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How to Stay Productive and Stick to a Daily Rhythm

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This post is part of a series called Essential Productivity Principles.
Setting Boundaries: The Key to Maintaining Control of Your Life

"The only thing that stays the same is change," is a pretty apt description of life, and it can be completely discouraging to try to navigate the change while staying productive. 

Small and large changes, new opportunities, life choices, and circumstances beyond your control stack up to create an ever-changing landscape. It's on this shifting ground that you're trying to build a productive, focused life.

Fortunately, you can learn to maintain stability even in the midst of ongoing change. It's not always easy, but with a few key strategies, it's doable. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes. 

Step 1. Change How You Think of Change 

Humans tend to equate safety with predictability. We feel more secure when we know what's coming, even when what we can accurately predict isn't that pleasant, valuable, or good

Work in Progress
Photo of work in progress from Envato Unstock.

This weird little tweak of human psychology is what drives people to stay in demoralizing, dead-end situations instead of seeking change and a better, new situation. The safety that you feel from being able to anticipate, predict, and even experience the same thing (even when it's terrible) often outweighs the fear that you feel when you have no idea what could happen next. 

1. Predictable Is Not Safe

However, it's a myth that predictability equals safety. Here's an easy example: 77% of car crashes occur within 15 miles of the driver's home. Over half happen within 5 miles of the driver's home. A third happen within one mile of home. Research shows that as drivers are more familiar with their route, they become less attentive and less aware. In other words, when you're driving familiar, well-known, predictable, "safe" routes, you get lazy. 

You quit paying attention

And you crash.

The effect of predictability can be the same in any area of life. Because you feel secure, you relax. You quit trying so hard. You tend to zone out and do a mediocre, lethargic job at whatever it is you're doing. Because the situation is so familiar, so predictable, you feel secure and comfortable; you don't notice your own laziness and lack of caring. 

2. Change Is Positive

Lack of change leads to apathy. Change is not just important because it's a key ingredient of growth; change is important because it keeps you awake and alive. 

If you can see change as a positive experience, not a negative one, you can respond to it differently and reduce the stress it causes. Reducing your stress helps you make better decisions. If you respond to change with panic and stress, you will have a negative experience and negative repercussions from change. But by being calm, you'll make better decisions in the midst of change, gaining insight instead of putting up defenses. When you see change as a threat, it becomes frightening. But when you see change as an opportunity for learning and growth, that's what it is.

Step 2. Establish Rock-Solid Bookend Routines 

Bookend routines are powerful because they give you normalcy, or predictability and that feeling of safety, at the beginning and end of your day. No matter what strangeness you're encountering or obstacles you're facing in your workday, you have something comfortable to count on at both ends. You can start your day feeling confident and in control, and end it feeling secure and calm. 

3. Keep Routines Flexible

To use routines when you're hitting bumps on the road, there's one key point: keep your routines simple enough to adapt to changing circumstances. Build your bookend routines on actions you control, rather than on a location, tool, or resource you don't control. For example, instead of making "go to the gym" a key step in your morning routine, change it to "exercise for at least 30 minutes." That way you can adapt your exercise to any environment: going to the gym, when that's possible, or doing yoga or taking a walk. You can read about morning and evening routines, and how to establish routines, in this tutorial:

By reframing each step as a general action rather than particular use of a resource or environment, you remove dependencies and can maintain your bookend routine even when you're in the midst of change: traveling, moving, or something different. 

Step 3. Use Standard Approach Methods

How you deal with information, challenges, projects, and work is just as key to your productivity (more so, perhaps), than the particular projects on your plate. By standardizing your approach to work—creating methods you can use to solve any type of problem—you can approach all your tasks with confidence and a degree of expertise. 

1. Generalize Methods

Refrain from the temptation to make your work methods super-specific. Just as with bookend routines, you'll benefit by generalizing your approach. Often you can standardize your methods simply by reframing them. 

Think about how you typically approach a new project or task. Do you take notes? Research? Sketch out ideas? Brainstorm with colleagues? Participate in meetings? Mindmap solutions and details? Do you schedule tasks or approach them by priority or urgency? Take a linear approach? Or dive into the details?

Start noticing the patterns of how you work, right now, and then pull back to see the bigger, overarching picture. For example, when working on a design project, you might spend time first learning everything you can about your client, their industry, competitors, goals, and so on. Then you might start coming up with big, broad concepts, then narrowing those broad ideas down into a few that seem to really work. The next step is to start refining the concepts and details into a specific design solution.

2. Look for Work Patterns

When you step back, you can identify your work approach as a big pattern that can be repeated on almost any project: 

  1. Research the problem.
  2. Create big-picture solutions.
  3. Filter into specific solutions.
  4. Refine and perfect the chosen solution(s).

