One of my best friends in the entire world recently followed his PhD advisor when she moved from sunny, warm Durham, NC to the vast frozen wasteland that is Madison, WI. For various reasons he made this move in between the fall and “spring” (read: winter) semesters this year, which apparently was precisely the absolute worst possible time to move to the midwest. Since then, he’s endured 2 polar vortices and a grand total of 1 day where the high was above zero… Kelvin. It is literally impossibly cold there.
In any event, his girlfriend is in town this weekend (she still lives in a Durham and so is not frozen in place), and she told me that the cold had forced him to run on an indoor track. This kid did an ironman in September, so you can imagine that when he goes for a run, he really runs — he’s not going out for a jog and coming back ten minutes later. He’s running tens of miles at once, and now he’s doing it on an indoor track. Or at least he was doing it on an indoor track, until running on an indoor track gave him a stress fracture. Now he’s running in a pool, which actually is kind of interesting because it implies they still have liquid water up there.
I bring this story up because in all the time I’ve known him, he’s never been happy; we joked about the fact that this is probably the most miserable he’s ever been and he probably loves it. I don’t mean he’s been depressed or suicidal or whatever, he’s just not a happy guy. There’s always something he could be working toward, and as soon as he gets there there’s something else. He graduated from college? Time for a PhD. He ran a marathon? Time for Boston. He ran Boston? Time for an iron man. It’s not so much that he’s unhappy, it’s just that he derives satisfaction from working hard and achieving his goals, and not so much from social engagements or the like.
In this regard, I’m actually kind of like him — not to the same degree (I ran a marathon once and decided never to do it again… then I ran another one and now I’m unable to do it again), but I derive satisfaction from hard work. In my first few years at my current job, I probably put in 70 or so hours a week; it’s not a whole lot, but if you include an hour+ a day of commute, 4+ hours a week to work out, and 56 hours to sleep, it meant that I spent most of my waking hours at work, and it didn’t leave a whole lot of time for other stuff. There were of course weeks where I worked less or more (probably one week a month I had to work 9-hour days on the weekends), but in general I spent a lot of my time working, and not a lot doing other stuff.
This was especially true in my second full year with the company, when I started coming in around 7:30 in the morning and generally left between 9:30 and 10:30 at night, and I spent the vast majority of the time in between productively. I think my production at this time directly led to my being promoted, but at the same time it was made clear to me in my interactions with management that there was concern I would burn out (which, come to think of it, is a weird metaphor; presumably candles have a finite amount of energy they can give off, and it’s not like if you limit the size of the flame the candle can somehow last forever or that it will give off more light over the course of its life).
So, to avoid burning out, I decided in early 2013 to try out a couple of new things. First, I started working from home two or three mornings a week; this allowed me to completely miss traffic (which would mean a net increase in time spent productively, absent other changes), but also to take additional time in the morning for things like making breakfast, which I used to eat hurriedly at my desk and now could be prepared and consumed leisurely. I also started going home at a reasonable hour; no formal policy of mine dictated this, but basically if I hadn’t started to tackle a problem by 7:00, I decided I wasn’t going to get around to it that day and pushed it into the next one. Finally, I started to delegate more and do fewer things myself; theoretically this was best for both me and the company, because it freed me up to think about and solve other problems and developed the skills of the more junior members of the team, not to mention developing me for a possible managerial role in the future.
These changes, plus some others I’m probably forgetting, basically netted me an additional 10-15 hours per week of personal time on average, and I should say that there was little to no pushback from my management about it; basically, I don’t know if anyone even noticed. Over the year since I made these changes, I probably ate dinner in the office 5 or 10 times, compared to at least 100 the year prior. I was able to come home and relax for a bit before going to bed; I could go out for dinner with friends; I developed a taste for scotch I never thought that I’d have, and I began infusing my own liquor — I got a hobby! My work was less stressful, in part because it wasn’t all my work anymore, and I had more time to pursue extracurriculars that engaged me. All-in-all, a huge success.
Except that what actually happened was I got home and watched TV or played video games. I had more time, but nothing productive to do with it. (Guess what doesn’t take a whole lot of labor? Leaving stuff in alcohol for a month.) I saw my throughput decrease by a factor of 2 — not only was I working less, but the time I spent working was less productive, since I was meeting with people about having them produce instead of producing myself. Where I used to have a few productive hours in the morning before everyone else came to work and a few productive hours at night after they left, I now had an hour and a half to get stuff done, which I generally spent making eggs and having a leisurely breakfast. What should have been a huge decrease in stress and a huge increase in happiness ended up with me getting stress-induced shingles (that’s a story for another day) and having what might be the least satisfactory year of my life; this is one of the reasons I’ve resolved to fill my time more productively this year.
I think what worries me the most isn’t that I’m unproductive or that I don’t have fulfilling hobbies. It’s the fear that I’m slipping — that someday I’ll be called upon to work hard, put in the time, and produce on the level I know I’m capable of… but I just won’t be capable anymore. I think that productivity is a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to stay strong, and I was just sitting there atrophying. This morning I had to log in and do about an hour of work, and I was shocked at how many other people were online working, because I haven’t done had to in so long; worse, it peeved me so much to have to do it I wrote a blog post about it.
It’s funny, because one of the ways I’m trying to combat my atrophy is to fill my free time productively; learning guitar, writing this blog, etc. But this almost makes it worse — I logged on this morning, and I resented it, because it’s Saturday, and Saturday is the day that I get to wake up and write my blog post. It seems that filling my time with stuff I actually enjoy doing has sort of made me realize the stuff I don’t enjoy doing.
This morning, I looked around me and realized that everybody’s working on the weekend, and I just don’t want to do it anymore.