How Do You Develop a Work Routine That's Not Routine?

Build a routine around your natural tendencies, good and bad.

Posted Sep 21, 2018

picjumbo_com/pixabay, CC0 license
Source: picjumbo_com/pixabay, CC0 license

Many productivity gurus, especially concerning writing, recommend developing a routine to help inspire more focused work and prevent procrastination, rumination, frustration, or whatever “-ation” bothers you the most. Start at the same time, in the same place, with the same tools, perhaps with certain music, food, or beverage at hand. (All three, preferably!) These practices ideally will establish a mood that, over time, will put you in the productivity “zone,” as well as make this time “automatic” for work, as opposed to making a decision, each and every day, when (or where) you will work (and on what).

But most productivity gurus, especially concerning writing, also advise breaking out of your comfort zone, especially if your standard ways of working have become… you guessed it… routine.

I find it interesting that the word routine both describes a universally recommended productivity tool as well as a very common critique of it. (We also sanction behavior we don’t sanction, but that’s a topic for another post.) What we need is a routine that isn’t routine! As my friend Vince Skolny tweeted, “I personally distinguish routines, which aid effectiveness by minimizing creative resources wasted on recurring tasks and decisions, from ruts, which are routines for routines' sake.”

So this poses a dilemma: How to establish and maintain a routine that enables your productivity, without becoming routine in a negative sense and diminishing that productivity? This suggests a need to “optimize” a routine, finding that middle ground between establishing enough regularity to be useful without becoming stultifying. It can’t be too lenient, in that it doesn’t actually help organize your time, but can’t be too strict, in that it is difficult to follow or maintain.

There are no easy answers to this, but it seems that designing the best routine for you depends on knowing your tendencies, both good and bad, and leveraging them toward greater productivity. Positive and neutral tendencies should be encouraged: If you crave variety, plan to work on a different project every day, cycling between them every few days. Or, if you need to chip away at one project until it’s done, do that. Those are natural inclinations that should be leveraged to get more productivity—don’t fight against them, but use them. If you're a time-based person, set your schedule strictly by the clock, designating certain blocks of time to certain tasks, but if you work best under a more relaxed schedule, don't be so precise, but still set some limits and guidelines.

Similarly, if you respond well to incentives and deadlines, work those into your routine, setting goals that balance ambition and feasibility (itself not a simple task) and providing rewards when you meet them. This can work hand-in-hand with your negative tendencies as well: If you find yourself constantly distracted by social media, make visits to Twitter or Facebook part of the rewards. Or simply budget some time each hour (or two hours, or half-hour) for social media visits, provided you spend the time in between offline working on projects. If you need social support or feedback, work this into your routine as well in a way that encourages work.

I realize these aren’t groundbreaking suggestions—they’re rather ordinary (or, dare I say, routine). If anything I’ve said here is novel, it’s that there is no one fail-safe, foolproof, one-size-fits-all trick to organizing your time. Instead, you need to reflect on what works for you and doesn’t work for you, and build a optimized, “just right” routine that uses both, your specific carrots and sticks, to lead you to better productivity (and happiness while doing it).

Only you know what will work best for you; the important thing is to be honest with yourself, for only then can you get the most, and the best, out of who you are.