My roommate is a bit noisier than average. Would it be fair to ask him to start going back to work?

I live in a very small apartment with a roommate. He is a bit noisier than average but overall a good person and respectful of me and our space. However, he is now fully vaccinated and his office is open again, but he is still “working” from home. (Getting up at 11am and watching TV). I find it completely impossible to concentrate when he is home. I wish I could but I can’t.

I’m a student, I’m not vaccinated yet, my school is closed and coffee shops are even worse as places to focus. Would it be fair to ask him to start going back to work so I can have the apartment to myself during the day? I know it isn’t his fault that I’m an introvert who needs to be alone to work but I don’t know how else I can get anything done.

Eleanor says: You can ask him, but you have to ask knowing that you’re asking for a favour – not extracting something that you’re owed.

You’d be asking him to make his days a little worse so that yours can be a little better, and that’s not something we’re entitled to. He pays rent on the space, and it’s not his job to make sure that your days go maximally well. I think the only polite way to ask would be to really fall on his benevolence: be clear that you know this is a big favour, stress that he can say no or change his mind, and make sure you return the kindness in a material way. (Give him the place to himself on the weekends? Do his grocery and laundry runs while you’re at home?)

I wonder whether the bigger problem is that you’re aching for a sense of control. Living spaces can become snowglobes for the rest of what’s going on in our lives – whatever problems we have, we’ll see them, miniature but perfectly formed, in our living rooms. Tidiness and order feel paramount at home when we don’t have them elsewhere. Quiet is never so important at home as when everything else in life feels noisy. A spiralling sense of disorder in the rest of life often expresses itself in strict, strong preferences about the environment right in front of us.

It would be completely natural for you to really want to feel in control right now. You say you’re a student – you might have had months without in-person class, your job prospects might look different, and you’ve been expected to perform and be assessed without any of the friendships or energising friction of campus life.

The pandemic humiliated our sense that life was in any way up to us. So it makes complete sense that you would really suffer for the lack of control at home, perhaps as a way of feeling the loss of what’s been taken from you everywhere.

But before you externalise that need and make this big ask of your flatmate, try really hard to soothe your sense of disarray on your own. One of my favourite writers, Annie Dillard, said “a schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days”.

The routine of repeating the same task every day gives you a moment you can meet again tomorrow – it gives you something you can bank on. I like to do things the night before that I’ll find and appreciate the next day – set up breakfast, leave the clothes neatly out, pack the bag I’ll need tomorrow – small postcards from a former self to remind me that when I can’t rely on much I can still rely on me.

Whatever gives you a sense of order, find and cultivate that for a while before you bring someone else in to solving the problem. It’s more than OK to ask for help when we need it. But make sure you’ve helped yourself as much as you can, too.