August 8, 2017

How to Stay Productive When You Have a Flexible Schedule

Freelancers, entrepreneurs, and students: learn to escape the procrastination problem

More and more of us are moving away from the traditional 9 to 5 job toward a flexible schedule that allows us to work at our own pace. This freedom might be a perk to some, or it might be a huge, daunting challenge.

Either way, it poses a new, very real problem to solve: time management.

This challenge became real for me when I left my traditional job to work mostly remotely at Ink + Volt. Suddenly, the hour-by-hour structure I had grown accustomed to was replaced by a lot of free time. But this extra time was not an indication of less work.

In fact, my success was often dependent on doing more work, harder work, using more complex skills than I had used before — only with less structure. I found myself frequently overwhelmed and underperforming.

A change in how I designed my schedule required more strategic allocation of my time. I researched and practiced good planning techniques until I developed a system that provided the structure I needed to consistently stay on track.

Written for the job-seekers, freelancers, entrepreneurs, and students who must design their own schedules, this article shares the ways in which I’ve learned to add structure to a schedule that is inherently flexible.

Reflect on the big picture

Whether you’re already a leader in your industry, just starting a new career, or still trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, having a tantalizingly juicy goal will keep you moving forward.

Why? Because these big goals are just as exciting to think about as they are to achieve.

Imagine where you’d like to be in 5-10 years. Are you running your own successful business? Creating a product that you believe will change the world? Sinking your toes into the warm sands of a relaxing retirement?

Your goal is the context that drives the rest of your decision making. Reflect on this goal every so often to make sure you are moving closer toward achieving it. Feelings of burnout can be a sign that you have stagnated from your goal, or that your goal is no longer meaningful to you. If this is the case, you may want to consider a little personal re-branding to set you up for more meaningful success.

Put your goals on paper

While setting bigger goals can help you stay focused on what’s really important, smaller goals are critical to getting there. There is plenty of information on why goal-setting works, but how we set goals may also play an important role. I am a big believer in writing things down by hand, ideally in a place where I will look often.

The process of putting pen to paper helps me think through each goal more thoughtfully. I start with a “brain dump,” writing down every thought whirring around in my head.

With my words staring up at me, I can evaluate each goal with a critical eye. Something that makes sense in my head may look convoluted, irrelevant, or unimportant on paper. Or, I see that two or more goals I’ve written down overlap, and by combining these goals, I can save time! By articulating my goals in written words, all of a sudden, they are made much more real, and I am better prepared to prioritize, set realistic expectations and follow through.  

Know your motives

Knowing what you want to achieve is an important first step, but knowing why you want to achieve it will inspire action that propels you forward. If you’re able to articulate your motivation, you’ll be more likely to follow through when things get hard.

Your motivation may be extrinsic (like more money) or intrinsic (like mastery of your craft). Extrinsic motivation in the form of micro-rewards can be effective when used sparingly for particularly burdensome tasks. However, studies have demonstrated that extrinsic rewards are not a good driver of long term growth.

I encourage you to think about what intrinsically motivating factors drive the ‘why’ behind what you want to achieve. Does your response align with your big picture goal?

Get specific with your to-do list

It’s hard to dive into a task that seems overwhelming. I make excuses like “I only have an hour, and so I will wait to start when I have more time.”

But the reality is, sometimes I will only ever get an hour at a time. So I have had to figure out ways to make a daunting task seem more approachable.

One of the most effective methods is to break things into smaller, actionable items. To do this, list out each step needed to complete the task. For example, instead of “implement improved search,” I would start with a list like: “research existing open source solutions” and “create metrics to measure current quality.”  

A good rule of thumb is to break up the project into 15-30 minute tasks. That way, when you only have an hour, you still can move forward. Cross off each action as it is completed, so you always know what’s remaining and what’s already been done (and I love crossing things off because it gives me a sense of accomplishment).

Time-blocking

When you manage a flexible schedule, time is your most valuable resource. Time-blocking helps you optimize your time so that you have the most productive day ever. It forces you to focus on your top priorities for an amount of time that reflects their importance.

I set aside time every Monday to time-block my schedule for the coming week. I call this my Ninja Planning Session.

I start by identifying the the non-negotiables (like meetings I have scheduled). Then, I block out large chunks of time for deep, focused work. This work is given high priority, and I schedule it during a time where I can be alert and distraction free.

