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