I have been self-employed for 12 years now. For 12 years there has been little to bind me to ‘normal’ working patterns. During that period, I have granted myself varying degrees of freedom. But I’ve never been able to shake a sense of guilt when I’m not sat at a desk, or doing some other recognisable form of work, wherever it may be, between the ‘core’ hours of nine and five.
It’s worst when people call, or request a call or meeting. When I have to tell them that no, I’m not available at that time. Even now I can’t bring myself to simply tell them that I’m not ‘working’. That I’m ‘only’ thinking. Or reading. Or exercising. Or napping. Or doing whatever it is that I want, and that my brain needs, in order to recharge.
That’s not a good enough excuse for my own mind, and it’s often not good enough for them. “Can you not just…?” Even when I do explain what else I’m doing, like spending time with the kids, the response is rarely simple acceptance. What I want to hear is, “No problem. Are you free tomorrow?” What I often hear is “Everyone else is free, could you make some time?”
These are not original problems. I imagine they are familiar to anyone who has ever worked flexibly or part time. And probably to most women who, let’s be honest, continue to bear the brunt of family responsibilities, even while maintaining equally successful careers to their partners. My story is far from unique. But the fact that I, after 12 years, still feel the pressure to conform, just goes to show how deeply embedded these behaviours and expectations have become.
This will have to change.
Firstly, it has to change for me. I’m increasingly aware that as an applied futurist, talking and writing about the future isn’t enough. I should be ‘applying’ — doing what I can to live the future. How I do things, is as important as what I do. So I’ll be taking steps to increase my flexibility over the coming months, both to maximise my own quality of life but also to maximise my productivity.
I recognise that I am enormously privileged to be able to take decisions like this. But I don’t think this change stops with me.
It was a quote from Douglas Coupland that inspired this post. In a recent talk he covered the issue of the future of work in some depth. His opinion? That we will look back on the ‘barbaric’ nine to five much as we look back on 19th century child labour now.
I don’t know that that is true. But I do believe that the commute-work-lunch-work-commute model is not a means to maximise human productivity, or happiness, particular where a growing proportion of the remaining work — uncaptured by machines — is creative.
As Coupland also points out, a more flexible, free-rolling schedule is also not without its risks. You have to be disciplined to avoid work taking over your life. But this is just the other side of the same problem: it’s equally hard to break the habits and expectations of the nine-to-five.
Maximising our happiness and productivity in tomorrow’s world is going to require reserves of confidence, and a level of control that few of us can — or do — exert right now.