free time does not translate to massive productivity

Time Spiral
If you’ve ever thought that you could accomplish a lot more with your life if only you had a little more free time, you’re not alone.   I did, too, and now I have that free time. For years I blamed exhaustion, or the “necessary” errands that consumed what little free time I did have.  I thought now, when I was no longer chained to a desk, would be my time to accomplish all those things I always dreamed I would do.  Yet when I look back over the past three years, 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 my primary goal.

Over the past three years (2006-2008) I’ve been (almost) continually employed. During that time I’ve had three clients.  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 or 4:30.  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.

In between those clients I’ve had two major periods of “free time” – first, when my daughter was born earlier this year and now, when I’m unemployed. I took off five weeks when Pumpkin was born, and I’ve been laid off for about five weeks now.  Saying that I had free time when Pumpkin was born is, well, untrue.  I had none.  Even though my wife heroically dealt with Pumpkin most of the time, I became Little Buddy’s full-time parent.  Still not potty-trained at the time, he kept me busy. We’ll take that time period out of the discussion because having a newborn and a two-year old at home with no help can keep two parents busy, even though you might not think so.

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.  Today I am sitting at my quiet writing desk on the third floor of our townhouse, looking out over the large green space in front of our home.  The only noise is the hissing of the baby monitor while my daughter sleeps, and the distant shouts of my son playing with his babysitter, who comes for a couple of hours in the morning.

Am I the most productive I’ve ever been, now that I have “free time”? I have a writing area, a babysitter, and no commute.  I am free to pursue whatever activity I want to, within the limits of child care and cost.  And yet I find that I was far more productive while working at Client B with four hours of commuting time than I have yet to be at home.  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.  So when I finished client work, I was focused on writing outlines for blog posts or taking care of administrative tasks related to my consulting.  I did not spend endless hours reading Sports Illustrated or The New York Times.  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.

Yet my busiest time was a time of tremendous productivity for me. Most of the “most popular” posts you see to the right 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 and C 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 nothing but free time, you might expect I would be productive.  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.  I cannot get organized about my computer time – I check email again and again throughout the day, which is a terrible idea.  I twitter.  If not for Leechblock I would spend half the day reading about our collapsing economy.

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 am not anxious to return to 9-to-5 work, but 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 all the free time in the world to do nothing but learn, so I have no excuses now.  No long commutes, no bad work environments, no boring work to blame for “crushing my creativity.”

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, and that’s what I’ll be trying to do (and trying to write about) as I continue my experiment with living away from the 9-to-5.

photo credit: gadl

30 comments

  • Why isn't he toilet trained at two years???

    • He's toilet trained – I was talking about at the time his sister was born. We hadn't started toilet training when Bubelah got pregnant and then decided not to introduce

    • I have a proper comment to make but first – my son is almost 2.5 and isn't toilet trained at all. Admittedly we haven't tried very hard but we will soon.

      Part of the problem is all the horror stories I hear about how hard it is… 🙂

  • Same here…I'm often most productive when crunched for time. Perhaps it is because I am the ultimate procrastinator, or just because I work better under pressure. Either way, if the deadline is a long way out, and I have ample time to work on other stuff, there the project sits.

    Now, I'm off to “close the door” and work on tomorrow's blog post!

  • Silicon Prairie

    The problem isn't just closing the door, it's learning to create your own structure. Things like LeechBlock may actually be making this harder. If you compare what you want to do with what you actually did every day, you'll eventually learn to manage your time on your own.

  • guinness416

    Retired Syd had a really good post yesterday about the fact that certain things she “thought” she'd want to to when retired just aren't happening – because guess what, with the excuse of work commitments out of the way, she wasn't that interested after all. Maybe you're just not all that committed to the things you think you should be doing right now?

    I've been on vacation with absolutely no family commitments and abundant time for almost three weeks now, and made a to-do list before finishing up work. It's been instructive what I've chosen to do – work out at least a couple of hours a day, read a lot, start a new blog, get all my citizenship stuff together – and what got ignored – signing up for a particular college class, buying certain stuff for the house, cooking, driving lessons. I think Syd's well on to something!

    • guinness416

      Could I have used the word commit more often in that comment? Sorry ….

    • This, I think is true. And sort of ok, except you probably still need to do certain things whether you *really* want to do them or not.

