After Hours

“Off-peak” lifestyle evangelists insist on the value of being untimely

Mr. Money Mustache is in his early 40s, and he has been retired for 12 years. “One of the key principles of Mustachianism,” begins a lofty 2013 post, “is that any and all lineups, queues, and other sardine-like collections of humans must be viewed with the squinty eyes of skepticism.” His blog explains that everything you have been taught about money and time is wrong. Mr. Money Mustache, once the subject of a New Yorker profile,  worked as a software engineer and saved half of his salary from the age of 20, and his vision of time is that of an engineer: time becomes a machine that can be tinkered with, hours and minutes rewired to achieve a more elegant purpose. His primary message is that you will not achieve financial security and personal happiness by working harder to get ahead of the pack; you will find these things by carefully studying what the pack is doing and then doing the opposite.

A post entitled “A Peak Life is Lived Off-Peak” extols the virtues of doing everything at the wrong time. The Mustache family lives in Colorado, where everyone goes skiing on the weekends; Mr. Mustache recommends hitting the slopes on Tuesdays. The Mustaches drive through major cities between 10 in the morning and four in the afternoon. Thursday morning is for teaching robotics to his son, whom he homeschools; below-freezing nights in January are for moonlit walks. Holidays are to be taken only when everyone else is at work. “Most people spend most of their time doing what everyone else does, without giving it much thought,” Mr. Money Mustache writes. “And thus, it is usually very profitable to avoid doing what everyone else is doing.”

Off-peakers often seem to feel that they’ve discovered a secret too good to keep — something that was right in front of us the whole time

The Mustaches are not the only online evangelists for the off-peak lifestyle. In a post entitled, “I Want You to Become an Off-Peak Person!” Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur who writes about turning his ADHD to his advantage, recommends grocery shopping at one in the morning. J.P. Livingston’s blog the Money Habit features photos of New York City that make it seem like a small town: a thinly populated subway, a near-empty museum. (The bins in time’s bargain basement seem to be overflowing with Tuesdays: train rides, drinks, meals, museum visits, and movies are cheaper when they happen on what is referred to in Canada as “Toonie Tuesdays,” in Australia as “Tight-Arse Tuesdays.”)

The thesis of off-peak evangelism is summed up by one of Mr. Mustache’s calls for a rejection of conformity: “In our natural state,” he writes, “we are supposed to be a diverse and individualistic species.” It is natural, he argues, for individual schedules to vary — why should we all expect to eat, sleep, work, and play in lockstep, like members of a militaristic cult? Standardized schedules create waste and clog infrastructure. Off-peak evangelism proposes a market value to individuality and diversity as mechanisms for repurposing humanity’s collective wasted time. While not a formalized movement, people who blog about off-peaking often seem to feel that they’ve discovered a secret too good to keep to themselves — something that was right in front of us the whole time, requiring only that we recognize our own power to choose.

Off-peaking is the closest thing to a Platonic form of subculture: its entire content is its opposition to the mainstream. As an economic approach, the solution off-peaking proposes can seem unkind — it’s a microcosm of the larger capitalist idea that it is right to profit from the captivity of others. And yet off-peakers only want, in effect, to slow time down by stretching the best parts of experience while wasting less. The arguments for off-peaking have centered on both the economic and the social advantages of recuperating unexploited time, like a form of temporal dumpster-diving that restores worth to low-demand goods.

The disruptions of the tech sector have contributed to the rise of a gig economy and decline of standard employment, along with the standard workday; paradoxically, as more and more of us are unintentionally turning into off-peak people, off-peaking is in danger of becoming an antiquated technology. As time breaks with its 20th-century patterns, what happens to the value of the off-kilter life?

As we know from the Byrds by way of the Book of Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season.” A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to reap. Ecclesiastes, thought to have been written between the fifth and second century before the common era, is one of the most existentially searching books in the Bible. Many of wisdom literature’s greatest hits are to be found in this collection of verses: the speaker complains that all is vanity, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that all comes from dust and returns to dust. One of the more soothing proposals in this bleak vision is that human life’s emotional and physical suffering finds meaning in its shared rhythms.

The “season” for driving to and from work have been so written into industrialized areas that the cascade of rush-hour traffic feels like a force of nature

In the agrarian world of the biblical era, these shared rhythms were dictated by the passage of the sun in the sky and the tilt of the earth. In today’s post-industrial landscape, the rhythm that has shaped our perceptions of time most forcefully is the vision of a 19th-century Welsh reformer named Robert Owen, who argued for “eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” The notion of the standardized workday was an attempt to prevent new industrial jobs, aided and abetted by the invention of electrical lighting, from paving over any rhythmic division of the day, the week, or indeed the year, with an experience of time that unrolled like a conveyor belt — smooth, uniform, and inexorably leading to more labor. The 40-hour work week was supposed to restore a sense of fitness to our newly artificial relationship with time’s external markers.

