Some people’s lives look very similar, day-to-day. Other people’s lives do not. Some people know exactly when they’ll work. Others do not.
If you fall into the latter camp, how can you manage your time and energy to deal with the unpredictability?
That’s the core of a reader question I received this week from Sarah, who works as an on-call midwife. As Sarah writes, “It’s impossible to know when babies will come and how long it will take to support someone in labor.” In Sarah’s case, this was complicated by the fact that she has two different on-call jobs. She takes on two private clients a month for her doula business, and then works at a birth center 2-4 days or nights a week for 12 hour shifts. “I would love any tips for being productive with a schedule that vacillates widely each week,” she writes. “Some weeks I barely work and other weeks it’s long days. Even when I don’t have many hours called-in I can feel really busy because it’s so unpredictable. I don’t feel like I use my time not called-in well because I feel like I can’t plan for it. Help!”
When people’s lives resist easy routines, it can be challenging to make space for anything else. Is it possible to exercise, or do a hobby, or even basic life maintenance tasks, if your schedule varies?
I think the answer is yes, but doing so requires thinking about time a little differently than people who have more set hours. Instead, it helps to think of available time in terms of probabilities, and ranked priorities.
First, on the probability front: while on some level Sarah’s jobs can require her to come in at any point, this doesn’t mean she will be working all 168 hours of every week. If she has already assisted with births for a few private clients in recent days and the next one isn’t due for a month, most likely she will not be called in the next few days. She could be, but most likely not.
With an established business like the birthing center, I imagine there are a general number of shifts she has agreed to work. She might work more to cover colleagues (and they cover for her if a private client is in labor) but again, it won’t be entirely random. (When I asked, Sarah also mentioned that this was a lever she could exert some control over — stating how many shifts she’d generally like to be called for in a given time period. So if she asked for three in a week, and had worked three, she might feel more confident making plans. She might still wind up coming in, but at least there would be a discussion).
In any case, it always helps to track time. Labors can take varying amounts of time but not infinitely varying amounts of time. I’m sure Sarah already knows the time distribution curve for first or subsequent labors!* By tracking time for several weeks, even people with variable schedules can sometimes see patterns. For instance, for this essay from a few years back I interviewed a minister who tracked her time and figured out how long a funeral and the associated pastoral care would most likely take. Births and deaths are both big and meaningful events, and yet people who deal with either frequently can in fact estimate them and build them into their time models. Knowing the probabilities for time can help with a sense of control.
Then we move on to the ranked priorities. After an overnight labor or an overnight shift, I am sure that the top non-work priority is sleep! But beyond that, it helps to make a short list of tasks you’d like to do in a day. Very short. We’re talking three or so. Maybe five if you feel fairly confident (based on the probability model) that the day won’t be interrupted. When you’ve got a short slot you feel won’t be taken away, you can map out the next day or two, and brainstorm ideas to assign to future days. Then, when time is available, you don’t dither around deciding what to do. You start on the list. If you get interrupted, fine. Pick up where you left off the next time you can. If we’re talking three things in 24 hours most likely you will get to them. And when you are done with the list you are done! You know you’ve been productive and done the things you wanted to do, so you can relax and feel good about yourself.
This was always my strategy during the newborn days, which also feature a lot of being on call in a different sense. I would create a list of three things beyond life maintenance I wanted to do. Examples: Write a blog post. Go for a walk. Call to make an appointment somewhere. Three things in 24 hours is manageable. And if they’re well chosen, you also feel like you’re making progress. Three things a day is 21 things a week (five a day is 35!) That’s more than 1000 (or 1750!) in a year. If they matter, that’s a lot. Rather than worrying about the universe of things that aren’t being done, make a set short list of things you will do, and then always do those. When expectations match reality, we feel content.
I’d love to hear from people with jobs that require being on-call or have variable schedules on how they manage their non-work time to feel productive.
*Personal observation: fourth and fifth births tend to be fast.
photo: Babies — cute but unpredictable! Strange to look at this photo of my little guy from early last year. He is a big boy now!