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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