I’d like to see a pie chart representing all the days I’ve worked in my life, with a different color for every product or service my work ultimately provided each day.
The biggest slice, more than half, would be “Urban infrastructure” — my main career has been as a land surveyor for engineering firms. The slice would probably be orange or brown.
A smaller, blue slice would be labeled “Groceries.” I stocked shelves for a few years.
Maybe one tenth of it would be a yellow one called “Spotless hotel rooms.”
A similar slice would say, “Incompetently-built websites for nonprofit organizations.”
A green sliver, about 1% of the total, would be labeled “Kiwis.” There would even be a one-day hair that would say, “Traveling reptile shows,” if there was room.
These odd products are the commercial ends of my life’s professional efforts. The pie represents about 2500 eight-hour workdays, each one spent producing things I am not particularly interested in.
Ultimately, all those days were worked for myself, for money, but the purpose of the work itself — whether immaculate store shelves, salable kiwis, or working storm sewers — was never mine.
I’ve been writing for Raptitude for almost four years now. It’s not a passing interest. Nothing else makes me feel useful like writing does, and I know now it is what I will do with my life. It’s become a no-brainer. My audience has become huge, and opportunity is knocking pretty hard now. I have more willing partners and viable business ideas than I could ever have time to pursue, even if I did it full time. I have all the pieces I need to go pro.
Legwork is necessary though, and it will have to be done in the hours surrounding my day job as long as I still need one. The obvious thing to do is to devote as much evening and weekend time as possible to building a profitable business. Many of my blogging contemporaries have.
Very often I’ll have an open Saturday coming up, and I imagine I’ll be at my desk at 8:00 and proceed to plow through an article and several hours of overdue correspondence, as if the only reason any of my to-do’s aren’t done is because I was simply waiting for some free time.
Putting my free time to good use has historically been much more difficult for me than freeing up time. I delay the start of the “work” part of my day, as if I’m a child trying to delay bedtime forever with endless requests for sips of water or to be brought certain crucial stuffed animals. Once I sit down I lose myself in distractions, I take three-hour lunches, and I don’t push myself to get to a “finishing point” — say the end of an article — before I decide that’s enough for the day.
Normally, the only time I get long stretches of productive time in is when I’ve reached the last possible long stretch of time before something is due. For my Monday blog posts, that time is Sunday night. Right now it’s Sunday night. And the words are flowing.
The other day I realized I had never actually worked a proper full-time workday on my own work. I’ve worked thousands of eight-hour days for other people, doing things that aren’t important for me, for people who aren’t important to me, providing goods and services I don’t want, or even want other people to want. Yet, for whatever combination of self-defeating reasons, I have never clocked in a proper workday for my own purposes.
It made me wonder: could I actually do it? It has seemed so hard in the past, even to work solidly through a four-hour block I had set aside in advance, and I’m not sure why.
And why is it easy to do when it’s for someone else? How have I so successfully pulled off thousands of eight-hour workdays for other people’s purposes when it’s been so hard to do with me as my own boss? Working for myself will require that I actually work for myself.
I suppose it’s because in employment situations two things are clear that are both fuzzy when I’m my own boss: the standard for what’s an acceptable workday, and the consequences of not meeting that standard. I’m never going to clear my throat at myself when I find I’m Facebooking from my phone at work, and I’m never going to fire myself. I can’t bid myself goodbye and get someone else if I “don’t work out.” I’m like a bad civil servant I can’t get rid of.
So I will do it. I’ll work an eight-hour workday on my own work, on my new chosen career in writing — without leaving early, without starting late, without stretching my lunch break, without surfing the web, without checking email, and without daydreaming the day away.
I have a history of quitting my experiments. A few of them left lasting changes that still improve my life (my temperance and vegan diet trials come to mind) but most of them quickly became something I hated and avoided because I was forcing myself, and any desire to finish them or learn anything quickly disappeared.
This one will take one day. The first day of my experiments has almost always been excellent — it’s always on the day fours and fives that self-sabotage sneaks in — and so this one should be excellent all the way through.
I want to know why it’s hard. What tears me away from my intention to sit and get stuff done? I’ll find out and write it down, and then I know what to look out for. The final half hour of my workday will be my report on what happened. Then I’m going skating on the river.
It’s important to be strict about start and stop times and the lengths of my breaks. If my lunch stretches to seventy-five minutes so that I can finish a magazine article, then I did not succeed and I will have to do it again.
Whether I succeeded or not comes down to my answers to binary questions I will list beforehand on the experiment log. Did I start on time? Did I finish on time? Did I stretch my breaks? Did I spend non-negligible amounts of time daydreaming or distracting myself with non-work?
Now, I am not confusing the questions of whether I can work a strict, uncompromised eight-hour day at home with whether I ought to. An eight-hour workday may turn out not be the most efficient scheme for productivity, if it’s not being imposed on me. Nor is it probably optimally motivating to set a stopwatch for my breaks.
But finding the perfect workday isn’t the point. I’ll work that out eventually. The main reason for quitting during several of my experiments was because I was constantly debating whether the terms I had decided at the outset made sense. Is this needlessly difficult? Do I even want to do this?
Being strict with this one is important, because I need a yes or no answer to that important question: can I do for my own highest values what I have always done easily for money?
Or more accurately, will I do it? Of course I can. If I can spend eight hours scrubbing toilets or eight hours speed-picking orchard fruit then I am certainly capable of such a stretch of my own personal deskwork.
The work itself will be mostly writing and content creation, but it will also include a few other tasks I know are indispensable to me for my career-building campaign: managing correspondence (many of you know firsthand that I suck at this), improving this website, and learning new skills.
The experiment will take place on Sunday, January 13, 2013.
The experiment log (and specific rules) will be posted here before the experiment begins.
Until I’ve done this I can’t fairly say I’ve worked a proper day directly for my own values. I fear I’m not that unusual in this.
Have you? What is the end product of your typical workday? Is it important to you?