5 Tips for Adapting to a Non-Traditional Work Structure
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.