The 9-to-5 Doesn’t Always Make Sense. How I Work: Discipline. Differences. Structures. Boundaries. Freedom.

Sometimes my Grandpa says I work too hard. I try to tell him that my work is not the same as work used to be. I work late. I work early. I take breaks in the middle of the day.

He points to the clock. It’s 6’o’clock, he says, wobbling over his cane and tapping on the table where I’ve got my laptop opened. It’s time to stop working, he commands.

I agree, and I also completely disagree. I’ve just finished taking a half hour break to chat with friends and colleagues online–spirited discussions and meeting new people and reading and networking like a champ–and now I’ve got to get back into my grind and focus on the production, the creation that I do every day.

I live in a new world, perhaps, at least to my parents and grandparents. I work in bursts of creation, usually 90 minutes to 3 hours in length, inset by pauses for lengthy conversations, connectivity, explorations, learning, and movement. My days–my sometimes 16-hour days–begin with walks, meander through coffee with great thinkers, are sometimes propelled by spurs of insane connectivity in the middle of the day, outreaching and coordinating with editors and speakers and writers and clients–and then in between it all I nestle down for sessions of quiet solitude filled with reading, writing, creation, drawing. I shutter down each day from the internet, often hours at a time (forgive me, twitter, but I schedule you out at times to play along, but I’m a ghost; not really there as much as it might appear). During these shutter hours I focus, focus, driven by purpose and deadline, and mostly, discipline.

These structure and boundaries give parameters for freedom; space to think within the allotted lines, which inevitably bend and give way once I gallop and leap beyond them. Loose, dashed lines of constraints provide the discipline required for invincible creativity, and I thrive in the flexibility and structure provided by these bare-bone parameters. As Jonah Lehrer has written, one of the paradoxes of the human condition is that we are more creative with boundaries; our freedoms and productions tend to increase within constraints, to a certain degree.

The simple recipe of 9 to 5 has no resonance with me; many suggest that the 9 to 5 is antiquated, a thing of the past. I can neither sit still nor think for eight hours, let alone be in one place or with one task. Everything about that schedule is arbitrary–the start time, the end time, the things that we must produce within that set amount of time.  The only thing left is an antiquated system that we perpetuate because we don’t have the courage to think differently.

We have moved quickly, cleanly beyond an industrial age where outputs were set (“build 18 shoes, please, and send them down the conveyor belt”) a time when we knew exactly when our works’ work was done; beyond the infrastructure of the giant corporation, the relic of the 1950’s-2000’s, to today: today, we live in a world where information is ubiquitous and overwhelming, and being ‘done’ with work is never truly over. A world where information threatens to take over globally, yet somehow this collection of voices creates so much noise that it pulls us locally again, towards communities and coffee shops, to social circles that we can trust instead of constantly test (for being on top of information at all times takes far too much energy for the individual).  In all of this, creative and intellectual pursuits require exceptional discipline, or else these individuals can become swallowed by the banal of chasing information and products that yield no results.

The 9 to 5 schedule, too, strikes at the wrong hours of the day for my scheduling. For me, 9 am falls in the middle of my best hours, and 5 pm at the middle of my worst hours. In any given day, I probably only have 5 hours of ‘great’ work time, time when I’m focused on writing and complex problem solving; I regard these hours as fundamentally precious and push everything to the wayside during these times. I have time for lower-level thinking tasks (batch email sending, task responses, errands, etc) – and if I don’t match my energy levels to the projects’ needs, I’ll end the day frustrated, discouraged, and unsatisfied. Trying to write during the slump of a post-lunch warm afternoon is what I call awful.

And so, I have both a peculiar and wonderful schedule. I wake up early, sometimes really early. I write in the lonely morning hours, silent and still, peaking by 10am and entering the flurry of the working world–and my job–turning onto the networks for a while, answering calls as they come in. On a lucky day, I’ll close the office door, turn off the phones, and continue to write until 11 or noon. On a bad busy day, I’ll have meetings all morning, eroding the precious hours of productivity with talking. (I’ll amend that: the busy, coordination days are not my favorite, but they are what set the stage for later days of productivity and creation. It’s more likely than not that I need a balance of both, that one doesn’t exist without the other). Still, I take steps to arrange meetings only during times when my energy levels match the needs of collaborating with others. Knowing that I only have a few “good” hours each day makes me carve out time differently.

