Ditch the Schedule! Why Rigid Work Routines Do More Harm Than Good

I’ve noticed a trend in working culture. Nowadays, newsfeeds are proliferated with ‘hacks’, productivity tips, rigid-routine suggestions, and a myriad of ways I can shove myself and my working day into a box.

If you read the headlines, we’re apparently meant to admire those that seemingly defy their bodily needs (for sleep, work-life balance, breaks, etc.) in favor of capitalistic success. Have forgotten that the purpose of capitalism is to procure wealth, which ironically is designed to improve one’s quality of life 🙄🙄 Take this excerpt from the NBC for example:

“Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his mornings at 3:45 a.m., Ellevest CEO and co-founder Sallie Krawcheck wakes at 4 a.m. and Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Indra Nooyi have been known to rise at the crack of dawn.”

I’m glad that waking up at some God-awful hour of the morning works for some people … but for me, that sounds like a one-way ticket to morning misery.

In this article, I’ll unpack my reasons why I am against the routinization of worker’s days (such as the above example) and suggest an alternative way. I may even throw in a social commentary or two.

In case you prefer, here is the tl;dr: I think, rather than constraining and robotizing employees (via productivity hacks, restraining personal freedoms, and rigid routines), we could empower people/employees with the ability to work more organically. This could be beneficial for the company and employees via increased working efficiency, happiness, and creativity. 

Disclaimers:

  1. This article is not about lecturing, rather proposing an alternative way of thinking. What is organic for you, your boss, or your workplace will be different for me, and that’s okay. 
  2. these suggestions are not super relevant for all industries and professions, such as essential workers. However, I think if some concepts are systematically applied in a tailored way, throughout sed workplaces, could lead to benefits as well. 
  3. As a remote-working employee from a company that cares about employees’ time, these views are totally reflective of our company values. As a remote-working startup, we appreciate a human-first approach. We also love to question ideas we feel need questioning. ❤️
  4. This article is not advocating for us to all go crazy and adopt an erratic schedule.

Now, let’s get on with why I think routines suck!

You cannot schedule productivity

At 10:00 – 10:45 am, I’m going to work on my content-marketing matrix, with 5% increased productivity, due to the banana I ate this morning, which provides my body with essential potassium, needed for optimum cognition – these are things you’ll never hear me say. 

I cannot exert full control over my body and mind. I cannot sneeze on command, I cannot lose kilos by asking my hips nicely, I cannot tell my mind to ‘wake up!’ when I’m foggy in the morning. Why do so many people think they can schedule their productivity? Yes, we can control our environments – we can grab a coffee or get a full eight hours of beauty sleep and so on and so forth. But outside our ability to modify our environment and our behavior, our control over our body and mind is limited.

Therefore, why do we think we can schedule work, productivity, and breaks so precisely? Contrastingly, when I mold my schedule (to a reasonable degree) around the ebbs and flows of my energy levels, I find I work more efficiently and produce better work. 

This kind of thinking: which assumes we can control every aspect of our day perfectly, reminds me of this clip from the I.T. crowd (below 👇). 

This is exactly why I advocate for non-rigid working hours!

The biggest productivity hack is to not punish yourself for periods of unproductivity

Willpower is finite

Willpower is finite.

Rather than using my finite amount of willpower towards forcing myself into rigid working routines that may deplete my reserves, I would rather have more flexibility towards my working schedule and use that surplus willpower to achieve something else.

For example, Let’s say you’ve set yourself a routine where from 9 am-12 pm you will engage in intense deep work without distractions. If you happen to wake up that morning feeling groggy, why deplete your energy and willpower on oppressing your mind’s need for lighter work, or even a break? Instead, switch up your routine! Maybe do some menial tasks that don’t require much cognition. Perhaps take a mini-break and resume work when you feel greater mental clarity.

You can return later to your deep-work task with greater willpower reserves than if you’d tried to force a rigid schedule upon yourself that ignores your fluctuating human needs.

To me, this seems like a much more efficient use of my finite resources. 

Take breaks as you need them

tl;dr: erratic schedule, flexible schedule ✔️

I can remember at the height of the 2020 pandemic, I was in the midst of creating a content marketing strategy. There were times where I would feel mentally tired, as if I could not think a logical, linear thought. Other times, my mind would be buzzing with ideas, but somehow I could not draw the connections. As I had the luxury of working remotely at that time, I would often simply take a break when that happened.

Contrastingly, if I was back in the office, I would not feel comfortable taking that many breaks. Or, if I did, I wouldn’t receive any mental relief, as I would be more concerned with other’s perceptions towards my work ethic, than actually mentally switching off. There is a word for this phenomenon and it’s called presenteeism.

However, at home, during the pandemic, I had the luxury to do so. And I did do so. 

When I was feeling burnt out, mentally foggy, or just couldn’t connect my ideas, I would take a shower, grab a coffee, or chat with my boyfriend. I would do whatever I felt I needed at the time to put myself back on track and ready to complete the task at hand.

After a week of working like this, I began to notice a clear pattern: I felt my actual working time was much more efficient. I was able to make linear connections between my creative ideas and the logic behind them much faster and with greater clarity. In short: I felt I was working better, faster, and more creatively and producing more clear and defined work through increased breaks. I was doing more, even though somehow I was working less (and non-rigid working hours too).

Apparently, this view is also echoed by others far more expertly on the matter. Organizational psychologist, Adam Grant delivered a Ted Talk regarding how procrastinators actually are more creative thinkers and often produce better ideas. He observed real-life examples of successful businesses such as Warby Parker, that were founded on procrastination. His theory of procrastination correlating with creativity was even backed up by his own research and studies. 

