Not everyone works 9-5. When you schedule doesn't fit into neat little boxes, it can require some special skills to keep everything in order. Here are some tactics you can use to keep your energy up and maintain control.
In a past life, I worked as a video producer, writing, shooting and editing short films. Anyone who has worked in this field for more than a day can tell you that regular hours are not something you keep. Some days you'll work 16 hours straight, other days you'll shoot for three hours in the middle of the night because that's the only time everyone's free. Developing skills to manage a chaotic schedule becomes incredibly important when you can't know when you're working from week to week (and, notably, these skills transfer very well to working multiple jobs and/or retail).
Practise The Art Of Task-Switching
Some people think they're better at multitasking than others. The truth is that none of us are really that great at it — at least in terms of tasks we choose to do. Our brains are skilled at making sure that our lungs breathe, our hearts beat, and our eyes see all at the same time. But when it comes to getting work done, what we're actually doing is rapidly switching between tasks.
Sometimes rapid task-switching is helpful and necessary, like someone directing traffic who needs to be aware of multiple lanes of traffic simultaneously. Other times, it's detrimental. You may not like having unread email, but even a three second email distraction can mess you up. The key to effective task-switching is knowing when it's necessary and when to focus instead.
There are no hard and fast rules, but here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
- If it needs to be done in the next fifteen minutes or so, task-switch. Otherwise, focus: When you're in a constant rush and under pressure, it can feel like every little thing is an emergency. However, not everything is critical. If you have three tasks to accomplish and they all need to be done in the next fifteen minutes, try to rapidly switch tasks. Otherwise, focus on one part until it's done, then move on to the next.
- If you can, run it in the background while you do other things: Running a washing machine takes five minutes to start and it can do an hour of work while you do other things. You can check your email while you wait for video to render or code to compile. If a task can be done in the background, schedule them so that you have something to do while they run.
- Accomplish tasks that are physically near each other at the same time: Whether you're working on a set or getting something done in the kitchen, the more tasks you can get done while you're physically in the area, the better. When you're doing one thing at a location, in a room, or at the computer, ask yourself what else you can get done while you're here.
Of course, there's no perfect rule that governs which order to get tasks done in. The key is to be adaptable and know how to prioritise tasks for your given situation. The above guidelines should help, but remember to be flexible. The best plan isn't necessarily the one you're used to. It's the one that gets the most work done in the least amount of time.
Find Your "Schedule Centre" So You Know When You Can Be Flexible
Your schedule may be irregular, but it doesn't have to be completely out of control. Even if it's not neatly organised, it's frequently possible to find your "schedule centre". These are the parts of your schedule that are static from week to week, or the most important things you need to accomplish. It may be your university classes or your primary job. Make these the core of your schedule and build out around them.
Laundry day doesn't necessarily need to be the same day every week. If you wash your clothes on Thursday one week and Friday the next, your life won't break down. As we mentioned earlier, you should already be prioritising and compartmentalising your tasks. Having a schedule centre shows you where else these flexible tasks can fit. It also provides a much-needed sense of stability.
Your schedule centre is the foundation on which you build the rest of your tasks. If you work Tuesday through Saturday, you know that either Sunday or Monday should be your laundry day. If Monday is your laundry day, you can clean your kitchen or do other household chores while it runs (as we discussed in the previous section, tasks should be grouped together by location and overlapped when possible). This makes Sunday a great day for shopping and preparing the week's meals. Once you establish some rules for prioritising tasks and find the foundation of your schedule, the rest can start to write itself.
Learn How To Maximise Your Naps
Maintaining a complex schedule, or one that changes week to week means irregular sleep patterns (and that's ok). However, a lack of sleep can quickly turn into a lack of productivity, which means your schedule gets even more chaotic as you try to keep up. Fortunately, you don't have to give up sleep, even if you can't always get a straight eight hours.
Napping becomes critical on a chaotic schedule. While it's still a good idea to stick to a semi-regular schedule as much as possible, naps are your secret weapon to keep you on track. There are good ways to nap, and better ways:
- Pick the right duration for your nap: Naps are excellent ways to boost your attention, creativity, motivation, and energy. How long you nap affects what kind of benefit it has for your brain. A 10-20 minute power-nap is best for boosting energy and alertness, while a 90-minute nap goes through a full sleep cycle and leaves you refreshed, more creative, and more focused.
- Choose the right time of day for your nap: Even when you're not asleep, you're in the middle of a circadian rhythm that affects your brain. That means there are better times of the day to take a nap. When that is depends on your typical schedule as well as when you woke up that day, but this tool can help you find out.
- Combine a nap with caffeine: Everyone knows that powering through work without sleep on nothing but caffeine is unhealthy, but taking in a bit of caffeine before you nap can help you wake up energetic and focused. This isn't something you should replace proper sleep with, but in a pinch it works.
Sleep can feel like a luxury when you're up at the worst hours, but it's still necessary to getting work done. Naps and proper sleep should be to-dos on your list like anything else. It's easy to let it slip in favour of other things you need to get done. Don't let it.
Make The Most Of Your Snacks And Meals
After sleep, food habits are usually one of the first things to decline when your schedule is irregular. There's no shortage of places to find fast food, but they aren't always the healthiest choices. It may take a little planning, but you can stay well fed without spending all your time in the kitchen.
The more meals you can plan in advance, the better. We've talked about ways to make meals quickly and cheaply, like these 20 meals you can make from basic pantry staples.
Slow cookers are another excellent way to make filling, delicious meals without taking up too much time. Many meals can be started with minimal effort, and are ready to eat at the end of the day. This isn't always an option if you don't know when you'll be home, but if you at least have a set time you'll be done with work, a slow cooker can have dinner waiting for you. You can even modify most recipes to work in one.
Dealing with a chaotic schedule isn't just about time, though. Managing your energy levels is just as important. Early in the morning, protein is your best friend. Managing your blood sugar levels is also important to making sure you stay focused and don't crash mid-way through the day. Snacking on vegetables, grains, and nuts are also better for preventing the low ends of the energy cycle. Top it off by drinking water throughout the day and you'll be able to function better without exhausting yourself.
Remember To Take Breaks And Say No
Chances are that even in a chaotic job, you're not as busy as you think you are. The more work you take on without a clear plan of how to accomplish it, the less effective you'll be at everything. That's why taking breaks and saying no are two of the most important tools you can add to your arsenal.
When your schedule is unpredictable, you can't always know how much of your time is actually free. This makes it easy to overbook yourself. Avoid falling into the trap of having too much to do by making friends with the word "no". No allows you to keep distractions to a minimum. No is how you keep the pile of to-dos from over-flowing. No is how you decide what really matters to you.
Leisure time is also important. Not just for your sanity, but for your productivity. Burnout is real and it can ruin your flow. While you're narrowing down your schedule centre from the previous section, carve out a space to breathe, recuperate, and relax. Your brain will thank you for it with more productive days later.