3 Ways to Stay Productive in an Unstructured Environment

3 Ways to Stay Productive in an Unstructured Environment

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to retire. Granted I’m 22 years old so that consideration is a long way off. But just the thought of having nothing to do is incredibly off-putting to the high energy, overachiever mentality that’s served me well.

A lot of people, I imagine, would be happy at the prospect. "A little more free time in my day? Sign me up!” This is a way of thinking that makes sense when we have a lot to do. Juggling a job, social life, and family takes a lot of energy.

But what happens when we’re not inundated with responsibilities? How do we stay productive?

What consultants and the unemployed have in common

This situation is occasionally my reality as a traveling consultant. We sometimes incur bench time (aka. downtime between projects) that can last anywhere from a week to a couple months. I’ve been on the bench for longer than I care to admit and I can’t help but draw parallels to what I imagine is a typical day for an unemployed person. 

While we fill this time by acquiring new skills, networking and otherwise trying to improve ourselves, the amount of free time we have is sometimes unsettling. Rather than having my days structured around a 9-5 schedule, my time is mine to do with as I please so long as I am working toward getting staffed on a project.

It was really cool for a while! I was allowed time to both enjoy my social life and work that I would never have with a regular schedule. However, as I saw my friends getting put on projects, I began getting uneasy. I was ready to be put in the game and doing all I could to accomplish that, but the absence of an assignment and the unstructured nature of my time led me to feel antsy and unproductive.

The temptation to sit and watch 4 hours of Netflix is always present, and it is really easy to hit snooze when you don’t have to be in at 8:00. It is an unstructured lifestyle.

Ways to stay productive

This was only the case for a few weeks. Things have picked up recently. I discovered a couple of things in those weeks which helped me stay productive while things were slow. These things can really benefit anyone of us without a strict schedule in place:

1. Figure out how you operate and contextualize advice to yourself

I find a lot of people have pretty hard opinions whenever they give advice: “Wake up by 6; you have to get a jump start on the day!”

Well, that doesn’t work for me! I’ve found that I’m happiest and most productive whenever it’s 2 A.M. and I’m breaking up my workload with fun stuff. If I have four hours of work to do, I usually separate it into a couple pieces by working out, playing video games, or something similar.

This keeps me engaged in the work by rewarding the effort with something pleasurable. Clearly, I won’t be up by 6 A.M., but it’s what works for me! So that’s what I do.

2. Design your workday

Designing my work day as I have done has been exceptionally useful in managing my time and is an example of creating positive habits. I struggled with this initially. It is something with which I have been moderately successful recently, as I have begun to feel more impacted by my work environment. I knew I had to change something, and I started with something small.

I started to keep a food journal and soon realized that while I generally eat the right number of calories, I eat primarily junk food. I knew it already but quantifying it helped me to realize how bad it really was and incite a change. I’m definitely more conscious of my food and as a result, I’m getting a lot more green in my diet.

These two things together have catalyzed my productivity. Once I structured my work environment positively and started reaping rewards from doing good things for myself, I wanted to do it in other parts of my life.

3. Stay positive and don’t let parts of your life spill into others

This has all left me with a positive outlook. I am feeling vastly more motivated in all aspects. It’s funny how parts of our lives can spill over into others. (I’m basically giving anecdotal evidence to “The Power of Habit”, which I highly recommend everyone read. The insights into our habits are super engaging and fun.)

My recent weeks have been awesomely interesting and are largely a result of understanding myself and my habits. I’ve developed some strong new skills and relationships, I’ve spent more time with friends and family than I could’ve hoped, and things truly could not be going more smoothly. It took a long time for things to start picking up and it’s been frustrating to have to wait, especially while everyone is telling me that work is right around the corner.

Even though it hasn’t come yet, it will. I feel much more reassured of this now that I have personalized my environment and set myself up to succeed.

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