The peaks and valleys created by a massive population living in a standardized way are the fallout of this well-meaning reform. Traffic congestion is an Ecclesiastes problem: The season for driving to work and the season for driving home have been so successfully written into the human experience in industrialized areas that the cascade of rush-hour traffic now feels like a force of nature. What’s more, the regularity of the time to type and the time to file, the time to answer phones and the time to sit in meetings does not seem to have provided a reassuring bulwark against existential despair. For the off-peaker, the unnatural rhythms of the standard workday and work-week have trapped the average worker in the agony of an inefficient cycle.

This creates, for the savvy dealer in unpopular time, a corresponding set of opportunities: The misfortune of the many becomes the fortune of the few. This is why off-peak philosophy can seem to swerve into an entrepreneurial misanthropy — a minority can bask in the oodles of free time that other people are swindling themselves out of. “More times than not, when you notice people lined up, turn around and get the hell away because you are most likely in the proximity of others paying good money for stupid things,” writes a man who identifies himself only as Steve on his blog Think, Save, Retire. Off-peakers often seems angry that other people are stupid, and yet this continued stupidity is baked into the vision.

Taken at its most individualistic, it can seem that the idea of off-peaking is not to free everyone from the bonds of inefficency, but to position oneself to take advantage of the unthinking conformity of others. Success depends upon continued brokenness, not on fixing what is broken — or at least, on fixing it only for oneself and a canny self-selecting few. In this view, off-peaking is a miniaturized entrepreneurialism that exploits a wonky blip in the way slots of time are assigned value; a matter of identifying an arbitrage opportunity created by the system’s lack of self-awareness.

The comment sections of off-peakers’ blogs are, paradoxically, bustling: stories of going to bed at nine and waking up at four to ensure that the day is perfectly out of step; Legoland on Wednesdays in October; eating in restaurants as soon as they open rather than waiting for standard meal times. There’s a wealth of bargains to be had by juggling one’s calendar to take advantage of deals. (The app Ibotta, which tracks fluctuating prices on consumer goods popular with millennials, determined that Tuesdays are actually the worst days to buy rosé and kombucha; you should buy them on Wednesdays. Avocados are also cheapest on Wednesdays, while quinoa should be bought on Thursdays and hot sauce on Fridays.) Many posters write that they are considering changing professions or homeschooling their children to join the off-peakers.

Some off-peakers are motivated by savings, some by avoiding crowds, but off-peaking also offers a more abstract pleasure: the sheer delight in doing the unexpected. The gravitas attached to the seasons of life listed off in Ecclesiastes is echoed in the moral overtones attached to perceptions of what is appropriate for different hours of the day. It is wrong to laugh when everyone else is weeping or to embrace when everyone else is refraining from embracing. Ordinary activities become subversive when done at the wrong time: eating spaghetti for dinner is ordinary, but having linguini with clam sauce for breakfast breaks the unwritten rules. Once you start transgressing, it can be hard to stop: The arbitrariness of custom begins to chafe.

But off-peakers are generally not hoping to be completely solitary in their pursuits; most people don’t want to be the only person in their step-aerobics class at two in the afternoon. Instead, they want to be one among a smaller, more manageable group than urban cohorts tend to allow. Subcultures offer the pleasure of being different along with the pleasure of being the same; variation becomes a passport to acceptance. The two people who encounter one another at the aquarium on a Wednesday morning appear to have more in common than the two hundred people who see each other there on a weekend. Like other choices that divide people into subsets, off-peaking allows its adherents to discover a kinship that may or may not reveal a significant similarity in worldview.

There are other, deeper challenges to the notion that a centrally set schedule can work for everyone. Some people are physiologically maladapted to the nine-to-five workday, and even to the broader expectation that wakefulness be associated with sunlight and sleep with dark. “Since childhood, I have memories of panicking when sleep just wouldn’t come,” journalist Louise Hung wrote on XOJane in 2015. She embarked on a project she called “Dark Week,” getting up at noon, working from three in the afternoon to four in the morning, and going to sleep at five or six o’clock. “I loved it. It was easy. I felt like I was keeping hours that I didn’t have to work at.” There have long been criticisms of the highschool schedule as tailor-made to the rhythms of the adult workday rather than the biological needs of adolescents — the circadian rhythms of teenagers wake them up and put them to sleep later than adults. The sleep-deprivation that school-going teenagers often experience can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as hindering cognition during a period specifically set aside for learning.

