If you happen to work somewhere that offers a flexible schedule, congrats—you have the opportunity to maximize your time and energy for a better life in and out of the office. The only issue? A lot of us don’t know what that means or how to do it. If used smartly, a flexible schedule can be your ticket to consistently productive days that are also consistently low stress. The idea is to work when you’re at your sharpest, rest and relax when you’re not, and slot in the other odds and ends where they make the most sense.
It sounds simple. And it can be. But you have to know what works for you before you build your ideal flexible schedule. Fortunately, we can help you do that. With the right questions and a little experimentation on your part, you can identify your own unique energy patterns to make a schedule that works best for you. Let’s get started.
What is a Flexible Schedule?
First, let’s dig into what flexible schedules actually are.
A flexible schedule is one that can be adjusted to fit your individual needs. You may be able to set your own hours completely, choose them from a specific time window, work longer days to accommodate shorter ones, and so on.
Some companies have specific flex-time policies, some are more open, and some, like for those who work for themselves, are completely dependent on you. It’s a job perk that’s becoming increasingly popular. And it comes with some notable benefits. Let’s dive into a few examples.
3 Research-Backed Benefits of Flexible Schedules
1. Less pain and more satisfaction
In a recent study, manufacturing workers were randomly assigned to a morning, evening, or night shift, regardless of their personal sleep patterns. The ones assigned to the shift that best matched their sleep schedule preferences reported feeling the least discomfort and pain while at work and were the most satisfied with the work environment.
So what does that mean for you, whether you’re a shift worker or not? You’ll feel your best at work if your hours line up with your natural sleeping patterns and rhythms. If you’re a night owl, consider starting a bit later in the day to prioritize your sleep and maximize your energy. Early bird? Start your day off bright and early for similar benefits.
2. Better sleep
We know that sleep is hugely important for our health, productivity, happiness, and more. And one of the biggest benefits of a flexible schedule is the opportunity to get better and higher quality sleep. Or so says science.
In a similar study as the above, researchers asked factory workers to keep track of their sleep before and after being assigned to work shifts that match their sleep chronotypes. The workers reported getting significantly more sleep and higher-quality sleep once they started using the appropriate flexible schedule. Workers whose shift assignments were most severely mismatched with their natural sleep patterns before the switch gained about 30 minutes of extra sleep on workdays.
And 30 minutes can make a huge difference to your alertness, focus, productivity, and more.
3. Increased productivity
Aside from feeling better and sleeping more, flexible schedules can also improve productivity, according to a 2015 survey of companies across 10 countries. Eighty-three percent of companies that started using flexible schedules reported an improvement in worker productivity, and 61 percent reported that their profits increased. With profits and workers’ wishes aligning so nicely, it’s likely that this flexible working movement will keep growing.
The Key to Making a Flexible Schedule Work
You probably noticed that these real-life success stories keep coming back to the importance of scheduling your day around your natural sleep pattern. In the research world, these are called circadian rhythms or natural sleep chronotypes. And the evidence strongly suggests that they are the most important factor in making a flexible schedule work for you. So what are the chronotypes?
For starters, the most common chronotype is the middle one, according to research. About 30 percent of the population falls into this category, in which people sleep between about 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. on work nights and about one or two hours later on weekends. Early and late chronotypes fall on either side of the middle type, meaning that it’s much more common to be close to average than the extremes.
To be specific, only a combined eight percent of people fall into the “extreme late” and “extreme early” chronotypes. Because of typical working hours, late chronotypes are more likely to sacrifice sleep during the week by going to bed later but waking up near the same time as normal and early chronotypes.
You probably know if you tend to fall into an early, middle, or late chronotype just from the description, but let’s talk about some other ways you can dig into your personal rhythms. Once you nail down your rhythm, you can build your schedule in a way that best supports it.
How to Determine Your Own Body Clock
Here are some expert-recommended techniques to help you figure out your sleep chronotype.
1. Track your sleep closely for at least a week
You can use an app or a paper journal, as long you make sure to track both the quantity and quality of your sleep. The quality measurements should include notes about how long it took you to feel fully alert after waking up. With these notes and a dedication to experimenting with different sleeping and rising times for a few weeks, you’ll get the information you need.