I am a fastidious multi-tasker; in that I do many tasks throughout the day and let some percolate in the back of my mind while focusing most of my energy on the job at present. (This is distinctly different from trying to do things at the same time. Rather, this form of “multi-tasking” is akin to multiple burners, one on high, several on simmer. I think you’ll burn the food if you try to cook it all on high at the same time; but you can have ideas brewing on the back burner, certainly). Through it all I follow my energy flows closely, watching when my exhaustion peaks, when my lethargy sits, when my vivaciousness is at a high; and I match the tasks at hand to the problems I need to solve.

When I switch from writing to design, the office changes again, transforming into a new space to produce: I design best to pulsating music, so my office–or my coffee shop, wherever I am working–turns into a pseudo-dance party, techno beats and rhythms coloring the flurry of my designs. Most days involve dancing, thinking, and dancing again.

Throughout it all, I set targets and goals and deadlines, knowing the importance of self-discipline above all else–and in the mornings, I write out fresh post-it notes with clear, tangible goals and deadlines. With each, I strive to hit the 4 pm or 5 pm mark, a practice I’ve honed over years of incremental steps. My habits are reinforced daily: I know now that the projects have to be finished; to me, it makes sense to then try to do everything I can to finish them early.  Deadlines are arbitrary; work expands to fill the space you give it. The sooner I get done with a design puzzle or a press release or a meeting, the sooner I can get back to precious creation. No sense in wasting time.

And then, to dream, to kick on my dreamers’ hat again, and to watch the world, grasping the importance of being and the inspiration that’s required for any good work, I walk. And I walk a lot, exploring and moving frequently. Usually at least once between 3 pm and 7 pm–these are the times when during a puzzlement of problems, or of mounting frustration, I’ll push back my chair, stand up, spritz sunscreen on, grab my hat and keys, and wander. I leave the closed, strange office environment and sometimes I break into a run or a sprint, and I run, work pants rolled up, shoes exchanged for sneakers hidden underneath my desk, blouse replaced by a long-sleeved shirt. And I’ll run until I’m out of breath, looking out on the Sausalito waters, shaking my brain’s thoughts around until they settle like loose chips in a bucket, falling individually into place. Within a half an hour, I’m back at work, back at the desk, and without fail, the brain is working again–

–and it’s like morning, when I get back from a walk, and I’m ready. I eat, and I sit, and I take the next chunk of time, usually 2 hours, and I figure stuff out and get it done. In a precious day, sometimes up to 3 days per week, I’ll hit a second stride and find a creative flow to work for 3-4 hours. And I’ll chase it, producing quietly and steadily, building a stream of writing and coloring my desk with designs and drawings, and I’ll sigh at the end, satisfied, full, and tired.

Each day is different. The days the focus stays, I’ll finish a project with a 4-hour stint, coming home late to a glass of wine and a quiet yoga session. Other days my brain is clouded and maxed and I leave early, taking the afternoon to rest and recover and interact and play.

And that, that’s what I can’t say with my eyes when I look at my Grandpa. It’s just one thing that’s different in the world from when he used to work and the way that I work. His calculus, diff-e-q, tangential brain sits me down and marks up notes on electrical circuitry and my infantile, kinesthetic self squirms at being forced to sit; I feel my skin itch and crawl with the inability to roam free; and I know that it’s not just the generational differences that are at play. I must be free. Free to create. And you? You, do what works for you.

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Also published on Medium.

29 Responses to The 9-to-5 Doesn’t Always Make Sense. How I Work: Discipline. Differences. Structures. Boundaries. Freedom.

  1. So true…I know since I started working in this model it’s really challenged what others (and even I myself) consider to be “regular work.” I don’t clock in for a 9-5, but like you I work in bursts and it’s hard to quantify that time since it doesn’t fit a formula. I think many of us worry about comparing our on-time to our off-time, but the model doesn’t quite fit since sometimes my work doesn’t feel like “work,” nor do I feel the need to be evenly compensated for every minute I choose to give away. It’s easier, even comforting to adhere to the old time structure, but if you’re confident your time is well spent, no matter what it ends up looking like, that’s the best frame to work with.

    Great post!

  2. Sarah says:

    I used to think something was wrong with me because I did not thrive in the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. environment. Everything about it frustrates me. I’d much rather get up earlier, work on something, take a walk to collect my thoughts, get some hot coffee or tea, come back re-energized, tackle a project, go through my Google Reader, come back my a project, switch gears, take a break to go to an exercise class, come back and work some more, eat dinner, work some more. I need a different rhythm than the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. can provide. Only recently have I realized that there’s nothing wrong with me and the way I work – it’s that the system isn’t set up for something like me (and many others, I presume.). Great post here, glad to find a kindred spirit.

