Why I’ll only ever work up to 4 days a week on any one project

Thanks ju5ti from Flickr.

I read ‘Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives’ through The Week (a magazine covering an unbiased round up of the week’s news). It reassures me that it’s ok that I’m doing things my way, even when other people don’t approve.

I don’t sign up to any project for more than 4 days a week.
I’ve only ever been an ’employee’ for brief stints. Since graduating, I’ve been contracting.

I had a bar job in a theatre which I initially held down at the same time as contracting, in case I had a dry spell in contract work. I had to work part time as a contractor in order to keep the bar job. Eventually I got enough work to be able to quit that theatre bar job. This is quite a typical story for creative graduates – though it can often take a lot longer than a year or two to be able to financially rely on creative work.

But by the time I could quit the bar job, I was happy to continue working part time on contracts, and I didn’t want to pour all of myself into full time work.

What happens on the days I’m not working on a contract?
Starting out this way meant I had to spend lots of time building my brand and network at the beginning of my career. It worked out well to work on a project for three or four days, and spend a day or two investing in the future.

As time went on, and I got work more easily, I ended up using that day or two to make cool stuff happen. That cool stuff has turned into the Service Design Fringe Festival. Having time not working on projects creates a void that will eventually be filled.

Sometimes, if I’m exhausted from working on a very energy-consuming project, I’ll take day 5 as an extra day off. My days ‘off’ can be a bit like the kind of work I was doing at university: practicing drawing, going to a gallery, reading, and writing.

What I got up to one Thursday.

Which day is ‘off’? And why?
Lots of people take their day ‘off’ on Fridays to create long weekends. That doesn’t work so well for me.

I take my day ‘off’ on Thursdays. By breaking my work week into two chunks, I come back on Friday refreshed, rather than looking at my watch, waiting for the week to end. Additionally, I find that nothing much is booked on Thursdays typically in organisations, so it’s not too disruptive.

Having this day ‘off’ means I can bring much more energy to the project than if I didn’t have it. It makes me perform better during all the time that I am working.

I keep my Thursdays constant – whatever the project I’m on, I know that I can book an extracurricular coffee with anyone well in advance on any Thursday without it being inconvenient for the project I’m on.

London & tech culture can be crazy-making.
We’re always on. Amazing technology keeps us working 24/7. London contains many of the workaholics of the world, feeding into a culture where we’re expected to be perfect extra-human work performing whizz machines. I find that having the attitude to work part time keeps my work time boundaried, so I can stay sane; this is particularly important in order to maintain a balance in London.

This pattern of working is good for the soul.
Or whatever you’d rather call it – creative energy, or sense of self. I am not my job.

I have tried working full time on occasion and I found I got so attached to the work, that my identity merged with it too closely. I became too dependant on the job. It didn’t feel like there was any life outside of the job. It’s easy to get stuck in ways of thinking, and take on the fears from the organisation around you by osmosis, if you aren’t regularly faced with alternative ways of thinking and being.

Maybe this person was stuck in a way of thinking, that made them refuse to try something new?

By having space apart from one job, I can retreat into myself in order to be able to hear my own voice (which can be difficult when it’s drowned out by an organisation you’re part of), and expose myself to a variety of sources of inspiration, which I think of as ‘filling the well’.

I’m often cast as the source of inspiration and positive energy in a project – the one that will enthuse and excite people about service design and the project. Leading in this way can be draining if the positive energy is not returned by the people around me. Putting heart and soul into work means that I need more time off to replenish my energy.

When I come back to work, I come back with fresh alternative perspectives, fresh eyes, and extra contacts. This makes the work better.

Notes I wrote down about a contract, in a flash of clarity on a Thursday.

I know it’s a privilege.
I don’t think everyone should do this or that everyone can do this. I’m fortunate that I can earn enough money in 4 days rather than 5 days a week to get by. I’m fortunate that I have the confidence and ideas and determination to come up with useful things that fill the void I create on purpose.

I’m writing this post because I’ve seen people react badly to me doing this.
“You have Thursdays OFF?” – implying that I can’t be serious about the work to be done if I’m not full time.
“I can’t do that.” – said sadly, with guilt, perhaps because having a day off would seem too obscenely pleasurable and self indulgent.
“I know you don’t work on Thursdays, but can you come in/answer the phone?” – because it’s not common, colleagues have a fundamental expectation that my Thursdays are up for grabs if I can be persuaded. Sometimes I give in because I care about the projects I do, but I find that not having a complete mental break disadvantages me later.
“You’re not around enough. You’re not visible.” – valuing presenteeism is old fashioned. I’d rather be measured by the impact I create. Also, we need to do something about this attitude if we are to make the workplace fairer for caregivers.

I feel more ok to be me when I see that other people are doing things I’m doing. I hope by sharing this, I can help validate others who have chosen a similar work pattern. I don’t hear enough people being open about choosing to working part time and talking about the benefits of it.

Semi-retired people and caregivers have to work part time – but I have the choice to work part time. And this is a valid choice, even if it’s not mainstream (yet!)

And if you need any more inspiration, here’s Stefan Sagmeister’s talk about how he takes off one year out of every seven.

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