When Randall Ryder, a consumer rights lawyer and blogger, decided to spend a day working from home last spring he had a pleasant surprise. Usually, Ryder wrote on his blog, his day would be bookmarked by his blogging which he would do first thing in the morning or last thing before he left the office. His legal work he would do in the middle of the day when, he claimed, he would be most productive and his brain had “warmed up.” This time he started the day by leaping straight into his cases. The result, he says, was a fresh perspective, a jolt of energy and a number of new strategies.
“Arguments that were not fully realized reached their potential. Things that I dreaded because they were scheduled for later in the day, were actually fun to work on.”
Ryder put his improved productivity down to the confines of a rigid schedule that can “lull your brain to sleep” and prompt you to think about the next task on the list rather than the task currently under way. Whatever the reason, Ryder isn’t the only to have found that a change in the routine can be enough to boost productivity. Premed student Ryan Nguyen found that the importance of changing a workout routine to maintain muscle-build efficiency can also be applied to study routines. Studying in the same way, in the same environment and with the same people, he argues, leads to a steady decline the more you do it.
Nguyen’s tips for routine-breaking apply specifically to students — use flashcards, learn in the park, deliver a faux lecture — but there are also a number of things that freelancers can do to break their routines and increase their productivity:
1. Change Your Tasks
The easiest way to change a routine is to follow Randall Ryder. His break came when he chose to work from home — something that many freelancers do anyway — but swapping around the usual order of the day is both simple and refreshing, and it can even lead to long-term habits of greater efficiency. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, for example, recommends checking email no more than twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. Whatever you think of his system as a whole — and the complex new routines that have to be created to use them — getting into the habit of not being disturbed by non-urgent messages during the day can be helpful.
If you tend to check email regularly and answer immediately, then create a new schedule that sets time to deal with messages and leaves the rest of the day clear for more urgent tasks.
But in the short term, you can also swap the order of the day. A writer accustomed to blogging in the morning and writing sales copy in the afternoon, for example, should do the opposite. A website designer who first creates the icons then plans out the page, could try the reverse. As Randall Ryder discovered, sometimes a change as small as the reversal of a traditional work pattern can have unexpected benefits.
2. Change Your Location
The change in Randall Ryder’s routine was prompted by a change in his location. That’s something even easier for freelancers to do. While employees with offices or cubicles always have to work between the same four walls, freelancers are free to drag their computer to a different room in the house, a different co-working space, or a different café to break their routines.
It’s worth knowing not just that your nearest coffee bar has free wireless and plenty of electricity outlets but that the library is available too, that there’s an open network accessible from a bench in the park and that co-working spaces have plans based on usage that allow freelancers to visit no more than once a week — and to come on different days.
The challenge with changing your location is to ensure that the increase in productivity outweighs the extra time it takes to reach the site. If you have to travel an extra half-hour to reach the library then you’ll need to improve your output by a whole hour to get the full benefit. Sometimes the best change of location is not to change your location at all: instead of dragging your computer to a café, keep it in the office and stay at home all day.
3. Take a Different View of Time
Freelancers are free not just choose the order of their day and the places in which they spend it but the times in which they work. Night owls can, if they want, work when the sun goes down while morning people can clock on first thing and finish their shift by lunch. Most don’t however, not just because few people find that way of working comfortable but because it puts them out of sync with friends, family and clients.
If you’re not willing to radically change your work hours, you can radically change the way you think about your work hours. Muji, a design store, sells a scheduler it calls a Chronotebook. Instead of dividing the day into hourly rectangles that start at the top of the page and finish at the bottom (the kind of visualization that might just have you thinking about the next task on the list), it places a clock in the middle of the page with one page for morning and the opposite page for the afternoon. Tasks are then listed in a circular fashion instead of vertically.
The notebook’s design is also minimal; there are no lines dividing one hour or one task from another, unless you draw them yourself. That gives the day a more fluid feel, with one task flowing freely into the next.
It’s a creative idea but it’s not perfect. You’ll still have to complete the tasks, of course. You’ll still have to decide where you’re going to complete them. And you’ll still have to change that routine if you’re going to keep your productivity rising.