5 min read
It has officially been two weeks since I quit my day job as a data scientist to work on my online businesses full time.
Since being away from the office, I’ve had to do some trial and error to figure out what type of work schedule is optimal for both my productivity and happiness.
It took some experimentation, but I think I’ve settled into a schedule that works well for me, and it turns out that this schedule doesn’t even remotely resemble the typical 9-5 schedule I followed when I was in Corporate America.
In fact, the longer I’m away from corporate life, the more ridiculous and outdated a 9-5 schedule seems.
The Origins of the 9-5 Schedule
To see just how outdated the 9-5 schedule is, it helps to understand where it originated from.
Before 1900 the average American worker worked 10 or more hours per day, six days per week. They took Sundays off for religious reasons.
However, in 1916 railroad unions pushed for an eight-hour workday because longer workdays were correlated with higher rates of accidents and deaths.
When the railroad companies declined, Congress had to step in to prevent the railroad industry from grinding to a halt. They passed the Adamson Act which established an eight-hour workday, with additional pay for overtime work, for interstate railroad workers.
Fast forward to 1938. The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, setting the maximum workweek at 40 hours, with overtime pay for workers who exceeded 40 hours. And just like that, the eight-hour, five-day work schedule became the standard across all industries.
Fast forward 80 years. Workers in Corporate America still adhere to this schedule, despite the fact that they do mostly mental work instead of physical work.
Why the 9-5 Schedule Makes no Sense for Knowledge Workers
The eight-hour workday made sense for the type of work that industrial workers did in the early 1900s. It helped to have all of the workers in one place at the same time, since manual labor relied upon teamwork. It also made sense to work in one eight-hour block because repetitive tasks didn’t require long mental breaks in between for thinking, pondering, or strategizing.
However, this type of physical work is almost the exact opposite of the work done by a modern knowledge worker in an office.
The average person who works in an office nowadays is faced with challenging problems that they must solve with their brains. This means writing code, creating designs, developing algorithms, thinking through strategies, brainstorming ideas, and a bunch of other mental tasks.
It turns out that this type of work is done best in alternating periods of intense work and intense relaxation, not in one eight-hour block of sitting in front of a computer with brief breaks for eating lunch, sitting in meetings, and going to the bathroom.
Ask anyone who writes code and they’ll tell you that it requires deep, unbroken concentration for up to several hours at a time combined with long stretches of time to sit, think, and ponder.
This is the nature of most modern knowledge work: you think intensely about how to solve a problem, then you work intensely to implement the solution. Then you think some more, then work some more, then think some more, etc.
It’s nearly impossible to sit in front of a screen for eight hours and be productive the whole time. Knowledge work requires breaks, and not just the thirty minute break you might be allowed to take for lunch.
Unfortunately, most companies operate under the expectation that you’ll either physically sit at your desk or be present in meetings for eight hours per day. The result? Most office workers (at least in my experience) do anywhere from 2 to 4 hours of real work per day. The rest of the time is spent surfing the web, scrolling through social media, or conversing with other employees to fill up the full eight hours.
The Schedule that Works Best for Me
What I’ve found fascinating since quitting my job is that I actually do have a limit of about 3 or 4 hours of deep work that I’m capable of doing each day.
However, unlike the typical Corporate worker who spends the other 4 hours waiting for the workday to pass, I dedicate this time to intense relaxation – going for long walks, reading books, laying by the pool, etc. – which is when I often come up with my best ideas and breakthroughs.
A typical work schedule for me looks something like this:
For the first 3 to 4 hours each day I’m either writing or coding, both of which require deep concentration.
In the next few hours that follow, I either go to the gym, go for a long walk, read a book, or lay by the pool. I consider this time to be intentional relaxation (the gym is a form of mental relaxation) and although I’m not working on anything during this time, it’s often during this time of the day that I come up with new ideas or experience breakthroughs to problems I had been working on earlier.
Then, I usually following up this intense relaxation with an hour or two of light work like responding to emails, automating blog posts and social media promotions, learning new skills, etc.
Around 5:00 I’m typically done doing any type of work and I spend the rest of the evening hanging out with friends, my family, my girlfriend, eating dinner, watching Netflix, or going to some event taking place around the city.
This schedule of deep work, followed by intentional relaxation, followed by light work, followed by no work, has been optimal for both my productivity and my happiness. My old 9-5 schedule seems absolutely ridiculous and sub-optimal compared to this new schedule.
The Benefits of a Not Having a 9-5 Schedule
In addition to increased productivity and overall happiness, my new flexible schedule offers the following benefits compared to my old 9-5 schedule:
1. No more commutes. This might be my favorite perk of not having a 9-5 job. I no longer have to commute to and from a corporate office during times when traffic is worst. The only commute I have now is from my bedroom to my balcony, or occasionally to a coffee shop five minutes down the road.
2. No more pants. I love being able to wear shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops while I work, instead of khaki pants and a button down shirt.
3. More light. In the part of the building that I used to work in at my old job, there were no windows. There were skylights, but no windows to look out at to see any type of nature. Now, when I work from my balcony I can get direct exposure to sunlight. And when I work from the coffee shop, I can sit at tables near the windows.
This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but increasing exposure to sunlight is one of the easiest ways to boost your mood. Through increasing my sun exposure, I’m much happier throughout the day.
4. More movement. At my old job, I had to sit at a desk. Now, I can choose to either sit or stand whenever I want when I work on my laptop. The moment my back gets tired, I stand. The moment my feet get tired, I sit.
This ability to adjust my working position has eliminated any back pain I had from sitting for eight hours each day, which is incredible.
The 9-5 work schedule is outdated and makes no sense for most modern knowledge workers. I consider myself blessed that I’m able to follow a new schedule that optimizes both my productivity and my overall happiness.
Zach is the author behind Four Pillar Freedom, a blog that teaches you how to build wealth and gain freedom in life.
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