  3. Katee says:

    That is so true about being more creative within boundaries. It’s not boxes we need but boundaries, something to give the space to be creative and the direction to go.

    I’ve struggled with my work routine being so out-of-the-9-5-box for so long and am finally finding my own rhythm to accompany the needs of my businesses and tasks.

    Great article!

  4. Denys Yeo says:

    If the millions of people in the work force around the world all worked to the “beat of their own drum” would this lead to a higher level of productivity or to a high level of chaos?
    As a grandfather aged person with a medical condition I am able to work in a way that is similar to that you describe in your blog. It works for me; but I suspect it would not work for everyone, maybe not even for the majority of people who work in “regular” jobs”. Imagine for example being served by a person in a shop who, halfway through helping with the sale, suddenly states “sorry I’ve just had an interesting thought I need to go and have a coffee to think about it some more – if you wait a while someone else will serve you”.
    On the other hand if everyone behaved like this maybe it wouldn’t seem particularly odd – to the extent that if I completed a whole transaction with the same person I might think to myself “this one shop assistant has been serving me for ten minutes and they don’t seem to have had one creative thought in that time – I guess I should feel sorry for them”!

    • Sarah says:

      Interesting, interesting points. I laughed out loud imagining millions of workers stopping in the middle of pouring coffee; refusing to get your sandwich because they didn’t feel like it; not answering emails for days at a time.

      I suppose my essay pertains more to those in the information/creative side of the workforce; people who are writers and designers, like myself.

      At the same time, when I talk about 90 minutes to 3 hours — I mean that; I am WORKING straight for that time. I’m in an office, answering phones, coordinating meetings, etc. Sometimes I have days filled to the brim – back-to-back meetings and calls, and I skip lunch to make it all happen. (I don’t get very much writing done on those days). The same is probably pretty similar for those in service industries – working straight for 3 hours; taking a short break; back on the clock. And there are lulls in time (between the rush hours, etc). Perhaps in some cases, even, the fixed schedule of 9-to-5 works, because knowing you can leave is predictable and regular. I’m not sure the same is true for creative industries – but I’m still figuring it out…

  5. Srinivas says:

    You brought up some really interesting points here. First let me say that I’ve thought for a long time that the 9 to 5 makes absolutely no sense. I’m willing to bet half the people who are their offices being forced to stick to a rigid schedule, do absolutely nothing productive for a good amount of that time. To your second point, I’m not sure anybody is productive for 8 hours straight. In fact I notice that in general my productivity gradually declines throughout the day. For some people it might be the other way around. Either way, forcing somebody into the box of a rigid schedule doesn’t result in their best work.

    I love that you brought up the constraints. I can’t do it for 90 minutes because my attention span is far too short but by even breaking it up into 30 minutes spurts I’m finding myself progress rapidly. Too many of us have thought for far too long that there is something wrong with us because we don’t thrive in a typical office environment. I think you’re going to see some dramatic changes in the way work gets done over the next several years.

    Great post as always. and thought provoking.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, Srini — I know what you mean. I think that it has to be an interesting balance of structure (which we intuitively crave, and often respond well to), as well as a certain allowance of flexibility, freedom, or bending the rules to fit your particular needs so that you can maximize your productivity.

      The 90 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minute “pieces” of my day are lifesaving. Over time I can go for longer periods, although I’ll come out of it tired and hungry and spent. But the beauty of focusing just on writing, or reading, or drawing, for a short, limited burst is so much more tangible (and exciting!) than trying to fill a chunk that’s 8 hours long.

  6. Tim Brownson says:

    Shortly after I moved to the US in 2006 and set up as a Life Coach I was sat in my office working one evening about 9pm. My wife suddenly walked in and looking very indignant said “How is this any different to when you worked in sales and were in your office at all hours?”

    I was stunned for a moment and didn’t have an answer. Then after she walked out it came to me “Because I enjoy this and I want to do this, I’m not doing it because I’m scared to death I may miss my quota!”

    You can’t hire me before 10.30am because that’s my dog walking time and my dogs come first, but I’ll work evenings and weekends without batting an eyelid and more importantly without feeling stressed about it.

    Nice post.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, Tim — and thanks for stopping by and connecting across a few platforms. I know EXACTLY what you mean. I struggle with “working late” because to me, some things aren’t work at all. And I work in the evenings because I’ve carved out other time in the day to do things that are as important to me – walking, running, coffee, exploration, etc. I’ve swapped the time, in a sense.

      We’re so ingrained to think of work as happening in the first 2/3 of the day, and then “fun” (TV? Drinking?) in the latter 1/3, and I think we can mix those things all around and end up with much more interesting, diverse schedules.

