Unemployment Part I – Quitting Won't Save You

There’s a persistent myth among unhappily employed people that “if I could just quit my day job and pursue my passion full time, I would finally be satisfied”.

It’s me, I’m the unhappy person.

The unfortunate truth is that many people become dramatically less productive after going independent. After quitting her job and becoming a “full-time writer”, Nadia describes her life as just being “pretty crappy”. Several close friends have experienced the same effect, becoming less productive on side projects after quitting their day jobs.

How is this possible? Why doesn’t alleviating a 40 hour a week burden change things dramatically for the better?

Opportunity cost skyrockets
With a day job, you’re more or less tied down. If you’re only free from 6pm-10pm every day, there’s not too much to do other than eat dinner, exercise, and work on your side project.

But once you quit, anything is possible. You could be traveling, parting, learning a new skill, visiting relatives, hiking in the middle of the work week while everyone else is stuck inside, or visiting great restaurants at 2pm when there’s no crowd.

Rather than hit a satisfactory limit, many of these activities actually take up more time the more you get into them. You can watch TV for 2 hours a night and not have an urge to do it at work, but if you get deeply excited about a new hobby, it can engulf your life.

You can only do 4 hours of real work a day
As reported by Cal Newport, famed mathematician Henri Poincaré could only work 4 hours a day. In an interview, Newport writes of his own life:

I think if you’re able to do three, maybe four hours of this sort of deep work in a typical day, you’re hitting basically the mental speed limit, the amount of concentration your brain is actually able to give.

With a day job, you were working 6pm-10pm, now you’re working 10am-2pm instead, but your total output hasn’t increased.

The exception is day jobs that take up hours of deep concentration. But if you’re already fantasizing about quitting, this probably isn’t the case.

Having a boring job is motivating
Einstein famously worked as a patent examiner, Kafka worked assessing personal injury claims for insurance companies.

Having a boring day job provides freedom (your mind can wander), but also a feeling of being underappreciated that borders on resentment. You know you’re being underutilized, you know you’re capable of more, and you’re desperate to prove it.

Lack of psychological distance
With a job, you go to a particular location, on a highly regular schedule, surrounded by a cohort of colleagues and environment. This creates a kind of psychological distance between work and the rest of life. When you’re at the office, you’re in work mode.

On a side project, you’re working alone, often from home, and without any kind of defined schedule. This means that any time could be work time, any place could be a workplace, and accordingly, any time and place could be for leisure. It’s easy to sit on the couch working, and then lapse into a nap when there aren’t clear boundaries.

There’s no more shallow work
It’s easy to spend 12 hours a day being “productive” at a day job, if all you’re doing is sitting in meetings, reading memos and replying to emails.

In contrast, personal projects are often chosen specifically because there is no busy work. You have no colleagues to waste time with, you are working solely on the difficult and interesting things that you want to do.

Hopefully, at this point, the steps to resolve these issues stem intuitively:

  • Accept that you max out at 4 hours a day, and make sure you’re actually hitting it every day
  • Find sources of lasting intrinsic motivation that aren’t based around feelings of inadequacy
  • Measure yourself by what you’ve done, not how many hours you’ve put it
  • Enjoy your newfound freedom, but in ways that don’t directly compete with your real aims
  • Create psychological distance by choosing a particular time and place to work, and if necessary, inform who could distract you of your “official work hours”

For details on implementation, read Unemployment Part II