When you see the big patterns in your approach, you have a work methodology for almost anything. A familiar pattern gives you tools and a routine you can depend on even when handling a new client, a new type of work, more work than usual, a new job, a difficult personal circumstance, or any other number of factors. You can use your typical approach to tackle any new obstacle. 

Familiarity helps us feel more comfortable and safe, which makes us more relaxed and can help reduce the stress and impact of dealing with new or changing circumstances. The more you can use a familiar approach, familiar tools, and familiar methods to take on new obstacles or solve new problems, the more efficiently and creatively you will work.  

Step 4. Set Minimum Output Requirements

It's tempting, when your life or work is in upheaval, to decide not to worry about productivity for a while. The problem with this total loss of productivity, however, is that it's really difficult to get going again. The productivity habits you built so painstakingly will disintegrate if you don't maintain some forward movement, and then you'll have to start all over again. 

1. Output Quota or Time Quota

There's no need to push yourself harder than you should when you're dealing with difficult situations or changes. Set a minimum. You can set your minimum output with an output quota or with a time requirement. For example, an artist might decide to do a sketch or concept drawing each day. Or a designer might set a time requirement—perhaps an hour or two a day—to spend on new design work. 

There are two ways that a minimum output requirement will help you in the midst of changes. First, setting a minimum output will keep your skills and productive habits from degenerating. You may feel like your work during this time is not very creative or of high caliber, but you're still solidifying your skills and mastering your craft. Second, setting a minimum output requirement will give you an anchor, a ritual of normality that can help you to stay focused and moving forward even when you're dealing with a lag time or changing some fundamentals. 

Step 5. Create Routines for Ending Things

There are two work routines that help you maintain productivity no matter what else is going on. The first is a daily wrap-up routine. This is a set of tasks, communication, information capturing, and project pausing that you do at the end of every workday. You might have a slightly extended version that you do before the weekend. 

1. End-of-Day Routine

For example, here is a end-of-day routine that I follow:

  • Make sure all my open files are saved in the proper title and format (this makes it easy for me to find them in my file system) and add any notes I might need at the bottom of the documents. 
  • Make sure I have the outlines and research I need for tomorrow's work queued up. 
  • Do a last email check and do any end-of-day communication (send out any emails, updates, files, invoices, make any calls, etc). 
  • Do a run through my social feed, respond to any direct messages, and save articles for reading later (I usually do that at night on the treadmill). 
  • Update my task list and planner. Note any changes to my schedule. Add reference info if needed. Update my log (I'm always tracking something). If I've done more than I planned for the day, I can rework my schedule and give myself more wiggle time; or, conversely, if I'm behind on my planned work, I can adjust my task list, try to clear some more room on my schedule, or realize that I'll really have to crank through some stuff the next day. It helps to know what's waiting for me. 
  • Shut down my work programs, straighten my desk, and walk away. This is, perhaps, the most important part when you work from home. 

Your daily wrap-up routine may need to be completely different. What tasks do you need to do in order to share pertinent information, close any open communication loops, update your planning, capture loose information, and make it easy to resume your work the next day? Think it through, put those tasks in a logical order, and make them your daily wrap-up work routine. Daily wraps help you get started on work easily and keep you from losing momentum from one day to the next. 

2. Closure Routine

You also can benefit from a closure routine for finished projects. It doesn't matter whether a project ends because you've completed the work or the project was canceled; a closure routine helps you to clean up and close out all the information and resources involved in the project. 

A closure routine might involve the following:

  • filing all documents related to the project
  • gathering all materials or supplies specialized for the project
  • returning all client documents or resources used in the project
  • getting client feedback on the project
  • adding project photos or samples to your portfolio
  • filling out a post-mortem report on the project

Closure routines help you limit the number of open loops in your life. They also help you to ensure that you've done the final, needed work on any project (you can create specialized checklists for this, if needed) and learn from each project experience and each client. 

When you follow a standard closure routine, you also slowly build a catalog of files and a rich portfolio; you'll be able to fall back on this information as needed without scrambling through a backlog of unfiled documents and disorderly, outdated project materials. 

Step 6. Build Your Daily Rhythm

A solid daily rhythm comes from combining the main elements of your day in a way you can depend on to create a routine that can flex with you even in changing circumstances and workloads. 

Simplicity is the key to a good daily rhythm. There are really only two essential elements: time blocks and transitions. 

1. Use Time Blocks

Time blocks are the core part of your day; they consist of your standard routines, such as bookend routines, your primary work tasks, and the specialized or scheduled items in your day such as meetings and appointments. 

Your time blocks may differ from day to day, but if you keep to a rhythm of moving from time block to transition to time block to transition, you'll have a steady pattern to follow even when one day is dramatically different from the next. 

