How to Keep a Routine While Working in the Service Industry

Having a routine is hard. There’s no getting around that. Add to the difficulty the fact that many of us work jobs with irregular hours. The idea of the 9-5 is just not a reality for many people working today. Even if you have a regular job, wage stagnation and inflation make it pretty dang certain that you need some kind of side hustle. For example, I manage a coffee shop. My schedule changes weekly depending on what the shop needs. Sometimes I work 6am-2pm, and sometimes I work 2pm-10pm. Not only does this wreak havoc on my sleep schedule, but it makes it hard for me to lock any kind of routine in place.

That, however, doesn’t stop me from trying. I am constantly on the lookout for lifestyle blogs that speak to me. I read about personal finance, and productivity hacking, and while I find some of it helpful, much of it just seems like it doesn’t apply. It comes from a place of privilege, a privilege of time. What I plan to do with this post is share a few tips I’ve found that help me manage my time in a smart way.

Keeping a Routine Is Hard

The trick is to follow a few simple tips: forgive yourself, be flexible, and sleep better. It's that simple. Really, it is.

Forgive Yourself

My first tip, and the hardest thing for me, is to forgive yourself. What I mean is, I found myself reading these blogs that placed a ton of importance on consistency, and my schedule doesn’t allow that all of the time. Which quickly led to me giving up because I felt like I was failing. It took me too long to realize this, but I finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much about day-to-day consistency. That kind of pressure can straight-up kill progress. The stress put me through cycles of progress, blips of productivity, successful budgeting, exercise, followed by months of nothing. Yes, if you can do something daily, it will certainly help transform that new behavior into a habit, but it shouldn’t be something that you lay your worth on.

The name of the game for the service industry hustler is positive trends. Something I’ve adopted from the life improvement website conquer.today is a daily tracker. It’s essentially a Google sheet full of things you feel that you should do daily. For example, a box will say, “Did you wake up on time?” or “Did you watch TV for only 1 hour?” and you put an X on that day if you did. It took me a week to see that I was placing too much weight on checking every. single. box. every day. Once I was able to shift my thinking, I actually started to see more boxes checked off. It was this weird moment of inverse thinking where I saw better results the less pressure I put on myself.

Be Flexible

The second tip is placing more emphasis on flexibility. The daily checklist I use it broken down into three chunks: AM, MID, and PM. When I first started, I adhered a little too strictly to those blocks of time. I needed to change something. First, I edited the checklist to be a better fit for my “average” day, and then I started seeing those blocks of time as guidelines. I re-designed the checklist so each task was most likely to get done in its assigned block, but I don’t let myself stress out if I, say read something from the Times (typically an AM task) in the evening. Sure, I’ve found that my days are more successful if I make time to read at least two articles in the morning before work, but I’m not going to sacrifice sleep to wake up extra early before a 6am shift. That’s just stupid. Sleeping well trumps the checkbox every time.

Sleep Better

My third tip is sleep better. Seriously. Track your sleep with whatever you can. I use Sleep for Android, and it has seriously helped me out. If you don’t have a smartphone, use a pen and paper. Again, this is about trends. When did you go to sleep? When did you wake up? Rate it, so you can see what your ideal night looks like. For me, I’ve found that 7h 50m is damn near perfect. This is the hardest thing for me to achieve, though. Some days I get up at 4:30am, which means I would have to go to sleep at 8:40pm. The trouble arises because most sleep experts agree that some level of consistency is important for high-quality sleep. But, wait, I sometimes work until 10pm. According to Sleep for Android, this leads to what they call “social jetlag.” This is the same thing that happens to 9-5ers on weekends. They have a bedtime during the work week, but as soon as the weekend arrives they stay up way too late, and sleep in an extra few hours. My solution for this is to *gasp* not sleep in on days off. It feels very counterintuitive at first, but once you get used to it, you’ll see that cutting down on your social jetlag will make you feel better than “catching up” on sleep on your day off. There is no catching up. You can’t get those hours back. Try it for three weeks, and tell me you aren’t feeling it.

Obviously everybody has a different life they want to live, and some of what I’m telling you might not stick, but it’s helped me, so I have to believe that it will help someone else too.

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