Why I Want to Escape the Rat Race

My desire to ditch 9–5 does not stem from laziness

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Lately I’ve been fascinated with the habits and routines of elite performers.

I’ve been reading about them in books like Daily Rituals by Mason Curry, Tools of Titans, and Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss, and Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

As you’d expect, there are probably as many different paths to success as there are people on Earth. One piece of good news is that you can succeed your way, even if no one has done it that way before.

But despite all the variation that exists, there are themes that often pop up. One of them is the importance of forming a daily routine:

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition” — W. H. Auden
“My experience has been that most really serious creative people I know have very, very routine and not particularly glamorous work habits” — John Adams
“Routine is a condition of survival.” — Flannery O’Connor
“The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.” — William James
“A solid routine fosters a well- worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.” -Mason Curry

What’s quite interesting is that very few original and creative people choose to structure their routine to spend at least eight hours working in a day.

In fact — although there is plenty of variation — the average seems to be around four hours per day.

It is quite common for many geniuses to be done with work before lunch.

It’s also quite common to find them filling their days with activities that don’t seem to be productive at all, such as going on long walks and taking naps.

Charles Darwin would have short, focused periods of work each day that he broke up with naps, walks, book reading and letter writing.

Charles Dickens would get up from his desk at 2pm to go for a three-hour walk in the streets of London.

How is it that people who contribute so much seem to work so little?

Deep Work and Deliberate Rest vs. Shallow Work and Distraction

There’s a scientifically validated paradigm for producing meaningful work that histories great geniuses have all stumbled upon.

This method of working is nearly the exact opposite of what modern work has evolved to be.

The routine of geniuses: deep work and deliberate rest

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport gives us a vision of focused concentration that is in large part inspired by the idea of Deliberate Practice from the researcher K. Anders Ericsson.

This is the same research that was the basis for the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule.

Essentially, the idea is that those who become world class performers don’t necessarily have any indications of innate talent early on. The reason they succeed where others don’t is because they put in the time and the effort. The time is roughly 10,000 hours, the effort is focused and intentional.

But here’s the problem: the kind of effortful focus that is required for Deep Work and Deliberate Practice is extremely psychologically taxing.

It’s not as easy to notice your mind getting tired from a bout of concentrating as it is to notice your body getting tired from a bout of training, but your ability to concentrate is capped at about 4 hours a day over the long term.

Here’s how Newport puts it in Deep Work:

…for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours — but rarely more.

So, you might be thinking, that’s it? Put in the time and effort and you’ll build world-class talent and produce great work?

No.

Anyone who has ever tried building muscle knows that muscle isn’t built as you sweat in the gym, it’s built as you snore in the bed.

Just as important as putting in the focused concentration is making the time to adequately recover.

This is why Alex Soojung-Kim Pang notes in his book Rest:

“Those who research world-class performance focus only on what students do in the gym or track or practice room. Everybody focuses on the most obvious, measurable forms of work and tries to make those more effective and more productive. They don’t ask whether there are other ways to improve performance and improve your life. This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice, but that’s wrong; it comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.”

Activities like walking, journaling, and napping can be great ways to recover from the psychological strain of intense concentration.

On the other hand, “checking out” by watching television or scrolling through a feed on your phone just causes you to be distracted.

The work culture of the rat race: shallow work and distraction

At one point I mentioned to one of my coworkers that I felt like I had become a professional email responder.

I’m not alone. Many workers go about their day switching from one task to another as they are side-tracked by distractions and interruptions.

Consider these startling statistics shared by Thrive Global:

A study from Stanford University found that multitasking actually reduces our productivity by as much as 40 percent.
And all those emails bombarding your inbox? Those are taking a toll, too. Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, found that in a typical office, an employee gets only 11 minutes between each interruption — and then takes an average of 25 minutes to even get back to the original task.

This modern work environment is fragmenting our focus, making us chronically busy, but rarely productive.

Of course, since most employers have no idea how much knowledge workers are contributing, many people stay addicted to the steady stream of distraction that keeps them tied to their desk. Because looking busy is the only kind of work that your boss recognizes as valid.