2. Build Solid Transitions

Your transitions are the pieces of your day that lead you from one time block to another. Smooth transitions lead to productive time blocks. Messy, frustrating transitions lead to stress and make it difficult to settle into your next time block. 

Good transitions are built from adequate time, physical movement, mental rest, preparation, and consistency.

3. Adequate Time

As a rule of thumb, give yourself a minimum of ten minutes in between time blocks. Add more time though if you need to travel or prep (shower and dress, print papers, make stops, etc.) or if the block you're ending is mentally taxing. 

4. Physical Movement

If you've been sitting, stand up, stretch, or take a short walk. Do some yoga.  Do something to get your muscles moving and your blood flowing and that oxygen filling up your lungs. Regular physical movement will help you work better

5. Mental Rest

Transition time is when you let go of what you've just been doing and clear yourself mentally to attend to what's coming next. Physical movement helps you focus on your body and release those mental distractions. You can also meditate, sing, do a chore, have a conversation, or do something else mentally relaxing and diverting to help yourself clear your brain. 

6. Organization

Organization in your transitions removes so much stress. Be organized in what you do with all the stuff that belongs to your ending time block: put your gym stuff in your gym bag, or file your papers, or make notes on the phone calls. Put the elements of the last time block away safely so you know you'll be able to quickly and easily get them next time. Spend a few minutes 'closing up' each time block, you'll find an orderly set of supplies or elements waiting for you next time.

7. Consistency

Be consistent with your transitions, following the same pattern of closing down the last time block, taking adequate time to transition, doing some physical movement, letting yourself mentally rest, and maintaining organization. Consistency turns your transition time into a ritual that grounds your day. You'll think better and work better when you value your transitions. Instead of rushing and stressing out, you'll calmly move from one activity or task to the next. 

8. Follow the Rhythm

To follow the daily rhythm, go back and forth between a dedicated time block and a transition time. This is a simple, grounded approach, but it won't happen naturally; distractions are many. The ones in your own head will scream the loudest. You'll start working on a task, decide on a different one, waffle back and forth, and end up frustrated. Sound familiar? I've done this so many times. But my days make sense, and fall into a natural ebb and flow, when I follow my rhythm of time blocks and transitions. 

One day might look completely different from the next as far as the content of your time blocks. But the rhythm of your day will stay the same, which means you'll have continuity and control. 

Step 8. Troubleshoot with Limitations

Sometimes you'll see that your beloved workflow is failing you or that your routine is falling apart. Or maybe the tools you've depended on aren't available or are no longer adequate. Crisis doesn't always come screaming through the door; sometimes it creeps in and dismantles what you depend on, and it takes a while to notice that something is very wrong. 

1. Isolate

The first forward step is to identify the heart of the problem. Is it your whole workflow, for example, or a particular point in it that is causing you pain? Is it your entire routine, or one step or resource that's just not working for you anymore? 

2. Eliminate

Next, try eliminating the point, step, tool, or factor completely. If you can't do that in reality, do it theoretically. Imagine what your workflow, your routine, or this area would look like without this particular, troublesome element in it. What would not be done? What are the dependencies? What would be effected in the rest of the workflow or routine? 

3. Construct

Now it's time to play around with some ideas. What could you do to remove or reduce dependencies? What kind of substitute could you make? What changes or what new tool would solve the problems you're encountering? List out the features, the goals, the wish list for an ideal solution. Note that sometimes the best solution is to eliminate the step or tool by rerouting dependencies so there's no negative repercussions. 

4. Research

Once you've constructed a clear idea of your ideal solution or replacement, look into options. Research how others have solved this problem. Look at the available tools. Consider suggestions and similar solutions or replacements. 

You can also look into how you might be able to tweak or work around the failure or weakness in your current problem point. Sometimes replacement isn't the best option; sometimes a change in order or importance is more apt, or in how you use a tool, can remove the problems and restore functionality. 

5. Test

If you find a few solutions that seem to fit your needs, try them out, one at a time. Set a time limit on testing. Use your constructed feature wish list as a standard for acceptability; order features and needs by priority, because you might not find something that fulfills every desire. Know what you're willing to give up. 

Test for a designated period of time; once the time is up, choose the best-fit solution, get it into place, and move forward again. If what you've found isn't ideal (it hardly ever is), you can keep researching new solutions. But don't hold up your routine or workflow to do so. Use the best-fit solution you've found and stick with it for a while, so you can keep moving forward and maintaining productivity. When you've researched and compiled a new list of options, you can set another testing time and try out your new options. 

Keep Moving Forward

The changes and obstacles of life can slow you down, but they won't derail you. Use the systems you've built. Depend on your routines. And employ strategies like minimum outputs and standardized work approaches to stay on-task while you handle whatever comes your way. 

Graphic Credit

Calendar icon designed by Kokopako from the Noun Project.

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