If you’re one of those people who think that you could accomplish a lot more with your life if only you had more free time, you’re not alone… and you’re wrong. For years I blamed the long hours I worked, exhaustion after those long hours, or the “necessary” errands that consumed what little free time I did have. I thought that if I ever had a job that didn’t consume my evenings and weekends I’d have the time to accomplish all the things I always dreamed I would do. Yet when I look back over the years since I’ve scaled back my working hours by becoming a consultant, the peak moments of productivity – personally and professionally – have seldom been the moments when I had the most free time. I am not now at my most productive, and understanding why has become one of my primary self-improvement goals.
Since 2006 I have seldom worked more than 38 or so hours per week. Here are examples of some of the clients I’ve had both in New York and Florida. Client A was a very short commute (less than half an hour), and what I’d call an “early office” – I made it in around 8:00 am most days and usually left by 4:00. Client B was a long commute (almost two hours each way), and while I seldom worked more than 8 hours in a day I did stay late on occasion. It was a “late office” – most of the people in my department drifted in around 9:30 or 10:00, so it was hard to justify arriving at 8 and leaving at 4. Client C was a short commute (by New York standards) of one hour, and the client was very flexible about the hours, not really caring if I arrived at 8 or at 10. It was very much a ROWE office. Client D was a driving commute, about 45 minutes, depending on traffic (often much longer in the evenings) and required that you be glued to your desk every minute of the day.
So when was I most productive while working? Client A was a horrific environment, with a no-wall cubicle farm, frequent last-minute meetings and a lot of work taking place on a trading desk. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Boiler Room,” that’s the environment I was working in. Client B was the exact opposite. They gave me a quiet cubicle on the opposite side of the floor from the rest of the department. They never had meetings, and email was the preferred method of communication. Client C was back to the Client A world – a huge conference room shared by 45 consultants, all talking on mobile phones, yelling back and forth to each other and sitting two feet apart. Client D was extremely restrictive – quiet, with a boss who didn’t like hearing her staff socialize. So where was I the most productive, both professionally and personally? I was far more productive while working at Client B with four hours of commuting time than I ever was before or after. Why?
Having so little free time while at Client B forced me to be organized and disciplined with my time while at home. It also made me focused at work, knowing that whatever tasks I could accomplish there would free up time at home. I was focused on completing my work quickly and efficiently, and getting out as soon as possible, even if it meant working less than eight hours, because the commute was so long. I did not spend endless hours reading Sports Illustrated or The New York Times during my commute. I made good use of my time on the train by reading, and as any writer can tell you reading is the best inspiration. Although we only had one child at the time, we didn’t have a babysitter and I seldom had any real free time until 9 or 10 pm. So again, I knew I had to make the most of an hour or two late at night.
My busiest time was a time of tremendous productivity for me. Most of the “most popular” posts I wrote on brip blap were written during that time. I was tired, and I felt like I had no free time, but everything got done that needed to get done. While at Clients A, C and D, almost nothing got done. The oppressive work environment meant that I was less productive professionally. The noise and lack of space made it hard to accomplish anything. Because I took longer to do my work, I came home and started writing, and it wasn’t good. Because the commutes were short, I quit reading books and started listening to morning shock jock bits (this was before I discovered podcasts). My personal and professional productivity took a beating.
Now, with more free time, you might expect to be more productive. In my experience, I am not. I find that in a non-structured environment I have difficulty focusing on even the simplest tasks, which is surprising to me. I have trouble reading. I spend more time than I should with my kids, but not always in a focused or in-the-moment way. I cannot get organized about my computer time – I check email again and again throughout the day, which is a terrible idea. I waste time on Facebook and countless other nonproductive sites.
Some of us, despite what we like to think, need the structure of a job to be productive. Sometimes getting up and leaving the house forces you to be more productive whether you like it or not. I have had to confront a simple fact: everything I thought I knew about organizing my time has to be thrown out the window. I have never been good about organization and productivity, because I was only organized and productive when forced to be by circumstance! I have to relearn so much to be as organized as I need to be; but right now I have far more free time than I did in the past to do nothing but learn, so I have no excuses now.
Stephen King says in his masterpiece “On Writing” that the most important part of writing is learning to close the door. He’s a brilliant writer (if you think of him only as a hack horror writer, try picking up one of his books sometime – they are as well-written as anything you’ll ever read). His point is that if you fail to close the door when writing, both figuratively and literally, you’ll never have a chance to succeed. It is too easy to let the world distract. Although he is talking about writing, he could just as easily be talking about cooking or exercising or almost any productive venture. We have too much to distract us, and too little time to do anything well if we fail to concentrate on what we are doing at that moment. The challenge is to learn that focus.