      Also it looks like more free time is like earning more money. Earning more is not by itself a solution to overspending, and free time is not, by itself, a solution to getting things done.

  • Ashley @ Wide Open Wallet

    I know exactly what you are talking about. I've been a stay at home mom for 3 years and I would say in the last six months or so have finally been productive. It's really hard to stay on task when you know in the back of your mind you can do it any time. And then you waste time, and stuff doesn't get done. But there isn't a real consequence for it, and therefore no motivation to change it.

    I try to set up rules… like no computer time after 3:00 and no TV til after dinner. I also try to have enough projects going so that I always have something engaging to do. It's really hard though.

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  • When you have to do something, you are more likely to get it done. You will be more organized and focus at the job at hand. That's why so many people procrastinate at work, because they have all day to sit there. Same thing in college, when you have 2 weeks before the test to study, you only seem to cram the last 3 days. Same mentality.

    Also people generally enjoy downtime. I know I do. I love being active, sports, reading, movies, but nothing beats just hanging around.

  • I couldn't agree more. It is very hard to stay productive when you have free time. I find myself being most productive when I have a lot on my plate.

    The best solution I have found is to schedule out your day and make plans for what you want to get done.

    • Great post, BripBlap! I made the same discovery you did [i.e. productivity tanks in the absence of structure]. My conclusion is that this is a truth that applies to anyone. A truth that remains hidden as long as you have a job to fill your day and household chores to fill your evenings. But when free time is left over at the end of the day, most of us will admit we do a great job wasting it (e.g. TV, newspaper). It was a surprise discovery for me, but when you think about it, all of our lives we have been guided and given structure by parents, teachers, employers. Creating our own structure is something new we never got to learn – so far. A useful tip in this regard comes from Philip Greenspun (a retired entrepreneur, undoubtedly facing the same challenge of (un)productivity). He suggests to build into your day as much structure as you can (appointments, lessons, meetings,…). The time that remains between them is better manageable than an unending sea of time.

    • F: I was just about to leave a comment and saw your reply. You are absolutely right about the fact that we are so used to the structured lives, schedules, regimes from the time we are born that we don't know any different. We all think we want the “other” kind of life but when presented with an opportunity we are floating around not knowing what to do.

  • I never truley thought about this till i read your article, but i complteley agree with your observations. All through my educational career i have found that the more classes and activities i have loaded on the better i do.

    i like to think of it as part of newtons laws (cause i am super obsessed with science) where an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. so i think when you have a lot of stuff to get done and are working you just continue to do work, where when you are being a couch potato you will continue to be a couch potato unless something forces you to change.

  • I agree with this article 100%. I am at my most productive when I have structure in my schedule. I'm not always disciplined enough to set and keep an efficient schedule. But this is something I am working on.

  • “Close the door.” Great line from a great book. This actually reminds me of my post, The Key to Getting More Things Done: Less Time. My image is actually kind of similar to yours, which is a little creepy.

    But I think the core of this whole idea is time management. When you have a set amount of time you waste less time and you focus more. When I was in grad school and not working I had so much time that I didn't get anything done. Now I have no time at all and get plenty done.

    Such is life.

    • 1) This reminds me of a quote someone told me “If you want something done – give it to a busy person”. 🙂

      2) I read a post by Leo Babauta on ProBlogger yesterday (link below) which talks about time management. He had some great suggestions which I was able to do last night and tonight – basically it was to limit your time working on something. The idea is that it will force you to not do the unimportant stuff (ie checking stats).

      Here is the link for anyone who wants to check it out – it's more related to blogging but the principle applies to anyone – http://tinyurl.com/85ve7f

      Mike

  • Dude, if you need the “whip” on you to be productive it means that your motivation and organization skills are not what they should be.
    If you waste the time youy have now with e-mail and reading sports illustrated then that means you don't take your time seriously and don't see it as what it is ; your most valuable resource!

  • Frequently, I am also at my most productive when I am facing a strict deadline and am under pressure to complete a task, but I think the key to being productive under pressure is the same as it is for being productive when you are not under pressure… it is engagement. I am productive under pressure because I am aware of the consequences of not getting a task done – poor review at work, letting someone down, etc. My desire to prevent these things from happening engages me. It stimulates me. But, when I am not under pressure, as I am not at this very moment… I can still be engaged. But, whether or not I am under pressure, if I am not stimulated or engaged…. the task won't get done. So, in my down time I look for things that most stimulate me. Unfortunately, many times that may be a simple as watching TV or surfing the net. Meaningful down time… not always a waste of time. But at other times, when I am not under pressure, I can stimulate myself by making a mental list of the things I want to accomplish in an evening and engage myself to get them done. I can get a buzz from actually having gotten them done that evening… and that motivates me for the next time. Sometimes, its as simple as making an ity bity list of things to do and making the list to include some downtime. That is stimulating! Thanks for the post!

