I’ve always been the kind of person who tries to follow a routine. I like the idea of being consistent and always knowing exactly what I should be doing at any given moment because supposedly that’s the key to being productive. Trouble is, I struggle to stick to anything for more than a week. I tend to lose interest in most of the things I start (I blame this on being a Gemini), and I have to switch things up to avoid getting bored.
Despite all of the LifeHacker articles and blog posts I read about why routine is so important for productivity, I also can’t get away from people telling me that routine is the route of all evil. I was in a store the other day that had a huge, unavoidable sign that read:
“The less routine, the more life.”
Part of me feels like yelling, ‘What do you want from me?!’
Should we follow a routine or try to be more spontaneous?
My answer: you need both. You need to some structure to your days and weeks, but you also need to be okay with the unexpected and stepping outside of your comfort zone. That way, you can keep life exciting while still getting stuff done.
Easily said, but how the heck do you actually do that, especially if you’re at either end of the spectrum (the super-scheduler vs. the anti-scheduler)? As an in-betweener when it comes to routine and flexibility, I thought I’d share a few tips and tricks that can help you find balance in your day-to-day life.
Why routine and flexibility are important
First of all, there’s a difference between creating your own routine to keep you on track vs. getting stuck in a daily cycle that makes your entire life a routine. However, the first can lead to the second if you never switch things up. There’s also a difference between being a spontaneous person vs. deciding to go with the flow. I’m not really a spontaneous person, but I try to let things happen without trying to take over control of the situation.
Maybe you’re at one end of the spectrum:
- You schedule every little thing and feel stressed out when things don’t go as planned, OR
- You hate routine or can’t stick to one so you end up scrambling to get things done
If so, the important thing to realize is that you can find a balance between these two extremes, and it is possible to have a productive day while also going for last-minute drinks with friends or dealing with something totally unexpected.
The Pros + Cons of Routine
Following some sort of pattern or procedure ensures that you get stuff done. It doesn’t take much effort on your part to follow, and you probably do similar things each day without even realizing it. Routine can, however, be restrictive if you set yourself a strict schedule and try to fill every minute with to-do list items. It can also be unproductive if you repeatedly do negative things like snooze your alarm each morning.
The Pros + Cons of Flexibility
Shit happens, we all know that. If you have room for flexibility in your days, you’re going to cope with the unexpected much better than if your schedule is rigid and unchangeable. Also, other people are not on the same schedule as you, so having flexibility makes it easier to accommodate for meetings and get togethers. On the other hand, if you’re too flexible, you run the risk of lost productivity and possibly having people take advantage of your time.
How To Balance Your Time & Create a Flexible Routine
When everyone’s telling you how to schedule your day and why a work or blog or cleaning routine is so necessary, the most important thing to remember is that one person’s method is not going to work for everyone. It’s all about prioritizing your own life, getting the necessary stuff done, and not worrying about the rest. Here’s how to find that balance:
1. Figure out your non-negotiables + priorities
In order to get the important things done, you need to decide what’s actually important. These are the things need to get done, whether you like them or not (but hopefully you like them), on a daily or weekly basis.
Think of the types of tasks you work on every day or every week. It helps to grab a piece of paper and write down every little thing you can think of that you do regularly and break them up into categories.
- Work – respond to emails, data entry, processing donations
- Home – clean apartment, grocery shopping, meal preparation
Your Most Important Tasks
Out of the tasks you wrote down in the last step, which ones are the most important? Which ones would cause all hell to break loose if you didn’t do them? These are your priorities, and you need to make time for these in your schedule.
Delegate, Eliminate, Combine, Or Make Simpler
For any of those tasks that you didn’t deem totally and utterly necessary, think about how you can delegate them, combine them, eliminate them, or make them easier for yourself. You shouldn’t spend time worrying about things that aren’t priorities in your life, and they shouldn’t take up time in your daily routine if they don’t need to.
Related Post: How to get clear on your top priorities
2. Be Efficient With Your Time
When someone asks you how work’s going, I bet your answer is usually, ‘Busy.’ We’re always so busy! You may have a lot on you’re plate, but are you using your time efficiently or are you just procrastinating and making yourself feel busy? Getting smarter with your time can free up more space to be flexible and lower your stress levels.
Batch Your Tasks
In order to deal with the things you don’t really want to do, figure out how long each thing takes (I guarantee it won’t be that long if it’s a recurring task) and combine them with other mundane tasks to fill a larger block of time. For example, responding to email (20 minutes), data entry (20 minutes), and filing paperwork (15 minutes) can all be done within the frame of an hour. Here’s a great post about batching.
In the past, I’ve tried to schedule my tasks at a specific time on a calendar but I always found myself falling behind and getting thrown off if something got in the way. A better idea is to block out your time into chunks, say an hour or two hours, and schedule in your batched items from the step above. This way it’s not so restrictive that an interruption can throw off the rest of your day.
- 9:30-10:30 – Writing blog posts
- 10:30-11 – Take a break or finish up posts
- 11-12 – Respond to emails, data entry, filing
Beat The Clock
The Pomodoro Technique is a sure-fire way to force yourself to start working and stop procrastinating. Basically you set a timer for 25 minutes, get as much done as you can on a project, take a break for 5 minutes, and repeat. After four pomodoros, you take a 15-30 minute break. Even if you don’t want to follow the technique, the act of setting yourself a timer and seeing how much you can get done is a really easy way to get started on something you’ve been putting off.
Top Tip: Whenever you stop working on something, write down what stage you’re at and what needs to be done next. Not only does this prevent lost time trying to figure out where you left off, you’ll also know exactly what you can start doing the next time you get a free moment.
3. Make Time for Free Time
The reality is that you’re going to have to make time for free time and allow yourself to be more flexible. You also need to use your free time wisely and make sure you’re not just watching two hours of Netflix as soon as you come home from work. Here’s how:
Break The Cycle
If you’re stuck in a rut, it’s most likely because you’ve been doing the same thing for too long. Whichever area of your life it may be, find a way to switch things up and try something new. Welcome flexibility into your life. Part of the reason I set three goals for myself each month is because I want to give myself the chance to explore a new skill or activity, and it’s like a mini-challenge to break out of my regular routine.
Please remember that you’re not obligated to do everything people ask of you. You have to value your own time or people will start to take advantage of it. If someone invites you to a party but you’d rather stay in for the night, do that. If you’re asked to attend a meeting that you don’t need to go to, explain that you have other priorities. Say yes to the things that excite you, and take risks when it feels like the right thing to do.
Schedule Your Free Time
If the idea of not having control over your time gives you heart palpitations, schedule a block of free time into your calendar. Give it a specific time, but don’t plan out any particular activity – see what you feel like when the time comes. It’s so important to get out of your regular habits and try something exciting or maybe even nerve-wracking (but in a good way!)
Related Post: How to say no and stop people-pleasing
The Bottom Line
It’s okay not to have a routine, just like it’s okay if you feel more comfortable scheduling the little things. You do you. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t go as planned, and don’t force yourself to go about your day in a way that feels unnatural. Just strive for a little more balance to make life easier for yourself.
Want to make balance even easier?
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