There’s a lot of content out there about productivity.
You can find tips like turning off alerts, tackling tasks in batches, and writing out a physical to-do list everywhere. The vast majority of that advice arises with the traditional workday in mind—it’s designed for knowledge workers who sit at a desk from 9 AM to 5 PM every Monday through Friday.
Here’s the thing: by and large, the American workforce doesn’t work within the confines of this structured schedule. For example:
Those of us with “regular” full-time jobs don’t reliably do the same work during the same hours every week.
“Work” isn’t always paid, desk work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 84 percent of women and 68 percent of men spend time doing household activities (like housework, cooking, or financial and other household management) on an average day.
Whether it’s shift work or gig work, estimates place the number of U.S. workers with irregular and on-call work schedules at 10-20 percent.
The productivity best practices that work for paid desk work often aren’t enough to keep productivity flowing when work happens in fits and starts or outside that 9-to-5 schedule.
Let's dig into why that is and explore why our brains work best on schedule and detail three data-backed tactics to be more productive when your schedule is unpredictable.
Why Do Our Brains Work Best With A Routine?
We know many of the great minds in history followed the same routines and rituals every day. As author Mason Currey writes in his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, “A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.”
“In the right hands,” he writes, “[a routine] can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.”
In a nutshell: deciding on a routine can help you be your best, most productive self.
Before we can talk about managing productivity when your schedule is erratic, let’s talk about why a lack of routine puts extra strain on your ability to work productively.
Routine Is Greater Than Willpower
Many people believe that productivity is a function of willpower. Sit down and do the work—that’s all there is to it. Willpower can help you be more productive, for sure, but it’s a finite resource. We only have so much willpower to use (and you’re working with even less if you’ve already forced yourself to the gym today).
Routine is a much stronger and more enduring motivator than willpower because it doesn’t require any effort from you. Once you put in the work to establish a routine, you can work within it like clockwork. That means you have more mental energy left over for things like creativity and the actual work you do.
Routines Tell Your Brain What’s Expected Of It
When you follow the same routine each day, it sends a message to your brain about what’s expected and what comes next. That does two things:
It helps you cultivate the “flow” state that leads to radical productivity.
When your mind doesn’t have to think or make decisions about what comes next, it frees up more mental energy for your actual tasks.
Not to mention, behavioral economics research has shown that simply thinking about the time and place you’ll work on something increases the likelihood you’ll actually get it done. A routine takes the list of tasks you should do at some point, and schedules them into a specific time and place. It turns your to-do list into a calendar—making it easier to actually get that work done.
3 Tactics To Manage Productivity For Irregular Work
It’s clear that following a regular routine has big benefits for productivity, creativity, and all the good stuff. But knowing the benefits of routine and finding a way to cultivate it when your schedule is irregular are two different things.
These three tried-and-true tactics help you add more routine (and productive energy) into a disorganized schedule.
1. Build Routine Around The Non-Work Parts Of Your Day
Work isn’t the only part of your life that can and should follow a regular routine—you can use everything from workouts to meals to craft a steady daily routine. At a bare minimum, work to institute morning and evening routines that bookend your day on the right foot.
Note: When we talk about “morning” and “evening” routines, we’re really talking about whenever you wake up and when you wind down for the day—the actual time doesn’t matter.
Janessa Lantz of HubSpot uses this strategy to create a routine for working from home.
If you’re working from home on a regular basis, it’s good to get into a habit of showering and getting dressed. You’re really just doing it for yourself... but it does provide some parameters that say, ‘Work day has begun!’
When you have a pre-existing routine, it’s easier to fit work into it when it arises, too. That’s why author Barbara Boyd follows the same basic routine, regardless of her current workload.
“I try to maintain certain routines, whether there’s a lot of work or a little. That means sticking to morning rituals and daily walks and using the time that might be used for work for another home or creative project. So the time is blocked for ‘work’ but some days it’s paying work and some days it’s painting the kitchen.”
2. Create Structure Around Work
Regardless of what “work” means for you, it’s important to build some structure around that time and those specific tasks. Develop a reserve of cues that tell your brain it’s time for work—and outline a structure you can tap into whenever you need to get down to business.
That might mean:
Working from the same place (and doing nothing except work there)
Always listening to the same music or background noise while you work
Instituting a hard-stop time every day, no matter what
As a freelance writer, my work ebbs and flows, but I have one important cue I can reliably count on to switch my brain into writing mode: earbuds. I can’t get anything done unless my earbuds are in—even if there’s nothing playing through them—and I rarely use them when I’m not working. So every time I plug in, my brain knows it’s time to write.
3. Remember Your Routine Is Yours
You’ll see the biggest returns from a daily routine when it’s a schedule that plays to your own unique rhythms and tendencies. That’s why there’s such limited value in reading about the exact routine of Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein—what worked for them isn’t likely to be the key to your productivity.
When freelance writer Kaleigh Moore wrote about designing your own schedule for Big Cartel, she hit on some important nuggets for gig and independent workers:
“You might feel pressure to follow norms and be at your desk or in your office from 9-to-5 every day because, well, that’s just what you do. That’s ‘working.’ I fell into this trap when I started working on my own,” she shared. “Even though I was working efficiently, getting things done in less time, I’d stay at my desk, finding unnecessary tasks to fill the time.”
Many studies have found that playing to your body and brain’s own natural rhythm is a much better recipe for productivity than shoehorning yourself into a routine that doesn’t fit.
Oxford University biologist and expert on chronobiology and sleep, Katharina Wulff, says, “If people are left to their naturally preferred times, they feel much better. They say that they are much more productive. The mental capacity they have is much broader.”
That’s why it doesn’t make sense for night owls to force themselves out of bed at 5 AM sharp. Tweaking common productivity tips and your routine to fit how you like to work is a sure-fire way toward success.
When and where you have the freedom to, design your routine around your body’s natural ebb and flow. Experiment a little to find your most productive times—then schedule everything else around them.
Be More Productive Whenever Work Happens
Whether you’re an independent worker with projects that come and go or a parent with projects that come and keep coming, we all do work that falls into an irregular schedule sometimes. Everything from paid knowledge work to passion projects to unpaid domestic and manual labor has a way of sneaking into our days and messing up otherwise regular and productive schedules.
By creating routines, building structure around work, and working with your body’s rhythms, you can supercharge productivity no matter how weird or crazy your schedule and to-do list get.