When your working life becomes unstructured, do this

It was the biggest productivity slump of my life.

I thought transitioning from office employee to independent creative would mean 12+ hours a day hustling on my own projects.

Instead, I woke up late. Got lost in the stream of social media and distractions. The days blended together.

All the extra productivity I thought I’d have never materialized, like phone numbers collected from late night bar conversations.

One night, desperate to climb out of my sinkhole of low productivity, I came up a very unoriginal idea…

What if I just structured my time around a regular 9-6 workday?

And it worked…kind of.

If you’re a newly minted independent, just quit your job, or have more free time on your hands than you know what to do with, this essay’s for you.

Structuring an unstructured life is art. To this day I’m still working through what works best for me. But I’d like to share some surprising productivity boosts with you.

Starting with this one…

Create repeatable moments of joy

What’s the point of all this free time if you don’t enjoy it?

I love working out of my home gym whenever I want. My diet & workout habits are particular, meaning that I prefer fasting until noon, working out, then immediately eating a huge meal after that.

This wasn’t possible when I had a full time job.

I challenge you to come up with a few things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in the confines of an office environment.

Let’s call these freedom activities. Here are some ideas:

  • Taking a nap in the middle of the day
  • Walking your dog whenever
  • Practicing an instrument
  • Having friends over for coworking sessions
  • Traveling and working a la digital nomads
  • Going to the farmer’s market

Start by choosing one freedom activity that sparks joy in you. Something that makes you enjoy your freedom that much more.

The only real constant so far in this new chapter of my life is music. Most every day I sit down and play the piano for an hour or so. It feels good to know this happens on a regular basis. Looking2Live

If you’re a Type-A person, you might feel guilty about having fun. Well I gots a solution for yous.

Kill two birds with one stone by scheduling freedom activities during dead zones – the most unproductive times of your day.

I write best in the morning…then I run out of steam in the early afternoon. I’ll use this time for cognitively light tasks that engage a different part of my brain, like playing the ukulele or reading fiction. I also use this time to batch together tasks like email, grocery shopping and other errands.

Instead of grinding through dead zones, you can schedule in fun time instead.

…start by losing the guilt of having this time and see it as a gift in your life’s journey. Relax into it first, develop new daily routines for mornings, breakfast, lunch and afternoons. Then, there’ll be a vacuum created for you to discover what you might like to fill it with. MetaFilter Discussion

Scheduling your joy might sound like a lame corporate attempt at having fun, but when practiced, it becomes a powerful thing:

You have something to look forward to each day.

And that’s positive energy that feeds your soul and creative work.

Designing your schedule

Now you’ve got your first win. You have at least one freedom activity that you can relish in and look forward to every day.

But I’d venture to guess many of you will feel empty inside if the whole day is just fun and games. You want to be productive too.

Doesn’t make sense to live for fun, your brain heads smart but your head gets dumb (Smashmouth)

Designing your schedule starts with a heart centered question…

What do you value most in life?

It may be the sense of flow you get from writing.
Or programming.
Building things with your hands.
Crafting marketing plans.
Giving people therapy.

I don’t know. I ain’t you.

It’s up to you to block out time for the most important activities that feed your soul. The type of activities that, even if your whole day went to waste, you can look back and say “at least I got that done.”

I recommend carving out at least 1 hour for this most important activity.

Second recommendation: do your most important activity early in the day before distractions come knocking on the door.

Something that brings you joy, and something that brings you flow.

This is just a starting point for designing your schedule.

If you can manage to just carve out time for these two things, you can win your day.

TL;DR and what’s next

This article was inspired by a friend who recently quit his job to travel the world.

But you don’t need to be a digital nomad nor trust fund baby to take advantage of proactive scheduling. The important thing to remember is that you have a choice in how you spend your time.

If you do have lots of unstructured time on your hands, consider…

  1. Scheduling a time for something that gives you joy for having an unstructured life. (E.g. how can you gloat over your 9-6 office worker friends?)
  2. Scheduling something productive early in your day, so that even if your whole day is a wash you get your “one win”

The 9-6 day job is just one of many templates to consider.

For independent creatives, the freedom comes in adapting and editing these schedules to your own life.

PS These are other “templates” to consider:

  • Frontload most of your work in the morning, leaving the rest of the day unstructured
  • Have two “work periods” in one day, separated by one long nap in the middle
  • Experiment with polyphasic sleep

1 thought on “When your working life becomes unstructured, do this”

  1. awesome article. keep up the good work! i’m trying to think about when my “dead zone” is and how i can harness it for maximum joy

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