So, after my own personal experience of noticing the benefits of flexible breaks, or ‘procrastination’, I began to think… If I am feeling this radical improvement, just due to autonomous breaks, then why are workplaces globally, so geared towards restraining employees?

Of course, there are some answers to this, such as lack of trust, or perhaps some workplaces haven’t seen the benefits of increasing employee’s personal freedom. There are a bunch of potential minor explanations. However, this still doesn’t explain why this mindset ubiquitously exists across many workplaces.

Take for example China (I worked there for about 2 years) – it is considered socially unacceptable to leave the office before your boss. But on the flip-side, many offices also have a culture of sleeping at the office during lunch breaks. Many people even have huge fold-out beds strewn throughout their personal and common spaces (but this then also speaks to the overworking Chinese culture).

Offices during lunchtime literally look like this (image below). This is not an exaggeration, this is the norm in many workplaces. It is not frowned upon and is totally acceptable. 

Ditch the routine
Source: Huff Post. Case and point on the reason for non-rigid working hours

Whether it is stringent break-time or annual leave policies or the need to constantly look intensely busy whilst at work, the common thread exists, showing a harmful level of company control over employee’s working hours that may be counter-productive.

In summary, I personally find that having a flexible routine/schedule (not an erratic schedule) that allows for breaks whenever needed improves productivity. This may result in more breaks, maybe less. The point to having the personal-working freedom to take mental breaks according to your personal needs.

Employees aren’t robots

Eventually, there will come a time where this statement is redundant as our jobs will be replaced (or some say enhanced) by A.I. However, that time has not come yet. Even when it does come, our humanness is going to be the most in-demand skill on the job market.

Throughout this article, it is clear I stand for a more organic approach to working that embraces one’s humanness, rather than rigid routines. I have addressed reasons why I think this is beneficial, such as enhanced creativity and productivity. Now I’d like to ponder why this flawed logic even exists. 

Let’s take it back to the beginning.

A job is posted. You apply for that job. From a bunch of candidates, you were chosen. You were chosen presumably for your character, skills, education, cultural fit, ambitions, and industry knowledge. Essentially, they’re hiring you for who you are as a person. 

Yet somehow in your corporate journey, we take a radical plot twist and expect our employees to stop being people once they enter the office. It is like saying:

“We’re offering you this job because of who you are as a person and the sum-total of your experiences, skills, and knowledge. But after you accept the job, we’d like you to leave your personal, non-work-related aspects of your life at home. Thanks”.

To me, this is logically flawed and doesn’t make sense. 

I cannot separate who I am from the job I am doing. My perceptions, creative ideas, work ethic, and water-cooler conversations are the result of the sum total of me as a human being.

In summary: employees are hired for who they are, and they should not be expected to periodically and daily, discard that to achieve a vain level of productivity or work output. Rather, employees’ humanness should be embraced. In fact, greater working freedom and flexibility could actually enhance company outputs. Summary: non-rigid working hours + flexibility and autonomy are key.

Why are we meant to be so perfect?

People are imperfect. We cry, our knees get arthritic, we elect stupid presidents, we make dumb choices. I am not suggesting we should all turn up to work like a 🤡, but I am questioning whether we should expect such a level of perfection that is inhuman. 

Case and point: Previously, in the middle of a job interview, the interviewer’s father randomly opened the door and walked around in the background of the call without a shirt on. I’ll be real, this wasn’t a pretty sight, and it was awkward.

After the interview, a friend remarked: “how dare that person be human at work”.

My friend is an alternative thinker, that questions society, loves philosophy, and has slight-Marxist views. So, I enquired: was this sarcasm? Even after my follow-up questions (and I am a highly inquisitive person), I could not discern if this was sarcasm or social commentary.

But it did get me thinking. Since when did being human become so ‘shameful’? Since when did having a life or complications become an embarrassment that simply must be removed from the workplace? Has it always been this way? I don’t know, I’m only 32, and only have about 17 years of work experience, so I really can’t comment on the trends of working culture throughout human history.

My call looked a little something like this, minus the top, and add a towel on the button-half. 

I don’t have the answer. If you do, please comment below! Just providing some food for thought. 🍔

So, what does it all mean?

So, should we all just F$%k it and grab a beer, because that’s what feels good???

Maybe? I don’t know – that’s for you to decide.

But that’s the point. Your hiring managers selected you to get a job done. Theoretically, they should trust your judgment, work ethic, and skills to perform the required tasks. A few extra breaks or greater working autonomy should not rattle their confidence in you.

I  would simply like to propose a ‘radical’ idea that rather than robotizing employees, via expectations of rigid routines, productivity hacks, limitations on breaks, and expectations of perfection, we should embrace a human-first working culture. What does this mean? Greater personal freedom, more flexibility over our schedule, an emphasis on output, not hours worked, and an understanding that employees have outside-work commitments that sometimes take importance overwork. These are just some examples. 

Of course, I am not proposing this in an idealistic bubble. Yes, there are demands, KPIs, and unwavering company needs. Some things can’t be rescheduled. I think any reasonable and mature working adult understands and accepts this.

Thus, I’m not only against ‘routines’ – but also what ‘routines’ symbolize. But I am also specifically talking about rigid routines as well. They suck. So, I say ditch the rigid routine, instead, move your schedule around the ebbs and flows of your day. 

In case you missed it above, I’d like to reiterate that the personal ideas expressed in this article are consistent with our company values. As a remote-working company, we value a human-first approach to working. We also love to question ideas that we feel need to be questioned. ❤️

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