      • Tim Brownson says:

        Good to meet up too Sarah!

        I agree entirely. Interestingly enough one of the jobs I had that had me working insane hours was a company that never shut up going on about work/life balance. “Here let me give you more accounts than two people could reasonably handle but we don’t want you working after 6pm.”

        We are all different and to try and cram everybody into the same pattern is quite frankly absurd and very counter productive. As I never tire of saying, there is no how it is, only how it is for you.

  7. Scott Fox says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Very, very true, and very nicely written, too.
    I like how you are using your own example to inspire others to question their own schedules.
    This kind of lifestyle (re)design is a *big* deal I believe and lots of people can benefit from it.
    It’s just hard to get started for folks who were trained differently (like your grandfather). It’s also a different equation when you have kids or others who have fixed schedules are dependent on you showing up.

  8. Colleen says:

    Hello Sarah! Love your site! As to the post, completely and totally agree, but please, who works in the real world and works the hours of 9-5??? At the very least it is 8-5 and more likely 8 until whenever your boss says or responsibilities have been fulfilled. The average workday for most of us cubicle monkeys is a lot closer to 9 – 10 hours and when you add the commute, many are easily working 10-12 hours per day FOR SOMEONE ELSE! And who decided that these were the best hours for people to get stuff accomplished? It’s that old square peg in the round hole theory. We aren’t human beings, we are employees. Talk about antiquated!!! The question is, why do we put up with it? As soon as I can break out, my work plan will mimic yours!

  9. […] Sarah Peck blogs about working in a different framework from those imposed by traditional structures and boundaries. She notes that for some people this maybe the new work “ethic”. If it is then I am working within this framework, imposed or not by my medical condition, and gaining some of the advantages of working in a less constrained work environment. Maybe over time this will work out for me. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted by Denys Yeo Filed in Uncategorized Leave a Comment » […]

  10. Dan says:

    Hey Sarah,
    Thanks for the quality that you bring in your writing. The 9-5 has definitely worn out its welcome and I agree we all need to work when we are strongest, saving mundane tasks for the times when we aren’t feeling as creative or productive as we are at other times!

  11. Love this, Sarah! My work schedule changes just about every month, depending on what I’m working on. I can be working 4p-1a, 12p-9p, or 8a-7p four days per week (what I’m doing now). It’s filled with walks around the building, coffee runs (most importantly), and time to just brainstorm. It’s almost impossible to go eight straight hours of nothing but work…there is always some separation between the hard, focused, get-shit-done time and the more open, creative time. Both are productive, just in different ways.

  12. What a coincidence! My mom just moved in with me for a few months since my dad passed away, and it seems like every day she asks the same question, “Are you almost through?” Every day, I explain that it never ends. If I finish one task, there’s always another one waiting. She doesn’t get it at all (of course, this is the same elderly woman who also asked if we should go to Walmart to buy an internet since I needed it when visiting the boondocks of Mississippi!).

    She thinks working the way I do is all so bizarre. I’m not so sure I disagree. I’m also not so sure I agree. Jury’s still out for me…but since it is, I’ll keep plugging away.

  13. Kate says:

    This is a great post Sarah. I really made me think about how I’m boxing myself in trying to fit work in a 9-5, or panicking when I get flashes of inspiration at 8pm that I “shouldn’t be working”.
    I’d be really interested to know how you keep all your to-do’s straight – it sounds like you’ve got so many professional and personal projects, and that you’re very much a doer, as well as a creative dreamer, so I’d love to see how that system works!

  14. kara rane says:

    hi Sarah-
    first time here… & wow*! do I agree.. OUR world is a much, much different place than it was 2 generations ago.. for good and bad. We are the Pioneers of Creativity, the new Highest Value.

  15. […] blog, It Starts With.  Plus, she has an awesome name.  I particularly love her post about how working a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is just not her thing.  I can totally […]

  16. […] fact, go read this by Sarah Peck. Right now. She shares how she works and why the 9-to-5 doesn’t suit her. Rest assured, […]

  17. […] of the work that I do without regular, intermittent breaks. I’ve written about how the strict 9-5 doesn’t make sense to me, and I still agree: you need to work in the way conducive to greatness, not in a way prescribed by […]

  18. Barb says:

    I suck at 9-5 work. Just suck at it. The idea of my creativity and productivity being switched on and off according to some external person’s idea of the right time to hit the on switch and the right time to hit the off switch makes no sense to me because of what I know about the details of how brains work. Sure, I can practice presenteeism, and clock in and clip my ankle chain to the desk leg at 8:15am, unclip and clock out for an hour at lunch, clock and re-clip at 1pm and clock out and unclip at 5:15pm, but at the end of the day my primary deliverable is often, “Provided nice, reliable bit of scenery in office for the benefit of my manager’s manager.”

