Reflections on Abandoning the 9 to 5, Four Months In

When I walked away from my nice and steady nine to five desk job in March, a lot of people asked for my reflections on it, and I provided my thoughts two weeks after quitting, which were almost entirely positive. Naturally, many of those readers wanted me to return to the topic in a few months to see whether I still felt as positive about the decision to quit a full-tme decent salary job to essentially work at home as a writer on an extremely flexible schedule. My reflections below will likely apply to anyone with young children who has made the decision to work at home.

Below is a mishmash of reflections on that change.

My family is the big reason I quit, and that’s been a huge positive
I quit my job because I felt like the demands of my simultaneous 9 to 5 job and my writing activities was simply eating too much away from the time I could spend with my family. I have a two year old son and an infant daughter and, at the time, I continually felt regret that I wasn’t spending quality time with them.

That concern is now gone. I spend hours upon hours each day with my wife and my kids. A couple hours of playing in the yard and at least two meals a day at the kitchen table with my children is not only now the norm, but the expectation. I read them stories, teach them things, kiss their “owies” when they get hurt, and reaffirm their self-confidence. We go to the park, the circus, the zoo, the library, and all sorts of other enriching activities.

The flexibility of my schedule gives me some aspects of being a stay at home parent. We still take our children to daycare on an irregular basis (usually our older one, because after several days he begins to loudly miss the people there, especially his closest friend and his favorite teacher, but we’ve taken the younger one, too, in order to spend a day solely with our son), but that’s aided by the fact that my wife is currently on a lengthy break from her own job. When she returns, I’m not sure what we’ll do quite yet.

The best part, though, is experiences like this: I’ll be eating lunch with my son and he’s starting to get sleepy. He says he wants to go to the park and I say, “Sure, we can go right after your nap.” Then we trudge upstairs, I read him a book, and he drifts off to sleep. A couple hours later, after I’ve finished some work, I hear him awaken and so I stop what I’m doing, roust him, and we head off to the park. I’ll get the stuff I’m working on done late in the evening or early tomorrow morning – right now, there are important monkey bars to climb on. That is something that could never possibly happen at my old job – it happens all the time now.

The huge amount of time that I didn’t have before has opened the door to countless projects
Since I’ve quit, I’ve written a book (due to be published on December 17), went on a vacation with my family, planned another vacation, polished up a second book proposal, and initiated two other big projects that you’ll see in the coming months. None of this would have happened without stepping away, and all of them help to cement the decision I’ve made, shoring it up with other opportunities.

In an average week, my career shift has freed up about fifty five hours, and I had already been devoting about thirty to The Simple Dollar and related activities. Now, The Simple Dollar (and related activities) eats about fifty hours out of the week, which means I have thirty five hours (or so) to spend with my family and on personal projects that I didn’t have before.

I feel genuinely fulfilled by my work
When I’m actually engrossed in writing, I deeply enjoy it. I almost can’t believe that I can earn a living doing something that I enjoy so much. While I do still have management-type things to worry about (making sure I’m working on the right stuff, interacting with editors, etc.), they’re only a small fraction of my time and quite manageable. I get to spend the vast majority of my time on the things I’m passionate about.

Those are the good things. What about the bad things?

I miss my old job – at least the socialization aspects of it
Let’s face it: at my new career, I’m at home by myself in an office. No one else is there – just me and my work. If I’m stuck, I can’t just get up, stroll down to the refrigerator, get out a beverage, and chat with two or three people along the way. Instead, I’m alone.

Sometimes I just randomly IM people. At other times, I send emails. On occasion, I’ll even place some phone calls, just to hear a voice and to socialize a bit. I tend to miss people.

I get stir crazy and often have to leave to go do something
After a few days straight of not leaving my property, I get really stir crazy and get compelled to go do something during the day. I usually turn one of these trips every week or two into a grocery shopping trip and about once a month I’ll make a library trip, but many of the other sojourns are simply excuses to go interact with people.

My solution, over the last month or two, is to simply look for more social organizations to participate in – blogger meetups, public speaking groups (like Toastmasters), and so on. I’ve also gotten more involved with some community groups and committees. I simply need to do something out of the house, preferably with other people.

Time management is a completely different challenge than before
With my previous career, it was always pretty obvious what needed to be done next – and I just did it. If I was ever unsure, I’d just ask my supervisor.

Now, I’m effectively deciding the priority of all of the stuff I want to work on, and that can be tricky. I’ve discovered, for example, that even though I might be several days’ ahead on articles for The Simple Dollar, that doesn’t mean I should give more articles a low priority, because just when I do that, something comes up that eats a few days and I’m right back where I was at. I also have to make a lot of hard judgments on starting new projects. Will they actually fit? What will I have to cut back on to try out this new initiative? Sometimes it’s obvious – sometimes it’s very hard.

Another big challenge is knowing I have the freedom to just slack off whenever I want. I could easily just retire to my comfortable chair with a book, or browse a mountain of blogs, and really, in the end, no one would be the wiser. The only drawback would be that I’d simply be less productive. I’d miss out on writing opportunities and other interesting chances.

My biggest frustration is the interruptions
Where I used to work, if you closed your office door, that meant you were left alone, period, unless it was a mission critical emergency. Doing that meant I could have time to really focus on a complex task without interruption.

At home, the same isn’t true. If I’m settling in to focus, I have to turn off the ringer on my house phone, turn off my cell phone, log off of all instant messaging programs, close my email program, close the blinds on my windows, and shut my office door, and even that’s only a partial block. I still get interruptions from things like my wife coming in and asking me if there’s anything else we need to add to the shopping list, or my two year old pounding on the door yelling, “MY PANTS ARE POOPY!”

Once I’ve lost the focus, it takes me a while to get back on the proper train of thought – I can’t just sit down and pick up with the sentence I was on when I walked away.

The new money management stresses me out sometimes
Without the drumbeat of a steady paycheck (and a drop off in income), careful money management and frugality are more important than ever. My income is simply no longer steady from month to month – some months leave me feeling rich, while other months seem to point towards poverty. It’s not consistent.

As a result, our emergency fund is bigger than ever – almost a year’s worth of living expenses in cash. With this, I can handle the variability of any month – or even a downhill string of months. This has meant something of a slowdown in our debt repayment schedule, obviously, since the total income isn’t as big as it once was and also there’s not as much cash to go around.

Interestingly, our actual living expenses have gone down significantly, too. I have more time for frugal projects – our garden is tremendous this year, and we’ve made tons of bread, fresh pasta, and other such things.

So, in conclusion…
It was a great decision. I feel more fulfilled by the work/life balance than ever before. The change is not without problems (mostly social interaction-type problems), but overall I’m still very glad I made the switch. If you’re thinking of doing the same, give it some very strong consideration, particularly if you’re self-motivated and can keep yourself on task outside of a management structure.