I’ve been self-employed for seventeen years. Each day, like clockwork, I wake up and go through some version of the same schedule with very little variation.
I start work around 8 a.m. and sit at my desk for 6 to 8 hours. There’s no clock for me to punch into or boss to report to, yet I get anxious if I’m not at my desk at roughly the same time every morning.
I work this way because I’ve always worked this way and because (I imagine) my clients expect me to be readily available during these hours.
Their emails keep coming. Their deadlines roll in and roll out. How else can I stay on top of my work, if I’m not parked at my desk five days a week, eight hours a day? But I’m not happy or productive with my standard schedule anymore. There’s an endlessness to it that is sucking the joy out of my days.
Why do I work like this?
I work this way out of habit. I work this way out of fear. I’m afraid that I’ll lose clients and income if I’m less available, so I push myself even when I’m unhappy. It’s always worked in the past.
But lately I’ve been having trouble staying focused and motivated. I’m bored and distracted, constantly looking forward to being away from my desk and doing anything other than work. I’m completely burnt out.
I live for weekends, for the sheer unscheduled thrill of them, even though they’re as much a part of my fixed, arbitrary routine as my weekdays are.
I’m a hamster in a wheel, running the same way I’ve always run, without a clear reason as to why I’m carving up time in a way that is slowly crushing my soul.
Disrupting the hamster wheel
There have been five very memorable exceptions to my traditional 7-day approach to the work week. The births of my daughters in 2001 and 2004, my transition from working as a full-time employee to a freelancer in 2002, and a twelve-month period from 2012 through 2013 when my older daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
The fifth was in 2017, the year my daughter died.
In all of the above instances, I returned to the 7-day hamster wheel as quickly as I could, out of habit and necessity. Deviating from my standard schedule came with its own version of stress — and guilt — for not working the way I thought I should be working.
The year my daughter got sick was particularly difficult because things didn’t click back to normal for a very long time. I was forced to figure out how to work in the moment, without any planning and with limited time.
Those haphazard months taught me a valuable lesson — you don’t actually need to work five days a week, eight hours a day, to get stuff done. During the years that my daughter was sick, I reinvented my schedule repeatedly and things always got done.
After she died, I didn’t work for six months. I spent my days unscheduled, taking long walks or sitting outside and watching the birds at my feeders for hours a time.
It took a full twelve months (and mounting debt) for me to get back to any semblance of a normal work schedule. Once I started working again, I quickly fell back into the old grind: the seven-day week, five days of which involved spending 6–8 hours at my desk.
That’s where I’m at now, once again waking up at 6:30 a.m., doing my morning chores, then parking myself in front of my desk until 3, 4, or 5 pm.
Except, this time, something has shifted.
I can’t do this anymore
There are days when I’m just going through the motions, operating under a kind of a mental muscle memory formed from years of routine. Only this time I’m in the midst of a deep existential crisis.
Structuring my days into discrete blocks of time seems arbitrary and meaningless (because it is arbitrary and meaningless).
Trauma and grief have rewired my brain. I can’t concentrate on work for more than two hours at a time. Grief has a way of peeling away the superficial, of clarifying what was previously obscured by life’s busy routine.
It’s clear to me now — I can no longer parcel time the way I once did without falling into a deep depression. There are days that I can’t focus for more than fifteen minutes at a time and others when I can put in a full eight hours of productive work.
And yet, I keep trying to work the way I’ve always worked even though I need more time and space to process my grief.
I’m learning that I need more downtime than I used to, more opportunities to recharge. When I don’t honor this need, I can’t function at all. But, maybe that’s okay.
The unmaking of a work day
I’ve never given myself permission to experiment with my work schedule, but what if I let myself imagine the possibilities? What if I moved those blocks of time around in ways that I’ve never tried before — or (even better) got rid of them completely?
I could work four days a week or three days a week. I could work from 6 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., leaving luxurious stretches of day wide open for long hikes on the local trails I love. I could try working one day on and one day off, allowing myself ample time away from my office and my computer screen.
I’m not the same person I was when I started freelancing nearly twenty years ago. I’ve been afraid of acknowledging this change because it feels a little like failure. But the only way I can move forward with my work is to reinvent the way I weave it into my life. This likely means unmaking my traditional schedule and rebuilding my week into something that makes more sense to me.