky ones, the ones who can keep our jobs and our paychecks, work from the safety of our homes, and manage our time as we see fit.

So, the question is, for those of us who have reluctantly received this gift of time due to the pandemic, what are we doing with it?

We owe it to the world to make the very best of it, to use our time to stay healthy, be productive, share special moments with family, and hopefully help make the world a better place in the process.

Sizing-Up the Gift

I am the CIO at a market-leading financial services company, so needless to say, my workday is always full. My daily commute from Mission Viejo, CA to Orange ranges from 30 to 75 minutes each way, depending on the crazy I-5 traffic.

How do I typically spend this time? Mornings, usually between 6:30 a.m. and 7:15 a.m., can include calling Eastern Time zone colleagues, vendors or customers; thinking about how to squeeze out time from my meeting schedule to actually complete my work; or if I am really caught up, listening to NPR or sports talk radio (love that Dan Le Batard and Stugotz). During the end of day commute, I finish up calls with colleagues, organize my thoughts and plan of attack for the next business day (which I probably do based on one of the dozens of Habits of Highly Successful People I have read but now wish I had the time back from), or listen to Hair Nation or more sports talk radio (love that Sarah Spain).

If we assume (in my case) an average of 50 minutes each way, that is 250 minutes a week, roughly 1,000 minutes a month meaning about 16 hours and 35 minutes, or a little over two workdays per month. If we also assume that the need for us to shelter will last until say, mid-June, then I will have been credited back 50 hours (a little over 6 workdays), that I would have otherwise mindlessly plowed back into the gaps at work created by my own inefficiency and time management challenges.

And thus, the stack of hours we have is like an hourglass that never flips over, only crediting and never debiting. Suddenly we find that we have been given 50 hours free and clear (or whatever the math is for you) to whatever we want to, as long as we don’t go anywhere that would bring us into physical proximity with other people.

So Much to Do, Now a Little More Time to Do It

I feel like I am constantly adding to my mental list of things I would like to do if only I had the time. Many things on the galactic “to do” list are productive tasks (like that project to digitize years of hard copy photos stored in the closet). But some are the ones I know are utterly non-productive and just make life a little better.

Some of the things I have been doing with the “commute tax rebate” I have been granted include:

- Adding 20+ minutes a day to my morning workout, which is usually hurried because I am afraid to be 20 minutes delinquent responding to professional emails (as part of the overall denial that in actuality, my responses are just not that critical).

- While I am a lover of music (of many genres) and an avid collector of rare, un-released live music, I have said (or thought to myself), “Life is too short to waste on average music.” Some of my recent commuting dividends have been applied to re-discovering amazing music that was just sitting there waiting for me, like Louis Armstrong, or Jimmy Hendrix (“Move over Rover, Let Jimmy Take Over”.) Simply magical.

- And reading—something my earlier years were filled with and fueled by. Then I got busy. Early in my career I would read on planes during business travel. Then WiFi in the air became available, and I was suddenly guilt-ridden by the minutes I spent not being professionally productive. So away went that wrinkle of discretionary time. But after going through piles of notes collected from my father’s apartment at the assisted living facility where he passed away last July from dementia, I found a sentence scribbled on to a piece of paper which read, “Tell Michael to read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace,” a 981-page opus on the role of entertainment in our lives. 190 pages in, I am already thinking about entertainment vastly differently and feeling closer to my father than I could have during the last 5 years of his memory-eroded life. I miss him dearly, but I am so glad he didn’t have to be here for “this.”

Hiding in Plain Sight

It is not just the time returned to me that has brought some “glass half full” benefits. My wife and I both have intense and demanding jobs that we are dedicated to, and thus we look forward to the Saturday date night and a couple of weeks a year on a beach somewhere far away, all the while working like crazy so that we can have quality time together when we retire. Well, we are now getting a whole bunch more time together in and around our long remote workdays. And I am loving every minute of that.

My son is home from college in Texas, completing his semester online, and we empty-nesters are getting to enjoy him each day. And there is nothing quite like sharing the old movies of my youth with a modern-day college sophomore (Animal House, Austin Powers, Caddy Shack….). Priceless moments delivered to me via the 19 thing.

And maybe most importantly, my family is exploring a number of avenues for helping those in our community who have been less fortunate than ourselves. We aren’t completely sure what that will look like yet, maybe remote mentoring or reaching out to the home-bound, but we are digging into it as a family.

It Is All About How You Look at It

So, while I continue to live in the shadow of the universal threat that we all fear and are fighting through disciplined isolation, I am trying to take advantage of this rarest of gifts, the gift of time returned. And I also have begun to suspect, based on the value of this newly discovered windfall, that I am going to be viewing my return to normalcy (yes, that will come) differently than I had anticipated when I first headed home to shelter in place. I am not going to want to give it all back. I have found that the self-serving perspective that my presence is critical to the continued rotation of the earth is manifestly incorrect. I actually serve my employer and my employees as well if not better with the clarity of purpose that comes when some of the distractions are distanced.

And I suspect that those who recognize the value of the trade will also be looking at their return to the office with a vastly changed perspective. If you are a Southern Californian—however you used to feel about that commute up and down the 5 or 405—I suspect you will feel it more intensely when “this” is in the past.

If my mother was still here, she would have been the first to remind me, “When you are given lemons, go find a juicer and make some lemonade.” She would have arrived at that immediately upon reading the Governor’s stay at home directive, not wasting some of her precious minutes on the above mental roundabout that got me to that same place.

So, you commuters, what are you doing with your bonus minutes? I hope something great.

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