When everyone is on the same schedule, other human bodies turn into obstacles to be navigated

The tension between a schedule that might work for students and a schedule that works for teachers and parents illustrates the degree to which scheduling in general is an exercise in trying to constrain individual time for collective benefit. Your time is not your own, but is seen as collectively held property that must be marshalled for the common good. For society to run properly, time must be portioned out in a way that prioritizes, say, the roads being plowed over the plow operator having breakfast in bed. Being out of sync with yourself, the standardizers might say, is a small price to pay for the smooth running of society as a whole. The problem, the off-peakers might say, is that society doesn’t end up running smoothly — it ends up squashing individual freedom while also trapping everyone in traffic jams, long lines, and artificially inflated prices.

As the population increases, avoiding other people and their habits becomes an act of charity rather than one of misanthropy. In the same way that after Hurricane Sandy, New York state instituted odd-even gasoline rationing — allowing cars with odd and even license plates to fill up only on alternating days — attempts to smooth out the distribution of resource usage over time can release everyone from the need to compete with too many other people. A comment on Mr. Money Mustache’s off-peak post reads, “you can almost pretend it’s the ’70s again and the population is half of what it really is.”

In fact, perhaps the biggest proponents of off-peaking as an alternative lifestyle are municipal and state governments. Depending on where they live, users of public transit and the electrical grid may find themselves rewarded for choosing to use these services at unpopular times. In London, you can choose between Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak fares depending on the time of day and destination. In November, India’s Environment Pollution-Prevention and Control Authority declared New Delhi’s smog a crisis situation, and recommended cutting prices for off-peak public transit to try to get cars off the roads. In many places, consumers save money if they choose to do laundry and wash dishes at strange hours. In the past five years or so, pilot programs have given participants smart air-conditioners that responded to wirelessly received information about variations in the price of electricity over the course of the day.

Off-peakers are voluntarily odd-evening themselves; and the pro-social side of off-peaking might be reflected in the quality of the relationships that form in smaller groups. Commenters on off-peak blog posts write that their favorite café has more of a community feel on weekdays than on crowded weekends, or that the few people in the grocery store are chattier and more relaxed. When everyone is on the same schedule, the physical presence of other human bodies turns them into obstacles to be navigated. On a less crowded field, it’s easier to see people as people.

As precarious labor becomes more common, the distinction between off-peakers-by-choice and off-peakers-by-necessity starts to seem primarily one of attitude. In Peter Shankman’s off-peak post, he writes jubilantly, “The nine-to-five is 95 percent dead.” This is not quite true, but a survey last year by the human resources company CareerBuilder asked people in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. whether they thought the traditional nine-to-five workday was on the wane. The survey found that 61 percent of those polled found the model outdated. Studies also indicate that for 35 percent of millennials, flexible work hours are more important than pay. Of course, millennials also came to working age at a time when technology had already extended the office’s long arm; the expectation of long hours and constant availability has been disempowering for workers in the less formal arrangements that are now common.

Businesses are increasingly expected to provide services and respond to questions or complaints at any time of day or night, and as freelance work replaces salaried positions, the division between home and work is erased. Many of the off-peak blogs are focused on early retirement and the reclamation of time for leisure; the variable hours that are becoming standard seem only to be forcing more people into working for longer. Weekends and evenings are folded into the work-week, and the ability to go grocery shopping at less busy times hardly seems like compensation enough for the loss of stability and vacation time. Negotiating for increased control over one’s schedule offers time itself as a sort of bonus.

As widespread normalization of flexible hours exerts a new kind of pressure on our working lives, conscious adoption of the anti-consumerist philosophy voiced by many off-peak blogs may help us carve our time into manageable shapes again. Nine-to-five work was normal in a century when steady employment and home ownership were also normal. Now that none of these things are reliable markers of adulthood, why not build on Robert Owen’s reforms to refashion our own systems of idiosyncratic time? Replicating the humanitarian aspects of the 20th century’s approach to labor in a market where overwork is normal and the burden for regulating hours falls on individuals may require a certain amount of disdain for prevailing societal norms. The inner voice saying that Tuesday afternoons are for working rather than for going to the park or the art gallery may need to be engaged in argument by a second inner voice, one that allows us to imagine placing something other than work at the center of our lives.

This essay is part of a collection of essays on the theme of CIRCADIAN MEDIA. Also from this week, Ana Cecilia Alvarez on mourning routines, and Adam Fales on morning show-ness.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.