One of the things that I love about being a professor is, for the most part, I get to make my own hours. Unless I’m in class or in a meeting, my time is my own to do all the other things professors have to do.
This is true for many of us in creative fields. Freelancers, music teachers, creative entrepreneurs, and people who work from home and build businesses in the margins all fall into this self-directed schedule category. As long as the work gets done no one can really complain about when it gets done.
I love this about my work life. If I need to take time to do something with the family, I have the flexibility in my schedule to do this. I don’t need to ask for time off to do things that are important to me outside of work. Being a professor is only my main gig, and there are many other things I do too. This blog is one of them.
Of course, this schedule freedom comes at a price. When you work on a self-directed schedule, it’s really easy to find yourself working all the time. If you have multiple things on the go the problem becomes magnified.
(Check out the video version, if only to see the dogs)
Working From Home = Working All The Time
So many people really struggle with this now more than ever. Of course, many people in the above categories already worked from home anyway. Now, so many people are realizing just how tricky this work-from-home situation can be.
It’s so easy to get distracted by all the things. “I’ll just start a load of laundry,” you may tell yourself. The next thing you know you’ve changed all the beds, and folded and put away 3 loads. While you were putting away the kitchen towels you decided it was close to lunchtime so you managed that. Your kids are doing school from home so you fed them too. Dishes, a quick check of facebook, and the next thing you know it’s 1:00 pm and you have done zero work.
Then what happens? The work still needs to get done, so you free-flow through the afternoon and revisit the unfinished business after the kids go to bed. Then you stay up late, have trouble turning off, then sleep late in the morning because you’re exhausted and overwhelmed. Repeat.
Some people manage having a self-directed schedule better than others. It’s easy to look sideways at the people who seem to have their stuff together. Maybe they hit all the deadlines and make it look easy. I was one of those people.
It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way
One of my big work-from-home upgrades has been to tackle this exact problem in my own life. I used to be that person who basically planned around the next deadline. I’ve always been this way, from grade school all the way through being Chair of a university music department for the first time in 2014-2018.
I knew round two of chairship would start in 2020 and I had to figure this out. Deadline-crunching was no longer serving me and got me into some serious emotional overwhelm the first time through. Of course, I had no idea my first year of round two of chairship would be during the crazy year of lockdown. Boy, am I ever glad I started figuring this out before all that went down.
It takes a long time to change habits and behaviours you have had forever. All I ever knew was the cycle of deadline push/crash/recover/deadline push, etc. I got really far with this approach, or rather, lack of approach. When the deadlines get bigger, closer together and more numerous this stops being effective. And let’s face it, I’m no spring chicken.
How To Stop Working All The Time
A few weeks ago I published a post on something called the Ideal Week exercise. This seemingly simple exercise is so powerful for giving you an objective view of the things you need to get done. In a nutshell, you can use this exercise to plug in blocks of time to do the things that need to get done, then you can work around them to do the rest.
This is a great start, but it takes consistency to keep this up. If you’re someone who waits for the conditions to be “just right” before you can do your important work you might be fighting hard against the idea of booking time.
But it comes down to this: if you don’t protect your margin, you’ll never have time to concentrate on the things that are important to you.
Is your fluid approach to working getting in the way of quality time with your family? Or causing you to cheat yourself out of much-needed sleep? Seriously, please give the Ideal Week exercise a try.
What Happens When You Book Time
You know the thing where if you want something done, give it to the busiest person you know? Yes, I’m that person. I get stuff thrown at me all the time because I get things done. If there’s a deadline, it gets done.
However, when you finally have an objective look at exactly how much time is reasonable to spend on something, you can start saying no to extra stuff. For example, even though I don’t technically need to be available during regular business hours to do my work as chair, it sure makes things easier to get done if I am available then.
So I plan my ideal week around this. It’s the first thing I book. Monday-Friday 9-5 I’m on duty as chair. But when that time is up, I don’t do any more of that work. I don’t check my email on evenings or weekends anymore, and I do not do work homework.
Then, the time outside of regular obligations becomes your own, 100% guilt-free. Here’s what happened to me when I started implementing this idea: my creative time became far more productive. I wasn’t so busy thinking about all my work tasks because I knew I had that under control, so I started doing much more with the rest of the time.
Protect Those Boundaries in your Self-Directed Schedule
When you have clearly-defined boundaries for work time and non-work time, then a number of things start to happen. You can protect your work schedule from other things. If someone knows you work from home they might assume you can do whatever you want, whenever you want.
When you know you have work time during certain set hours, you can start to work around those hours and protect them. One of your primary objectives then becomes maintaining those boundaries so you can keep the work time contained.
If people expect you to be available at all times, you can then start to communicate your boundaries to them. But you have to be consistent, otherwise, they won’t know how to deal with you. Expect some push-back here, and not just from others who expect you to be available at their convenience. The biggest push-back will likely be from you, yourself.
The first step is in figuring out where those boundaries are. Use the Ideal Week exercise to help you with that.
I’m Afraid I’ll Lose My Creative Flow
This is where things get really interesting. When you’re not so worried about all the things that need to get done, you can actually get into flow faster, and stay there longer.
I know who you are. My creative night owls hate this plan. Please know that I’m one of you. If you’ve read any of my posts you’ll know that I love staying up late to get things done. One of the reasons we love to work late is because it’s time when we know we won’t be interrupted.
No reasonable person would expect anyone to answer a text or email at 11pm, so we push our deep work late into the night. It’s crucial for us to have a long stretch of uninterrupted time to get great creative work done. I love practicing at that time of night because I know no one expects me to be available.
Here’s what’s interesting. When you have clearly defined boundaries, you can let go of the feeling that you need to be available all the time. Once you know your obligations have been reasonably met, then you can confidently concentrate on what really moves you.
This means your night-time flow sessions might be able to start earlier. Or you can book some creative time during different times of the day. This is the start of shifting that tendency to stay up too late then suffer for it.
Oh, my night owls, yes it is possible to get creative work done while the sun is up. But it really only works when you have your boundaries in place.
Pros and Cons of a Self-Directed Schedule
I guess I never really spelled this out, but you get the idea. So, the pros and cons of a self-directed schedule are:
Pros: work when you want, be available to do important things, no need to answer to anyone
Cons: it’s easy to just work all the time, always feeling behind, lack of control of your boundaries
But there are things we can do if you’re willing to make some shifts. Changes won’t happen overnight and you’ll need to tweak your approach more often than you’ll like. I promise it’s possible to do.
Ironically, there is more freedom when there are boundaries in place. Place boundaries around your time, communicate those to the people who need to know and be consistent in maintaining them.
You might just find that you can get to bed a little earlier. Creative time becomes more productive because you have spent a reasonable amount of time on your obligations, you know you have things under control, and people know when you’re available and when you’re not.
Coda: Use Your Oils To Help You!
If you’re curious how this works here are a couple of my previous posts for a deeper dive.
In a nutshell, you can use aromas strategically to help anchor habits and set boundaries. I have certain dōTERRA essential oil blends I use only in my work environment, and some I use only when I’m done working and moving into family time. This works so incredibly well to act as anchor points within your self-directed schedule.
If you have more questions about this please send me a message and I’ll be happy to help you.