    If a workplace actually WANTS me to work at an optimal level of sustained efficiency, they free me to pick my hours. Generally this means I show up by 10am and leave by around 8, or maybe 11 if I go out for dinner with friends in the early evening and then go back to work.

    A mulit-award-winning employee at a top 20 tech industry employer a couple years ago, I was terminated from my last job at a small but rigid employer in part for clocking in at 8:58 but not clipping into the ankle chain at my desk until 9:02. This had the effect of depriving the company of 2 minutes of time I was required to be clipped in at my desk, because everyone knows that walking around inside an office building from workplace (timeclock) to workplace (desk) and then waiting for your computer to boot up in the morning at the same time as 500 other people all of whom start within the same 30 minute window, isn’t actual WORK that the company should pay for. Seriously. ;-)

    No, I’m not a 23 old new millenial, I’m 44, but I frickin’ HATE wasting time, and forcing me to sit clipped in at a desk while my brain is still adjusting to wakefulness early in the morning is a waste of the company’s money and the number of hours I have on earth to accomplish whatever it is that the universe wants me to accomplish during my life. I also hate being required to fight rush hour traffic I could so easily avoid by offsetting my commute hours by 60 or 90 minutes.

    The clock-obsessed manager was a working Mom stuck with a 9-5 schedule because of the difficult to coordinate schedules of her half dozen family members, and I guess she must have been peeved off about it or something, because she decided to make everyone else be stuck with it too. Or maybe she just didn’t want everyone else showing her up by getting so much more done in their work weeks as would happen if they could choose to work the most productive 40 hours in their week, so she put in the forced hours in an attempt to level the playing field to a standard level of non-optimal productivity.

    In the year I was with that company 5 out of 6 staff reporting to the clock-obsessed, scenery-obsessed manager left. Half were terminated, half ran before they could be.

    I knew about the clock obsession going in, and figured I could put up with it. It would have been one thing if there were business reasons for it. For example, if I needed to man the support desk at 8am in case early risers in the office required help. Or if 8am was the ONLY time ALL of the staff could be gotten together for a meeting every morning of the week (unlikely but at least remotely plausible). But no, the business reason appeared to be, “I like scenery, because my manager has told me he likes scenery and I’m trying to brown nose.” It negatively affected my productivity to such an extent that it’ll likely be years before I make the mistake of accepting a similar situation again.

  19. SFMichele says:

    While millions of workers over the last, say, 100 years were traditionally “confined” to determined work hours and workplaces, they also were “free” after certain points and hours to “set their burdens down” and had time that most workers felt really was theirs to do with what they wanted. So, yes, you’d go to work, but, as one commenter’s mom said, you were “done” after say, 6 p.m., and you were free (free!) to switch gears, change clothes and focus on developing an entirely separate sphere – with spouse, boyfriend, children, neighbors, religious congregation, whatever. Often, it appears that the work world for so many knowledge-workers (and they’re the ones who can or might work this way; nurses and cops can’t) means you’re ALWAYS working. You’re never really “free,” always “have to get back to work” (even if it’s 11:30 p.m.) and, in essence, you are actually always “confined.” The boundaries aren’t neat and clean and manageable. And, to be honest, sometimes — maybe a lot of the time — we do need them to be that way.

  20. SFMichele says:

    This just in from Alternet on the NEED for 9 to 5:

    Knowledge workers and artisans and craftsmen have long bent work hours to suit themselves, their productivity, and their bosses, be they supervisors or customers. But it’s definitely not the answer for everyone, often is best for young people without other commitments or those who don’t want them, and too often leads to super-cheap (slave) labor that benefits only owners. Beware.

  21. […] blog, It Starts With.  Plus, she has an awesome name.  I particularly love her post about how working a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is just not her thing.  I can totally […]

  22. katherine says:

    thanks for writing what many feel naturally – siting in one place for 8 hours is ridiculous. Not that I am working from home I don’t have the structure of a boss but I am also realizing I need to figure out what works for me instead of just catching the darts as they come.

    Also, did you read the night owl article in fast company? This is so me, as I am posting at midnight in VA.

  23. Andrew says:

    Who are you? You kick ass. I’ve never read your posts before but I love this one.

  24. […] How I Work: Discipline, Boundaries, Freedom and Why The 9-5 Doesn’t Always Work […]