I like to physically block out chunks of time in my Ink + Volt Planner; however, you can time-block using a standard notebook or your Google calendar. Finally, I make sure to let people know when I am and am not available.

If you work remotely, it is that much more important to communicate with your manager about when and what you are working on. If you work from home, you may also want to communicate with your family about when you are “at work” and when you are free to relax.

Kick your brain into overdrive

Even when I’ve beautifully laid out my plan for the day, I sometimes still feel as though I’m trying to swim against the current. To overcome this psychological barrier, I trick my brain into building momentum.

If you’re not feeling able to dive right into work, start with a warm up exercise like journaling. I like to do the dishes–a technique I learned from Yaro Starak. Doing the dishes is a simple task that does not require a lot of mental effort. You could choose another task like making the bed, but choose something that is minimally taxing.

Completing this task will leave you with a sense of gratification, which triggers an emotional response that can help you start the harder work you need to get done. The satisfaction of a little success strokes your ego and motivates you to get started on other tasks. And once you get started on the work that matters, you’re more likely to follow it through to completion.

Procrastination hits us hardest when faced with a large task we don’t want to start. When we can trick ourselves into getting started (even with an unrelated task), we build momentum, which leads to bigger results.

Find your rhythm

Our minds sync to the rhythm of our bodies, so knowing exactly when you feel most wakeful and energized can help you maximize your output and/or creativity. Getting a good night’s sleep allows our bodies to reset, jump-starting this cycle.

Circadian rhythms regulate our sleep cycles, making sure our melatonin (the hormone that makes us sleepy) levels peak at night and stay low during the rest of the day.

I feel as though I am most productive early in the morning, so I like to schedule my most important tasks before 10am. Figure out what schedule works with your body clock, then make sure you get enough deep sleep to function at high gear.

I also create mini-rhythms during the day to keep me alert and focused. I balance deep, focused work with small breaks that allow me to rest my mind and reenergize. The Pomodoro Technique is a great tool to help you develop mini rhythms into your routine. Practicing the Pomodoro Technique is simple: 25 minutes of deep focused work, followed by a 5 minute break.

Using this technique is another good reason to break your work into smaller pieces. That way you can start and complete a task in one Pomodoro cycle.

However, this technique means that you have to commit yourself to the task at hand — no checking email, phone notifications, or snack breaks!

Stay busy

You may think that when you have flexibility in your schedule, you are able to get more done. I’ve found the opposite to be true.

I get the most done when I don’t have too much dead space in my schedule. Why? Because I’m better at prioritizing my time when I know that there are constraints. I’m also better at scheduling my day in advance when I know that it’s crunch time. That way, I’m able to move seamlessly from one task to the other without having to waste time figuring out what I should work on next.

If you’ve moved from a crazy structured schedule to the flexible pace of an early-stage startup employee, you might find, like I did, that you do have extra time in your schedule. To avoid wasting that time on Facebook, start a side project that keeps you feeling busy.

I’m not saying that you want to be so busy that you are stressed all the time, but adding in a side project to those empty parts of the day will help you build structure into your flexible schedule. Ultimately, you want to focus your efforts on something that helps you grow.  

Recharge your batteries

You can’t run on fumes for long! Knowing when to take a break can be especially challenging when you are responsible for designing your own schedule. You may feel like you have to work 7 days a week. I’m guilty of doing this… especially when I’ve squandered my time during the week.

But I promise you, the work will get done if you take a weekend to recharge. In fact, taking time off usually results in better productivity during your work week because you’re fresh, well-rested (hopefully!), and you know exactly how much time you have to cross off those to-dos before your next weekend.

If your work does not allow you to take off two days in a row (maybe you freelance, and you have to work a little bit each day), make sure you add scheduled breaks to your calendar. These breaks need to be long enough to allow you to fuel your body and soul, spend time with your family, and catch up on sleep.

Make it a habit

It’s not enough to have one really productive day. For results, you need consistency. That is, you need to make productivity a habit that you can practice every day until it feels natural. But trying to implement every tip on this list at once might be hard to sustain. Instead, try a few of these tips at a time. Once they start to flow with your work schedule, try implementing a few more until you’ve streamlined your productivity.

Remember that it takes time to form a habit. These techniques may not feel natural all at once, but keep at it! We believe that small changes can result in a big payoff.

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