2. Remember (or imagine) a relaxing holiday
Leading sleep chronotype researcher, Dr. Till Roenneberg, offers a shortcut around sleep tracking. Think back to the most laid back holiday you can remember—one that overcame alarms, work obligations, and distractions. When did you naturally get sleepy and wake up during that leisurely week?
If you’ve never experienced such a restful week (guilty), imagining a week at the beach can help you gain insights about your natural sleeping pattern. If all else fails, see strategy one.
A note about energy levels…
One thing to keep in mind is that our energy levels are not meant to stay consistent all day. And science confirms it. Most people experience a small but significant dip in alertness about twelve hours opposite from their natural deepest sleeping time, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Scientists call this afternoon lull “sleep/wake homeostasis”. In other words, you’ve been awake long enough that your body sends you a not-so-subtle suggestion that it might be time to relax.
Regardless of your chronotype, your strongest wave of alertness comes in the morning, and you experience a second wave of alertness in the evening as you rebound from the afternoon energy lull. It’s important to know this because you’ll want to consider the slump as you plan your schedule.
Flexible Schedule Dos and Don’ts
Now that you have a better sense of your sleep rhythm, you can create a schedule that matches it. Here are a few ways to line them up.
Do match your tasks to your daily circadian rhythm
Take advantage of your flexible schedule by doing your most demanding tasks when you’re most alert. No matter your chronotype, that means you take on your biggest challenge in the morning. When your energy fades in the afternoon, you can do some less demanding work.
See this post for more details about how to get your most important work done in the morning.
Don’t force yourself to do important work at mismatched hours
We all know that working against your natural sleeping pattern is unpleasant. It turns out that it also can have strange and alarming effects. In a recent experiment involving a dice-rolling game with money prizes, people who were forced to show up at the laboratory at the wrong end of their sleep chronotypes were about 17 percent more likely to lie in their efforts to win.
Clearly, it’s best to leave your most important work to those times when you’re not morally compromised. Or exhausted.
Do set regular deadlines and routines
With the freedom of a flexible schedule comes the responsibility to keep yourself on top of your work. In other words, it’s wise to embrace the world of Pomodoro timers and Kanban boards. That means making daily use of productivity and goal-setting strategies.
Tie it all together with a detailed daily planner such as Panda Planner, which helps you prioritize your most important tasks and get them done. Every day.
Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself
When planning your day, it’s easy to picture yourself knocking out major goals in long stretches of uninterrupted work time. We love the optimism. But we don’t love unrealistic expectations. To keep yourself from feeling disappointed or frustrated, keep your expectations in check. An achievable maximum target for demanding work is about three or four hours per day, according to research outlined in Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. (Less demanding tasks don’t count toward this total.)
2 Basic Templates for Building Your Personalized Flexible Schedule
So you know why a flexible schedule is important, some research-backed benefits, how to determine your body clock, and ways to line up your day with your rhythm. The final piece is actually setting—and then sticking—to that schedule. Luckily, we have two easy ways for you to do that. And neither one is as radical as you might think.
- Slide your daily start time earlier or later in the morning, usually by one to three hours but by more if you have an extreme sleep chronotype. With this schedule, you should tackle your most challenging work in the morning and leave the easier tasks for when you’re less alert in the afternoon. This schedule leaves the full evening for personal use.
- Break up your workday into two chunks. Start the first one at your natural waking time and the second one in the evening coinciding with your second natural circadian high. The afternoon energy dip is perfect for guilt-free relaxation, leisure, a nap, family time, exercise, or any of the other wonderful things we do when we’re not busy working.
To sum it all up…
A flexible schedule is a straightforward opportunity to be both more rested and more productive, as long as you know how to use it. We hope this short guide helps you identify your natural sleeping pattern and design a flex schedule that makes sense for you. It’s a set of simple adjustments to sync up your work demands with your body, so that you’re more likely to get in the zone when you need to get things done. The best part is that these efficiency gains transform into extra time and energy for the things you love outside of your working life.
Your turn: Do you have any additional tips or tricks for making the most of a flexible schedule? Tell us all about ’em in the comments.
Do you set your own hours while working from home? Check out our expert-backed tips for working remotely.
Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.