Is Routine Undermining Your Productivity?

Georgina Laidlaw

Routine is the enemy of productivity.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I first got a job, it’s this.

Routine is the road rutted so deep that you don’t even need to steer your way down it. Routine puts us to sleep at the wheel, and spells death to dynamism. Routine kills creativity in all its forms.

The shortest route

The human mind is pretty good at learning. And once we learn something, we naturally look for ways to cut corners, to make our lives easier and the task ever simpler.

Prima facie, this fact suggests that routine is great for productivity—after all, once we learn a routine, we can make it simpler, and more efficient, and that means greater productivity, right?

Well, not always. Firstly, the shortcuts we make—the “efficiencies” we create—are often subconscious, or driven by a desire to simplify and speed up, rather than produce the best possible outcome. And for freelancers, there’s no point producing poor work.

Secondly, in our work, routines commonly relate less to processes that we need to complete to produce work than they do to the times and places at which we do certain things. Routine often relates more to the scheduling of our time than anything else. And that kind of routine’s the worst of all.

Let’s say you have a regular Wednesday morning work-in-progress meeting with a client. You decide to block out Tuesdays, between 3pm and 4pm, to prepare the weekly agenda and project update documentation. Every week.

As the weeks pass, this hour of quiet time may well become a welcome punctuation that signals the end of the first hectic days of your week. Soon, you start each prep session by going out and grabbing a coffee, which takes 15 minutes or so out of your scheduled hour.

The first couple of meetings go well, so your brain automatically begins to focus on the parts of the process that get the most attention from the client, and cuts from the workload those things that aren’t discussed at such length. Your agendas get shorter, as do your status reports. You’re also getting to know the client, so you spend less time and energy coming up with or discussing proposals for different aspects of the work with them—maybe you start inferring and assuming instead.

You can see where this scenario is heading. Perhaps you know from bitter first-hand experience. Routines encourage us to operate on autopilot, and for freelancers, that’s the last thing we want to be guided by.

But the impact of this routine doesn’t stop with the WIP meeting and your preparation. It also affects that last hour (or two) of your Tuesday afternoon. You finish the preparation at 4pm each week … and then what? Perhaps you decide that you’ll use the remaining time to do small bits and pieces, since you’re unlikely to ever start a new or large task that late in the day. So maybe over time that last hour on a Tuesday becomes, basically, wasted time—you muck around on Twitter, send some emails, and organize your social life.

Suddenly, that one-hour of prep has become a half hour that cuts two precious hours out of every week. Multiply that by any other routine tasks you need to do, and you could be creating some major inefficiencies for yourself.

The scenic route

If routine encourages us to take the shortest route, perhaps our goal should be to take the scenic route. Scenic routes have more inspiring views, more challenging driving, and usually make for a more enjoyable journey.

Many freelancers pride themselves on the fact that their working lives involve minimal routine. But often clients encourage us to adopt a routine because it makes it easier for them to manage their time, or coordinate multiple stakeholders or inputs at their end.

Life can also encourage routine—maybe you have a regular fitness training session, business mentoring meeting, or interest group catchup that you need to schedule into your week.

If you need to stick to a routine for some reason, there things you can do to help make sure the time you spend is productive and actually fulfilling.

Change the location

Changing the location in which you complete the routine work can help you to stay fresh and focused—even (and especially) if you always complete that work at the same time each day or week.

Think about a few potential locations where you could do this task—the cafe, the library, your back patio, your office, a shared workspace, and so on—and choose a different one at random every time you’re getting ready to do that routine work. What seems like a small, “cosmetic” change can go a long way to keeping you alert and on-task.

Change the time

Similarly, changing the time at which you do routine work can present different challenges each time you complete that task, keeping us on our toes.

Perhaps you need to do an hour’s meeting prep on Thursday each week. Don’t set it as an repeating appointment in your schedule: mix up the scheduling of that hour each week. Get up early this week and do it in the calm of morning, before you start work proper. Net week? Drop it in between those two Skype calls you have scheduled. The week after? Who knows?

Changing the schedule like this means you’ll always approach the routine work from a different perspective, and tackle it in a slightly different frame of mind. And that means you’ll have more opportunities to think creatively about what you’re doing.

Break up the task

Sometimes, routine work takes up large chunks of the day or week. In those cases, it can be a good idea to break up that work and tackle different combinations of tasks at different times, and from different locations, each week.

The other benefit of breaking the tasks up is that this puts boundaries around them: you’re automatically limiting the amount of time you can give them. This can help you to generate and maintain motivation for those tasks even when they’re relatively unchanging compared to your other work.

Set goals

It’s all too easy to take a routine task, at a routine time, and say to yourself “I’ve got two hours to get this done.”

Let’s face it: getting something done is really the bare minimum level of performance. If you’re trying to grow your freelance reputation and business, and actually enjoy what you do at the same time, you might want to go beyond just crossing the routine task off the list as “done.”

As you begin, have a think about what you want to achieve with the work. Set a goal—something that’s either related to the quality of the routine work you’ll do, its value to the client, or its value to you and your business, and complete the task in a way that meets the goal.

In our example of the weekly WIP meeting, perhaps this week you’ll try presenting the task progress reports graphically, rather than in text format, because you’ve realised that your client’s a visual person and you think a graphical representation will be more interesting and look more professional.

Stay conscious

It sounds elementary, but as I said at the outset, routine can put us to sleep at the wheel. Often, staying conscious of what you’re doing, how much time you’re taking to do it, and how well you’re doing it, is the biggest challenge of all.

Remember: our brains are made to learn, and then build into our subconscious any aspects of the work that we can. With routine work, it can he hard to avoid operating on autopilot.

Taking a moment every so often to review the routine work you do, and assess how it’s tracking, can be a good way to stay conscious of your progress and performance on those tasks. Discussing it with a colleague or friend-freelancer can help to give you a fresh perspective on the work, and where you can take it. Asking the client for feedback can also help you to see the work, and how you can improve your contributions, in an objective light. Try researching and trying different techniques or approaches for completing the task, too.

Are you asleep at the wheel of the routine work you do? Share your advice for getting out of the rut in the comments.

Image by stock.xchng user fangol.