The Possible Productivity Perils of Living Single

From the 2012 Archives Musings #HABITS 7 Comments

My sister forwarded me this New York Times article: The Freedom, and Perils, of Living Alone. I’m guessing she found it amusing and relevant to me, and indeed I was struck by the eerie similarities between “secret single behavior” and my own daily patterns. For example:

  • The “indulgent work style” of working 24/7, letting the entire house fall into domestic chaos. There’s no one there to see.

  • My weird sleep cycle, which starts by going to sleep later and later until the day cycles around. I’ve written about this before, alternatively fighting it and giving in, depending on the nature of paying work I have on deck.

  • My eating habits, which are irregularly based on whatever food whim has me in thrall at a given moment. One day, it’s exploring the mysteries of duck roasting so I can try making mashed potatoes with duck fat (allegedly amazing), while other days it’s testing the thermal conductivity of chicken to calculate the optimum cooking time and temperature.

  • The tendency to get “quirkier and quirkier”, as evidenced by my indulgence in making printable productivity forms to stand-in for actual bosses. Would anyone who had a real boss even think of such a thing? Perhaps they are not talking to their cat enough.

Apparently I’m not alone in experiencing these behaviors, as the NYT article cites numerous examples from a variety of long-time “soloists”. The interesting thing is that until now, I’ve subconsciously felt that these behaviors were unique personal problems; for the first time, it seems possible that there’s just no one around to help me establish patterns. And since most people, myself included, have assumed that well-defined habits of eating and sleeping are prevalent, therefore normal, and by extension desirable…well, I’d assumed that I was just constantly screwing up. It may just be that there’s no one around to help me set patterns.

On a related note, there’s the recent finding that your real-life social network can influence your health, as described in this other NYT article, Are Your Friends Making You Fat?. Based on a sociological analysis of medical data gathered during the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found strong correlation between the company you keep and the habits you follow. It makes sense; what’s surprising is just how powerful the social factor is. That makes me wonder how this extends to the singe person experiencing an absence of social shaping forces. My guess is that when there is no “group normality” imposed regularly, habitual weirdness naturally occurs. Socially, I inhabit my own private Galapagos, free to evolve unique beliefs and activities that operate according to the rules in my own head.

I’ve also noticed a marked difference in my lifestyle when I travel and stay with friends that have young children. I’m struck by how productive and focused they are with their time, because they HAVE to be. Between kids and work, the almighty clock becomes the executioner of the day, dictating where people need to be to maintain synchronization with the complexity of modern working and living. It’s a rigor that I am not used to facing, and I sometimes feel a bit guilty for living what seems an “irresponsible life”. But I also see that parents are often tired, especially if they’re working a demanding job at the same time, and what energy they had has been invested into their offspring and offered as corporate fealty. At most, getting in one episode of Battlestar Galactica is reward for a hard day’s work, but for everything else the metrics for achievement are clear: a rewarding family life that has an observable impact on child development, made possible with a good job. The rules of life may not be 100% clear, but it’s easy to tell if you’re winning or losing on a daily basis. When you’re living single or lack that varied social context, such quality feedback is difficult to obtain, and we start to suspect that we’re not doing anything at all. Is this feeling a fair tradeoff for the luxury of not closing the bathroom door or drinking milk right out of the carton? It’s a tough call…on one side, the advantages of being in an active lifestyle that dictates priorities for you balances the lack of free time. On the other, limitless freedom breeds disconnectedness and 100% responsibility for creating your own excitement.

Anyway, my take-away is that my weird habits are quite possibly not my fault; they are merely the fruits of living single in happy solitude. If I really want to wake up every day at the same time, I need to take responsibility for ensuring that there’s a danged good reason for it. That that requires a feeling of responsibility toward something greater than myself.

What form will that take? I don’t know, but I’ll keep an eye out for it.