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A simple trick to make flexible schedule work for you

Imagine if your day today looked like this:

  • 8 am - get up, have breakfast, get ready, fit some school work
  • 9.30 am - 12 pm - class
  • 12 pm - 2 pm - free time; do grocery shopping, call family.
  • 2 pm - 3 pm: meeting
  • 3 pm - 4 pm: free time - work out
  • 4 pm - 6 pm: free time - do school work
  • 6 pm - 7 pm: free time - relax
  • 7 pm - 10 pm: free time - do more school work
  • 10 pm - 12 pm: free time - work on hobbies or just relax

Not too bad, huh? There’s plenty of free time to get stuff done, and you can complete tasks in any order. Want to work out before class? No problem. Hang out with friends all day and work at night? Go for it. Have a call with family overseas at noon because that’s the only time they available? You got it.

Neat! Except it isn’t. True, you decide when and what to do with most of your time. Also true: we are often not the greatest decision-makers. Our decisions tend to be influenced by our emotions, physical state, and other people. Just like externally regulated working routines (when you have to work certain hours no matter what) can be damaging to our productivity and well-being, mismanaged flexible schedule can wreak havoc in your life.

One of the main problems with flexible schedules is often the blend of personal and professional life. For me, it was mainly because I work best when I am at home - in a quiet environment, without having to pack my laptop every time I use a restroom or having to spend money on food and drinks in a coffee shop. When I took a break, I would do the dishes or vacuum or do something related to my hobbies, which could set me off track and distract me for a while. Then there is an issue of postponing certain work tasks to do other things. I would go to a grocery store in the middle of the day or work on my personal projects only to end up spending 2-3 or more hours on these activities and having no choice but to work on school stuff later at night.

When you work a 9-to-5 job, you come to work at 9 am, work until 5, go home and do your own thing. Once you leave work, you’re out; you have no homework, no grading, no research ideas to think about. Of course, some jobs do require you to do stuff after you come home - some on a regular basis (e. g., middle-school teachers), some when deadlined become tight and projects are about to be due. But the general pattern (unless you deliberately stay late and overwork or always take work to finish at home) is there: there is a separation of work and home, work time and personal time. The schedule is usually rigid (you can’t just go home after a meeting at 10 am) but you’re not expected to work outside of the schedule limits (again, unless you deliberately decide to overwork or work in a company that doesn’t respect your personal boundaries).

Graduate school is like a blend of self-employment and an office job. You will probably get an office that you will share with other students - but it’s up to you whether to work there or at home or in a local coffee shop. Some meetings will be scheduled for you - but some will be up to you to schedule based on your availability. You will have to attend meetings and events and do field work but can also spend days at home writing papers in your pajamas in bed. You can go hangout with friends in the middle of the day if your schedule allows it and write your dissertation at night. You get the gist.

This blend of personal and work space and time became problematic for me. It allowed me to procrastinate on certain tasks because I could work on them whenever. On the other hand, on way too many occasions I found myself overworking, totaling my work hours at 10-12 per day (mind you, these were the efforts not for a 6-figure salary or a decent job promotion). There’s actually some research linking the flexibility of schedule to working more - take a look at this article if interested. This really intervened with my hobbies, all of which (singing, 3D modeling, learning foreign languages, blogging) are very labor-intensive and require a lot of intellectual effort. By the time I finished my school work, I had only a couple of hours before going to sleep and I was too exhausted to do anything else.

One day I woke up and realized that I have zero motivation to even get out of bed. I wanted absolutely nothing - not even to work on my favorite hobbies. I just felt like staring at the ceiling all day long.

That didn’t feel good. I reflected on everything I had been doing and realized that

  • I felt like I was working all the time;
  • I didn’t notice my burnout because of lack of boundaries between my personal and work space and time;
  • I was unhappy because I wasn’t able to express my creative side through my hobbies, which I didn’t allocate enough time for.

Was it an overwhelming amount of work that I had to do? Nope. Even though there was indeed an infinite amount of work to do, it wasn’t the issue. The issue was my approach. I didn’t set boundaries from the start and I mismanaged my schedule.

Since that day, I approach my flexible schedule in a completely different way using a simple trick that changed my work routine. So what’s the trick, you ask?

Treat your flexible schedule as a 9-to-5 work schedule.

As simple as that!

  • Start working at 9 am and focus intensely on your work.
  • As soon as the clock strikes 5, close your laptop, put your pen down, close your email and do absolutely nothing related to school. And no checking emails on your phone before going to bed!
  • Find your most productive hours and spend them on the tasks most important for you. If it’s research, do research. If it’s writing, write. If it’s teaching, do teaching work.
  • If your entire day is taken by classes and meetings, don’t work on that day or work in between them. If you come home at 7 pm and haven’t done anything but attending classes that day, it doesn’t matter. No school work after 5 pm.
  • You do have to work hard from 9 am to 5 pm to get things done because grad school is a lot of work. Don’t get distracted by technology or people. Work hard.
  • Don’t work on the weekend. You have the right to rest and enjoy your own personal time.
  • Minimize any errands/non school-related activities during work time. If it’s really important, go ahead and do it. If it’s something that an be done later, postpone this task.

Now, I’m not saying that there won’t be times when you would have to break this schedule. There will always be some periods of time when you will need to work harder or longer. If you have lots of other responsibilities (family obligations, important appointments that take up those hours), this schedule might not work for you. I live alone and my family lives overseas, so I probably have more free time on my hands than some of you. However, the main underlying principle is setting boundaries.

Setting boundaries can take different forms:

  • Not checking emails after a certain time (as early or as late as you see fit)
  • Not working on the weekend or at least on Sundays
  • Not working on vacations or at least not checking emails on vacation
  • Deciding to work only 5 (or insert your number) hours a day
  • Deciding to stop working on certain projects or decline invitations to work on new projects
  • And even spending your lunch time with friends socializing instead of reading one more paper

I set the boundary of not working after 5 pm and it made me feel alive again. I was able to focus on my hobbies in the evening, which made me happy. My happiness increased my productivity during work hours. I also stopped working on the weekend. Now, that did slow down my work progress - but this is a tiny price to pay for my well-being and health. I realized that constantly being busy is not a virtue; it was a sign of me not being able to focus and manage my time better.

I hope this simple trick can help you tame your flexible schedule and make it work for you. I’d love to hear your stories of how you manage your schedule, what challenges you face, and what methods worked well for you!