March 6, 2018

Getting Things Done When You Have an Unpredictable Schedule

Don't let your days get away from you or burn you out.

As planner users, there’s a high assumption that we love (or crave) structure in our lives.

But what about when your life seems to repel structure? How can you hope to get much of anything done? A planner brings us certainty to some degree, but can you use a planner when you don’t have certainty about your schedule long-term?

I would consider myself a “lifestyle freelancer.” I take on income-producing projects only to achieve the level of income I need to live, reach my goals, and build a safety net. Projects range in price and in time commitment, so there will sometimes be weeks where I’m entirely booked with work and others when I don’t need to work, that are uncomfortably free.

In the weeks where I’m unencumbered by client work, there are still many projects on my dance card. Those projects (typically unpaid or income-draining) include: building a house, growing my business, practicing my hobbies, and more.

My unpredictable schedule resulted in months where I kept asking myself if I was doing the right thing, always feeling little unsure whether or not I was wasting my time. I struggled to fill my planner during the weeks I didn’t have freelance work, yet somehow, I was just as busy as during my working weeks.

What changed for me recently was seeing the many ways I split my time into “projects.”

When I started thinking of my days in terms of the project or projects I was working on during that day, it became easier to plot out a smart schedule in my planner for every week. Every day had a project, and that project had a plan – a budget (money or time!) – a schedule – milestones – goals – steps – celebration.

I not only gained more productivity in my work, but I also channeled the energy I was using sporadically into consciously taking steps forward in each of my pursuits.

The principles I’m sharing with you have helped me through years of unpredictable schedules, juggling paid and unpaid projects, disappointing a few people here and there, and learning a bit about my personal rhythm. I hope these lessons will help you as much as they have helped me.

Flowing with your unpredictable schedule

Principle 1: Create your own structure.

Without someone else imposing a schedule on you (like a 9-5 job does) you are going to have to impose it yourself. Otherwise, you risk letting the day get away from you as you wonder what exactly you should be doing.

Define what time in your day is flexible, and what time is not flexible. Then drop your daily activities into those categories as needed.

Always record what’s concrete or protected in your planner or digital calendar (or both). It’s completely okay to schedule your lunch hour, your morning routine, family dinner, weekend farmer’s market excursions, and other “non-work” events. It’s important to mark what is non-negotiable, so you know what time you have available with which to work when the unpredictable work comes in.

For the next couple of weeks, pay attention to what times of day you are most productive, creative, tired, or relaxed. Planning important work and intellectually taxing projects at the time when you’re sharpest can save you effort and frustration. Block off those times in your calendar, even if you don’t know yet what work you’ll be doing there yet.

Plan to work on less taxing projects into the time when you’re more relaxed and comfortable, or use those flexible periods of time for things you enjoy like taking an afternoon yoga class.

Principle 2: Know your priorities.

Let’s get this out of the way – if you’re familiar with the epic Ted Talk How great leaders inspire action (based on his book Start with Why), keep that concept in mind moving forward. If you’re not, use the link above at some point to deeply understand the importance of why.

The best in life is what you make it. It is up to you to define your days so that you make the most of your time. Don’t let your days just happen to you – decide proactively how you will make every single one count.

To make your schedule something satisfying and fulfilling, write down your priorities and get to know them.

  1. What is most important to you in life?
  2. What do you believe?
  3. What do you want to accomplish?
  4. How do you want to make an impact?

Now, what in your current schedule fits into those priorities? What have you wanted to add to your calendar that is in-line with your priorities?

Your priorities will guide you through your daily tasks with intention, just as it will guide you in a true direction toward what’s next in the bigger picture for your life and career.

Principle 3: Use the tools you have, get the tools you need.

Tools can be physical, digital, even academic or intellectual if that’s your speed. The most important thing about your tools is that you use them! Use your planner, calendar, technology, stationery, software – whatever it is that helps you stay grounded and on track toward your priorities.

Some tools that may help you stay productive (and even successful!) during lighter times:

  • Project/task management software like Trello or Asana, in which you can create interactive plans, schedule milestones, and juggle multiple projects, both personal and professional.
  • Paper planner and digital reminder system that mirror one another. While it may be a natural habit to review your planner multiple times throughout the day, employing technology at your disposal to remind you, alter you, inspire you, and organize you will increase your productivity simply by freeing up mental space.
  • Outline, spreadsheet, or mind map of each project you’re working on concurrently. This space to brainstorm, collect ideas, make decisions, and capture progress can help you stay organized when efforts on a project surge one week then peter out the next.
  • Well designed products that inspire you. Are you more likely to use your planner every day if you love the feel of the paper? Are you more productive on the road when you use a bag that has structure, pockets, and the space you need for your tools? Then acquire and use those products – make it easy for yourself to feel grounded and prepared for whatever comes your way.
Principle 4: Treat your life projects like your client or work projects.

When it comes to a client, your boss, or your kids, it’s important to stay on top of your various projects when others are counting on you. When it comes to a client, do you go a month without speaking to them about the progress of their deliverable? Do you ignore emails from your boss for weeks because you “can’t make time”? Of course not!

Give yourself the same courtesy you give those that are counting on you and create time, space, and resources for the things that matter to you too. When you’re living a schedule that doesn’t afford you consistent, predictable times to enjoy recreation, creativity, and self-development, it’s up to you to create them for yourself.

Make appointments with yourself and schedule them on your calendar, just like you would any other important meeting. Make them recurring, as often as makes sense for you — every week, month, etc.

  • 10 minutes a day to read a book
  • 1 hour a week to take a yoga class
  • 1 Saturday morning per month for brunch with friends

Hold that time sacred and use it for whatever will recharge your batteries.

Principle 5: Accountability makes it real.

Sometimes, accountability is uncomfortable. Especially when it could embarrass you if you mess up. Accountability is also awesome because it means that in doing something challenging, you’re not alone.

The people in your life who count on you and the people who care about you want to see you succeed – if you are working on a project that you know will need some cheerleading to get across the finish line, reach out to those around you.

When setting up or working on a project that may be subject to an unpredictable schedule, set milestones and share them with someone you trust. Schedule check-ins with this person to make sure you are still on track, and to catch yourself before you fall too far behind.

It’s easy to sink into the couch and veg out when we have time off – but is that what will fulfill you?

While I do enjoy relaxing and giving my mind a rest, the time I’ve created through budgeting my income and work hours is precious. That time, as much or as little as you have, is yours for maximizing. If you want to start that business but your child’s school schedule and events keep you on your toes, you will have to create the time for yourself to work on that business. If you want to move to that foreign country to teach English but you’re constantly waiting for application replies, you will have to make space to explore other avenues to achieve that goal.

If you want to accomplish more than you ever have in your “spare time,” create structure, use your tools, document your work, take your projects seriously, and get yourself held accountable. You can do so much more than you think.

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