Ask Doist: How Do You Stick to a Routine When Life Is Constantly Trying to Break It?

A remote working father of two asks how to create a routine when unexpected interruptions are inevitable

Illustration by Margarida Mouta

Note

Ask Doist is a regular column answering real readers’ questions about work and life, from the philosophical to the practical. Got a question? Email us at ask@doist.com.

Now I come to you with another one, which has been bugging me for a few months. I work for a remote company, so I can set my own hours. I embraced all the suggestions towards scheduling time for work (shallow and deep), as well as for fun, because I find it helps me being more organized, more productive and ultimately more at peace, I would say.

The problem is that I feel life is constantly trying to break my routine, with unpredictable events. And I'm not talking Covid, this is actually quite the normality, here are some examples. I have two little daughters and we have no help, so it often happens schedules need to change: one week one of them will be home for a few days from school for a cold, then there will be the occasional doctor visit, or they need help with homework or something (on some days they need help every 40 seconds or so). Which is fine and I do it all with love and gratitude, it's just that deep work is impossible, and some weeks the time spent on deep work is way less than I would have liked and planned for. Another huge element of unpredictability is that my wife is a doctor, so it happens quite often that she needs to go visit her patients, and I'm unexpectedly left with kids, cooking, chores — which, again, is fine, but erodes time I had planned for work.

The result is that my routine is never followed, my weekly plan is constantly changing (I stopped planning too much after a while, because I was spending more time reordering my tasks than actual doing them), and I end up working late at night or early next morning (neither of which are my productive times), and productively speaking I'm living by the day, which brings me a bit of anxiety.

I was wondering if you have any suggestions!

Grazie ciao

Buon giorno, and, wow, can I empathize. Just yesterday I had time blocked my ideal schedule for today, setting aside a perfect little hour in the morning to catch up on Twist and emails before diving in to write this column.

The universe, unfortunately, had different plans.

My daughter flat-out refused all morning (profusely, as four-year-olds do, with a show-stoppingly dramatic tantrum) to go to preschool. My pristinely time blocked morning never stood a chance.

Without knowing your line of work, I’ll do my best to share some advice that has been helpful for me as a parent and fellow deep work enthusiast who also works from home.

As you may imagine, I rely on Todoist to guide my workdays. There is one label — @work — and two filters that have become indispensable for me. Bear with me, here’s how it all plays out: Every single work-related task that I add to Todoist gets the @work label. All of these tasks fall into either my main #Doist parent project, or one of its many sub-projects.

With all my work-related tasks properly labeled, I’m able to use the following filter queries to plan my workdays:

  • Today at work: @work_ & today & !assigned to: other|@work_ & overdue & !assigned to: other
  • Tomorrow at work: @work_ & tomorrow & !assigned to: other|@work_ & overdue & !assigned to: other

These filters show all my tasks with the @work label that are due today (or tomorrow), that are overdue, and are not assigned to others (i.e. they are my own tasks, not my colleagues’).

During the day, I rarely navigate outside my Today at Work filter view so that I’m not distracted by other tasks like “Do laundry” or “Buy more Girl Scout cookies”. 👀

In these filter views, I break my work down further with custom sorting so that my tasks are clearly categorized first by their project or subproject and then by priority level.

I’m very scrupulous when it comes to priority levels—only the most important, must-do tasks get a P1 categorization. This way, even if the world conspires against all my meticulous planning, I know which tasks I have to do today, and I can leave the rest for later even if it means postponing them to tomorrow.

As you see in the screenshot below, I have a recurring task titled “Block plan tomorrow’s schedule” set for every workday. To plan my schedule for the next day, I use the Tomorrow at Work filter view to see all my tasks that are scheduled for “tomorrow” as well as their priority levels.

From there (wow this is getting long I hope you’re still with me!) at the end of each day, I use a journal and pencil (In my opinion, using a pencil is key because then you can erase and shuffle your schedule if things aren’t going your way! Simple yet effective 🤷‍♀️) to block plan my schedule for tomorrow, slotting in my P1 tasks for the time blocks that are the least prone to destruction. For me, that’s usually around 10 am or 2 pm.

Try not to put pressure on yourself to 100% finish a P1 task in one of your time blocks. What’s most important is that you’re able to make progress—most of the time, you can wrap up what’s left the next day (or once your kids are in bed).

I realize this is a bit of a long-winded answer, but in the year-and-a-half or so that I’ve been following this workflow, I’ve felt incredibly productive and focused despite the unpredictability that has accompanied this pandemic, school closures, and my second (morning-sickness filled) pregnancy. This system keeps me focused on my absolute-must-dos, so that even when things go off the rails, I still end the day having accomplished something important. It also lets me start each day with a fresh slate and a new plan for moving forward no matter what happened the day before.

You sound like a wonderful husband, father, and colleague. I sincerely hope that this advice will be useful for you. We are rooting for you here at Doist and if you have any questions I’d be more than happy to answer them in the comments below 🤗

Take care – you got this!

– Brenna

Note

📬 Need advice about remote work? Teamwork? Leadership? Productivity? Careers? Life? Send us an email at ask@doist.com.

Brenna Loury

Brenna is the Head of Marketing at Doist.

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