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  • Very, very true. They say that work expands to occupy all available time and resources and that's right on the money. It is amazing how much you can get accomplished when you have very little time and how little gets done when you have as much time on your hands as you want.

    Although as an executive I can set my own schedule and work from home whenever I want, I pretty much never work from home. I like going to the office, talking to folks face to face and being in an environment which is work oriented. This greatly improves my ability to get things done.

  • I'm self-employed and I found that after a while, I really didn't enjoy working at home – I surprisingly like leaving the house and having to go somewhere … as long as the commute is less than half an hour.
    I now have a virtual office at a business centre and someday plan on getting an office there.
    I could do work at home, but I like the social contact of the office and there are too many distractions at home.

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  • Very interesting. I think the only thing I can conclude from this for certain is that everyone is different and no productivity guide will work for everyone…which I guess we should have already known, but it's nice to see the real life examples and remember that the answer to our problems won't be found in a book with a catchy meme. Ultimately, we just have to sit down and get some work done.

  • I love the simplistic brillance of Stephen King's notion to just close the door in order to write.

    Anyway, great article — there is much truth to your thoughts… I'm glad I'm not the only one who works most efficiently with a full plate.

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  • Great post! I came here by way of RetiredSyd's blog.

    I've been self-employed at home – unproductively, eventually moved to an office because I hated the isolation of working at home.

    My favorite environment is in an open cubicle with lots of people coming up and asking me questions constantly – go figure!

    I'm planning on retiring at the end of this year (I'm only 43 – what will I do with all that time!) – maybe I'll renovate houses – if I'm not afraid to enter the market – who knows?

    I think it's easier to become more self-disciplined as you get older and learn more about yourself and what works for you.

    I do have to recommend an absolutely fantastic time management system that's making it's rounds around the net now – and I've tried them all – it's called Autofocus and was developed by Mark Forster (he wrote 2 great books: “Get Everything Done, But Still Have Time to Play” and “Do It Tomorrow”. ) Trent at The Simple Dollar reviewed one of his books and loved it. You can check it out at http://www.markforster.net – the forum has a lot of self employed people on it as well as desk jockeys, so there's a good mix of people.

    I think it's valuable when self employed to make your own structure to the day. Most people have this experience on weekends occasionally when you literally want to just sit on the couch and watch TV all day or surf the net. I think it's key to take at least one day completely off each week and a couple of evenings too – and because you're not employed, you can do this when everyone else is at work which makes going to the zoo or museums etc. a much more pleasant experience.

    Keep up the good work, you have a great blog!

  • Great post! I came here by way of RetiredSyd's blog.

    I've been self-employed at home – unproductively, eventually moved to an office because I hated the isolation of working at home.

    My favorite environment is in an open cubicle with lots of people coming up and asking me questions constantly – go figure!

    I'm planning on retiring at the end of this year (I'm only 43 – what will I do with all that time!) – maybe I'll renovate houses – if I'm not afraid to enter the market – who knows?

    I think it's easier to become more self-disciplined as you get older and learn more about yourself and what works for you.

    I do have to recommend an absolutely fantastic time management system that's making it's rounds around the net now – and I've tried them all – it's called Autofocus and was developed by Mark Forster (he wrote 2 great books: “Get Everything Done, But Still Have Time to Play” and “Do It Tomorrow”. ) Trent at The Simple Dollar reviewed one of his books and loved it. You can check it out at http://www.markforster.net – the forum has a lot of self employed people on it as well as desk jockeys, so there's a good mix of people.

    I think it's valuable when self employed to make your own structure to the day. Most people have this experience on weekends occasionally when you literally want to just sit on the couch and watch TV all day or surf the net. I think it's key to take at least one day completely off each week and a couple of evenings too – and because you're not employed, you can do this when everyone else is at work which makes going to the zoo or museums etc. a much more pleasant experience.

    Keep up the good work, you have a great blog!