Finding the Natural Rhythms and Flows of Working

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

I’ve been self-employed and working from home for more than a year now, but even before that, when I worked in an office, I was experimenting with freer models of working, trying to break out of the mold of the 8-to-5-with-a-lunch-break model.

Being self-employed is definitely an experiment in working styles, as you learn by trial and error and figure out what works for you.

More and more I’ve been becoming a believer that forcing ourselves to work (or being forced to work by bosses) is detrimental — to our health, productivity, happiness, creativity.

Being forced to work, by ourselves or by others, makes work pure drudgery, and no matter how many productivity and motivational tricks we throw at this situation, it’s still drudgery. Sure, we’ll always have to do things we don’t like to do, but does that have to make up the main of our existence?

So why do we work like that?

I believe we put up with the status quo because that’s what we’ve been taught to believe, but it hasn’t always been like this. The working model of the last century hasn’t been the working model of the great part of human civilization, and certainly not of human existence. It came about because of the advent of the industrial age, when people we made to work in factories and when factory owners (and later, owners of businesses with office workers) tried to figure out how to squeeze the most out of their employees while paying the least amount possible.

That’s less than ideal for most of us.

The result has been an increase in working hours, a decrease in leisure time, a decrease in creativity and imagination, an increased focus on material goods and money. Again, less than ideal for most of us.

That’s been changing recently in all kinds of ways. The rise in people who are office nomads, self-employed, free-lancers, consultants, web workers, just knowledge workers in general, has led to changes in the ways people work. Sometimes it has meant they work more than ever. Other times it means they can work from wherever they want, setting their own schedule (but oftentimes still working as much or more than before).

For some of us, it has meant we’ve become our own bosses, while working collaboratively with others who are their own bosses. It has meant more freedom for some of us, with the ability not only to choose the location and time of our work, but the kind of work we do and the amount of work we do.

That’s amazingly liberating, and what’s more, I’ve found it to be amazing in many ways: I’ve found more time for what’s important to me (not just my work), I’ve found an increase in my love for my work, I’ve been happier and more creative and in general I think the quality of my work has increased.

I don’t produce more than ever before, but what I do produce is better, at least in my eyes.

Yes, But What About Me?
“That’s great for you,” you say, “but what about for the rest of us, who are office-bound without those kinds of freedoms?”

Great question, hypothetical reader! And I don’t have a definitive answer.

I believe offices are shifting and will continue to shift, over the next couple of decades, to more freedom and mobility for workers. As we use the web more and more, we’re realizing that all you need to do (most) work is a computer with Internet access, and perhaps a phone. That can be done anywhere these days.

And if we can work anywhere, without a boss over our shoulder, then we soon realize that what matters is not that we log in from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but that we get the work done. And so the focus becomes the work.

When the focus is the work, and not the hours cranked out or the method of working or any of that, then we realize that none of the things that used be important really matters anymore: office attire, neatness of desks, what time you clock in, how long lunch breaks are, and all the other nit-picking details. All that matters is the work.

Soon we will realize that management isn’t as necessary anymore either, because all the nit-picking things that used to matter don’t, and they don’t need to be managed. Sure, we still need people to manage projects and all of that, but it doesn’t have to be a hierarchy anymore — it can be flatter and looser.

Sure, we’ll still need to meet on a regular basis, but much of that collaboration can be done online, and we can still find physical meeting places for closer collaboration too when needed.

So if you’re not in a situation now where you can determine your working schedule, you might be in one in the near future. And if you can’t wait for that, change jobs! Maybe not today, but you can do it over the course of a few months, as you transition to work you’d rather do. It’s scary, but it’s been done by many, many people.

Some of you might already be in the ideal situation to be self-employed — you might have been laid off recently. That’s horrible, of course, but it’s also an opportunity to reinvent yourself, to find the work you’re passionate about, to set up a web presence and start seeking free-lance or consulting gigs, to be your own boss. It’s scary, but it’s been done by many, many people.

Even within your current work situation, you can probably manage your schedule a bit — choose what you want to work on early in the day, what fits best later, and so on.

What Does That Do for Working Rhythms?
When work is freed up, the questions of how much work we do, what kind of work we do, and when we do it, all become open.

When do you want to work? In the early morning hours, or starting at 10 a.m., or maybe just at night? What time do you feel most energetic? Each person is different and it often takes some experimenting.

What work do you want to do? Often we do work because we have to do it, but when you start choosing work because it excites you, it changes the game completely. Choosing work you’re passionate about is the absolute best way to become more productive and happier.

I’ve also learned that you don’t have to have a set schedule each day. While that could work better for some people, others work better deciding what they want to do today, and then doing it in whatever order inspires them.

For myself, I know the 2-3 things I really want to accomplish each day — these are things that excite me most — and I will do them when I feel most excited about them. I also know the routine things I need to do — checking email, checking accounts, taking care of little things — and I do those when I have less energy.

There is no one best way, and for me, the best way changes regularly. And that’s a good thing — it’s a more natural way of working, and it’s my belief that more and more people will start finding their natural rhythms of working in the years to come.