When everything is agile, it can be difficult to stay productive. Changing requirements and priorities often necessitate task switching, which takes a toll on your concentration, accuracy, and efficiency.
This gets more complicated when your schedule is also agile. The usual productivity tips apply best to those working in a typical office with typical hours. What if you don’t work within a structured schedule?
Estimates say between 10% and 20% of US workers have irregular and on-call work schedules. Software teams can be distributed, with coworkers needing to collaborate across time zones. Many of us work from home now, and may be allowed to make our own hours or take time off in the middle of the day for errands. Many more work in a freelance or contractor capacity. And even those of us with “normal” schedules don’t consistently do the same work during the same hours every week.
How can we stay most productive when work ebbs and flows or occurs outside the typical nine-to-five?
Here are three tactics to be more productive when your schedule is unpredictable.
1. Establish a routine
A routine can help you be productive. But more importantly, not having a routine can make it more difficult to be productive.
Once you put in the initial work to establish a routine, there’s no effort involved; you simply operate within those confines. That gives you more mental energy for things like creative tasks and knowledge work.
It’s like having a documented process so you’re not solving the same problems every day that have already been solved. Having a routine reduces decision fatigue and helps you get into that “flow” state conducive to productivity.
How can you cultivate a routine when your schedule is irregular? It may be as simple as starting and ending each work period by answering emails. If you work from home, it could be blocking out an hour each day to have lunch and then take a walk.
When you have a routine, you have to fit work into and around it, which means you need to be productive with your time.
2. Create some structure around work
It’s important to have some structure around when and how you work. Develop some cues that tell your brain it’s time for work so you can easily get down to business.
That could mean always working from the same place (and doing nothing except work there), putting on headphones and listening to music to get in the zone, or instituting a hard-stop time every day, no matter what.
3. Find what works for you
There’s limited value in trying to copy the routine of some Fortune 500 big shot you read about. What worked for them isn’t likely to be the key to your productivity; you’ll see the biggest returns from a routine when it fits your natural rhythms and preferences.
Some things, like meeting times, are non-negotiable. But if you have some wiggle room with your work hours, base them around your own tendencies. If you’re a night owl, stop waking up at 6 a.m. and try working late instead. Experiment to find your most productive times, and then schedule your work around that.
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Originally published on TechWell Insights.