5 Tips for Adapting to a Non-Traditional Work Structure

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For the next 12 months, Zoe Weiner will be living and working remotely in 12 different cities around the world through an organization called Remote Year. As she moves to each new location and tackles new obstacles, she'll share what she learns with us here at Mental Floss. Miss her previous installment? Read it here.

“Do you ever sleep?”

It’s a question I get at least once a day, from friends, family, and bosses back in the U.S. who can’t understand why I am always awake to respond to their calls, texts, and emails—and that means 5 p.m. on Tuesday and 3 a.m. on Saturday in equal measure.

Living in Vietnam, on the second month of my Remote Year, sleeping hasn’t exactly been a priority—there’s simply too much to do, see, and eat to spend eight hours every night with my eyes closed (you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten banh mi from a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City while the sun rises). This, coupled with an unorthodox work schedule that requires at least two overnight shifts per week, means that I’ve had to adapt to an entirely different way of life than I’m used to. Namely, one without a routine.

As a freelance writer, all of my time is my own, and the way I structure it is 100 percent up to me … which, unfortunately, isn't as freeing as it sounds. Before jetting off for Remote Year, I did my best to stick to a "normal" schedule: hitting the gym in the morning, working regular business hours, making dinner, and turning out the lights at a reasonable time. Now, I'm struggling to live on local time and correspond with editors in the U.S. during their business hours—meaning I'm on call pretty much 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On Remote Year, there is no such thing as “downtime,” and I’ve found myself writing stories from the beach, the bus and once, from the back of a Tuk Tuk. My new lifestyle simply doesn’t allow for regiment, and slowly but surely I’m starting to adjust.

After two months on the road, I’ve thankfully started to figure things out: At the very least, I’m no longer sobbing into a mystery meat satay, and though my sleep hours are irregular, I’ve managed to maintain between four and six hours every night. I’ve become a full-blown Vietnamese coffee addict in the process (FYI: It's really good and really caffeinated), but I’ve also learned that it is possible to be successful without the structure I’m used to. Here’s exactly how:

1. LEARN TO PRIORITIZE.

Here’s the reality: When you’re living, working, and traveling, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do. At a certain point, something’s gotta give, and it’s up to you to figure out what that “something” is. My advice? Every day, write down a checklist of everything you want to accomplish, ranked by importance—including work tasks and seemingly menial things like doing laundry and going to the gym. Then, start checking things off from the top. Even if you can’t do everything, you at least know that you’ll get to the most important things by the end of the day.

2. EMBRACE NAPTIME.

Remember how in pre-school naptime was the most frustrating part of the day because all you wanted to do was run around with your friends? That’s kind of what it feels like on Remote Year. Dedicating a chunk of your day to sleeping is really, really annoying, especially when it means missing out on a trip to a temple or local market (or sacrificing work hours). But in order to be alert enough to do anything, you have to give in to sleep at some point. Invest in an eye mask and a set of earplugs, and carve out at least four hours every day (or night) for shut-eye. Sleep with your phone and laptop in another room, and force yourself to stay in bed the entire time so that eventually you’ll fall asleep.

3. COMMUNICATE THE RIGHT WAY.

I’m in a unique position that requires me to work U.S. and Asia hours (check back in with me in a month and I’ll let you know how that’s going), but for most remote workers, it’s crucial to set clear boundaries between your working and not-working hours. Make sure your clients and bosses know that you’re available between the hours of X and X, and try to work as many hours as possible that overlap with theirs (for me, this means working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Vietnam time two nights a week). Aside from designated "workdays," do your best to disconnect. It also helps to put a line in your email signature that mentions you may be slow to respond to messages due to the time difference so that everyone is able to stay on the same page.

4. RELY ON YOUR CALENDAR.

Because there’s no structure built into your days, it’s up to you to create it for yourself, and I’ve found that building a crazy-detailed calendar tends to help. Not only do I have all of my deadlines, events, and calls penciled in, but reminders like "Go to the office," "Go to the grocery store," and "Call your mom" pop up on a regular basis. It may sound silly, but without the reminders there is little-to-no chance any of these seemingly normal things will happen. Even though every day may look different, creating a schedule and holding yourself accountable to it can help you stay focused.

5. MAKE TIME FOR SELF CARE.

Some other reminders that pop up on my calendar? “Sleep,” “Eat dinner,” and “Go to the gym.” Anyone with a traditional lifestyle probably assumes that these things are no-brainers, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to fit them in as a full-time remote traveler. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve had days when I can’t remember the last time I’ve eaten/slept/showered because the days start to blend together. Trust me, without a routine to keep you balanced, you will ultimately forget to take care of yourself. Carve out a few hours every week to give yourself some self love in whatever way will make you feel best, whether it’s getting a massage, reading a book, or going to a workout class. If your mind, body, and soul are struggling, your productivity ultimately will, too.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

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By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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The Reusable Rocketbook Smart Notebook Is the Ultimate Recycling Move

StackCommerce/Rocketbook
StackCommerce/Rocketbook

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You may be conscientious of your environmental footprint, but some habits are tough to change, like transitioning from writing notes on paper to typing notes and saving trees. There’s just something about physically writing with a pen and paper that’s fulfilling, engages your memory, and just feels right. You can keep jotting without the guilt on this smart reusable notebook from Rocketbook that translates all of your written text to your favorite cloud services so you can recycle the pages to use again and again.

Once you start using cloud storage for notes, it’ll be hard to go back. You’ll have every song lyric, appointment, and list of directions you jot down anywhere you have internet access (which is basically everywhere these days). The set comes with 42 pages for various uses, like calendars and to-do lists that wipe clean with a damp cloth to reuse after you save your notes to the cloud.

One of the reasons it’s hard to ditch traditional pen and paper is the feeling of your favorite writing utensil gliding on the page. This set comes with a FriXion pen that writes smoothly on the synthetic paper just like the old-fashioned way—except you can’t misplace or ruin these notes in a shuffle or coffee spill since everything will be stored digitally. It’s better for the environment and kind of like an insurance plan on your personal thoughts and notes.

For a limited time, you can replace all of your archaic and environmentally wasteful notebooks with one easy set. Score the Rocketbook Fusion Executive book in black, the Rocketbook Mini in black, two FriXion pens, and two microfiber cloths for wiping with a 12 percent discount. You’ll get unlimited paper from the sleek large and small black notebooks for just $44.

Prices subject to change.

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