The other day I was leaving for the day at the exact same time as another coworker. As we walked out the door I went for the standard small talk line and commented on how lovely the weather was. She replied that she hadn’t been outside all day.

She hadn’t been outside all day!

Eight straight hours of staring at a computer screen, switching between various tasks, looking busy, and responding to manufactured emergencies.

High stress, low productivity, but at least you look busy.

This might be a good time to bring up this nugget of wisdom from author Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

“Only in recent history has working hard signaled pride, rather than shame.”

The Two Modes of Thinking

What is interesting is that this idea of Deep Work and Deliberate Rest has already popped up in many disciplines.

For example, in the field of psychology, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that the brain has two modes of operating, which he calls system one and system two.

System one is swift and effortless, it might also be called intuition.

System two is effortful and slow and requires intense concentration.

If we were on a walk and I suddenly asked what 402 divided by six was, you’d probably stop in your tracks as you made the mental transition from system one to system two.

The key thing about system two is that although you are more logical in system two, it’s psychologically expensive. Kahneman argues that cognitive biases stem from the fact that in many situations where we should stop and think, we press on with intuition to save mental energy.

Also in the field of neuroscience you’ll hear talk of the brain’s two modes of operation: focused mode and diffuse mode.

Focused mode is like a bowling alley with bumpers. Your thought pattern is working on a specific problem and it has one way to go. Depending on how deeply you’re concentrating, you might not even notice someone trying to get your attention.

On the other hand, diffuse mode is more like a pinball machine. There’s lots of room for your thoughts to wander and make connections between ideas.

The way that learning and creativity happen is through the alternating of these two modes of thinking.

We might call focused mode “Deep Work” and diffuse mode “Deliberate Rest.”

Creating Your Priorities

So when it comes to our work, we can roughly divide our activities into four categories: shallow work, distractions, deep work, and deliberate rest.

Many people spend all day reacting to distractions and busying their time with shallow work like answering email. For most of the rat race, this is actually how it is expected that you conduct your time.

And then they wonder why you don’t get anything done.

The way you should prioritize your time is to first set aside time for deliberate work, then set aside time for deliberate rest, then with the remaining time, use what is needed for any shallow works.

As the author John Updike notes, there is a place for shallow work:

“There is a great deal of busywork to a writer’s life, as to a professor’s life, a great deal of work that matters only in that, if you don’t do it, your desk becomes very full of papers. So, there is a lot of letter answering and a certain amount of speaking, though I try to keep that at a minimum.” — John Updike

The Importance of Work

Unlike many people who want to escape the rat race, I don’t believe that work is something bad to be avoided.

I believe that work is something vital to be embraced.

I believe that work is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

I think that creativity, the essence of true work, is one of the best tools that we have for making a contribution to society.

In fact, work is so important to me, that I never plan to retire.

I plan on reaching financial independence where I don’t need to work, but I don’t plan to ever stop working.

Work makes rest more meaningful and rest makes work more effective.

The Freedom to Choose

So this is where my desire to quit the rat race comes from. This is why I want to become a solopreneur and build passive income streams online.

It’s not because I want to sit on a beach somewhere and never worry about responsibility again (although there will probably be plenty of times where in the name of deliberate rest, I do find myself sitting on a beach).

It’s because I want the freedom to choose the work that is meaningful to me. The freedom to choose a way of working that lets me produce my best work and make my biggest contribution to society. The freedom to structure my time in a way that reflects the rhythms of the good life.

Maybe one day the 9–5 culture will catch on and the day will be structured around Deep Work and Deliberate Rest instead of shallow work and distractions.

Maybe one day the quality of your work will matter more than office politics.

Maybe one day I’ll find a job where I can contribute meaningful work.

But at this point, all that is wishful thinking.

It used to be the case that escaping the rat race was just wishful thinking. Now the tables have turned. Anyone who has mastered the basics of making money can create their own income steams.

Ditching 9–5 is now a reality; it’s saving 9–5 that has become a pipe dream.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +409,714 people.

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