The Possible Productivity Perils of Living Single

The Possible Productivity Perils of Living Single

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.


p>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.


  1. Mike 11 years ago

    It’s not just a single-person problem. Trust me.

    Years ago I took sailing lessons and I think they called it a “breach” when the boat was on it’s side and the sail was on the surface of the water. Yeah, that’s a bad thing.

    Anyway, that is my silent term for when things are so messy and screwed up that I have no choice but to stop what I am doing and deal with it. Same idea, stopped, dead in the water and you have to forget where you were going for a while.

  2. Peter Knight 11 years ago

    I got married but my sleep cycle still goes around the clock, exactly as you said it: going to sleep later and later each day until you make a full round. My wife has gotten used to it. I do think that it’s more a symptom of being able to work entirely on one’s own accord without too much regard for a calendar. That has got to be more common now there are more people working from from home.

  3. Author
    Dave Seah 11 years ago

    What I’m thinking, for my own situation, is that maybe letting days roll around isn’t a problem after all. Along similar lines, being out-of-sync with the majority of the world might not be a problem either. Heck, no one else is seeing it. Up to now, I’d assumed it was an issue if I wanted to draw on social resources.

    Mike: Do you anticipate the breach event and cope with it until it happens? I’m not quite seeing the connection between weird habits, solitude, and things getting messed up.

    Peter: Thanks for relating your experience! Does your wife also have a rotating sleep schedule, or are you fairly independent in scheduling? That’s a good observation, about this being more of a common thing with the work-from-home people. That give rise to the following thought, which is that if I make my business more time-insensitive, that would be an acceptable way of dealing with this tendency. I imagine that I could snap out of it if it was really required.

  4. Peter Knight 11 years ago

    My wife’s sleep schedule doesn’t rotate like mine and it does drive us a bit nuts at times when my cycle is the polar opposite but there are also advantages as we individually get more creative work done when one of us is asleep. She’s also a morning person, it’s like her creative brain closes up shop by sun-down each day. I like both the night times and the mornings as those are the quietest parts of the day anyway.

    I think those people who’s schedule is free and flexible enough and have a circadian rhythm that is a bit longer than 24 hours will naturally fall into this pattern. I’ve learned not to fight it too much because resetting a sleep regime deliberately is not easy, especially when trying to correct a large amount of hours. If I really had to snap out of it I’d probably just plan something outside the house each morning.

    The one thing I have learnt to do (the hard way) is to make sure that despite a constantly moving sleep pattern I still have a good structure to my work time by compartmentalizing as much as possible.

  5. Mike 11 years ago

    I think the commonality here is not singleness as much as working independently, and in my case, in a space that is not seen much by others.

    Do you anticipate the breach event and cope with it until it happens?

    Sure, I see it building and deliberately decide to continue on with my current priority. Eventually I must deal with it because either there is something I need, which I can’t find, or something I can’t do because something is literally in the way… or visitors are imminent. When the “breach” occurs though, I stop and work on the environment until everything is back to normal, and sometimes rearrange the zone where usage leads to disorder (not always possible). Then I tell myself I will never let it get this bad again :-)

    I’m not quite seeing the connection between weird habits, solitude, and things getting messed up.

    I was mainly referring to your first bullet point:

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

    But, the increasing quirkiness applies to me as well. I am reminded of a linguistics article I read some time ago. The gist was that people working together in isolation will develop significant changes to their language (e.g. new words) in as little as six months. The article was considering situations like people working in polar research centers. Once the last seasonal drop off of people and supplies occurs they have no contact with the outside world for another six months.

    The connection is that this is like our working-in-isolation evolution of habit patterns as well.

    • Lynn O'Connor 11 years ago

      Married, weird & erratic sleep schedule, quirky & chaotic piles of papers.

      It’s better than if I lived alone because my husband does the life maintenance work, you know the shopping, cooking a few times a week, and laundry. I work and make a mess. I work more (at what I want to work, not necessarily at what I should be working), making more mess. Even doing GTD, it’s a mess. Many papers I have to read carefully, I need to see hard copy.

      I have an office upstairs that I keep “tidy” although like the rest of the house it’s lined with high bookshelves, it could be called victoriana cluttered, but still relatively neat –it’s where I meet with students and clients. Our main living room (downstairs) is my academic/writing/research office, i.e. where it’s all really happening but not where I am making my income. Well that’s not entirely true, like organizing a class, reading dissertations, I do in my living room office, and that is part of my income. Overall I totally identify, and you made the productivity forms for people like us who do knowledge work, who have offices at home (with no boss enforcing what we do when) –my conditions are such that I fell in love with those forms. So we have similar conditions.

      David –I finally launched my Psychology Today blog (main title is what you and I came up with together) “Our Empathic Nature: The Altruistic Side of Evolutionary Psychology.” Link is:

      I hope you (and your readers) will take a look at it. Comment if you feel so inclined. It’s my usual, discussing news in psychology. I still am way too wordy, almost academic, but hopefully I’ll get better. Now I have to organize a new class I’m teaching in 6 weeks, and I’ve procrastinated on the job of getting it together. See, that’s why I need bold forms staring at me. Meanwhile what I’ve really been doing is watching MSNBC, for hours, every night. And I’m teaching myself zumba with clips I got from You Tube. I have to start working on the class lectures, right? Out come the forms, the ETP (I’m using a mini right now, combined with some weekly view, paper based, planner-pad.

      David, thank you so much for the title!!!!

  6. James.H 11 years ago

    “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.”

    Indeed, I have a whole set of fixed schedules for financial management, job hunting, etc. that I ended up deriving from this short page I found in an airline magazine:

    I have always had a tough time focusing and this was very helpful to pick five things for 2012 to focus on and really have those things be the key things I spend my mental time on.

    Having a kid year old demands more than just time, but attention. If you wonder why parents seem tired it’s that: if you don’t have money for nanny’s, sitters or daycare, your attention is 100% on your child all the time, even when it’s not. A kid is a source of constant focus for you for a variety of reason including making sure they feel like you pay attention to them and also the basics of making sure they aren’t doing anything to hurt themselves. It’s the lack of letting your mind go time that really wipes out parents of young kids more than anything.

    My only method of recovering non-kid attention time is to get up between 4 and 6 AM every day (yes, in bed between 8 and 10 PM every day – 10 PM is a late, late night for me now) and then use that time productively. Moreover, I find that when I schedule “open” time to let myself do wandering things online, etc. that I no longer come out of that time feeling like I have enjoyed it very much. Having a a goal for those times makes me feel more productive, even if I don’t get much done.

    If I did live alone I would probably have a very streamlined lifestyle at this point with very little physical stuff. Living in a 2BR apt in San Francisco since 2001 and then converting one of those bedrooms to a kid room and subsequently having the kid grow up here in the 2BR so far (she’s 3.5) makes one value efficient organization of space and cleaning and straightening and organizing on a very regular basis.