Reader question: How can I manage an always-on-call schedule?

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! 

8 thoughts on “Reader question: How can I manage an always-on-call schedule?

  1. I used to have this job in urgent care where sometimes my shift ended at 3 am and I could go home, but I was still on call until 7 or 8 am. It was so hard to get to sleep and I was always worried I would miss a call. Only rarely did I have to go back after being called in, but it was miserable when it did happen. I no longer have that job. I don’t see how your reader ever manages to feel relaxed.
    I would suggest stating that you are never available on Tuesdays or Sundays or whatever. Knowing that you guaranteed have that one day off might make it easier to plan dentist appointments, wine night with friends, etc. Even if the rest of your week is wild knowing that Tuesday is sacred might help mentally.

    1. I also have a job similar to this where I am on call outside of my scheduled work days. Laura, for those of us on call or who do rotating shift work, I would love it if you would discuss how to factor in family time, date night, hanging out with your kids, and spending time with friends. I really struggle with these things in an ever changing schedule!

  2. Love this advice. Our family is on week one of spring break, so I’ve dialed back my to do list to be on call for the two teenagers in the house who are re-doing a bedroom. By shortening my to-do list I’m less stressed and more available when they need help or moral support cleaning, painting and putting together furniture.

  3. I second your probability model. My job is best described as the in-house copy editor for a non-English university, so I don’t have control over when I receive a paper, document etc. However, I can predict likely patterns and plan my work accordingly – people have to write their papers before I get them, so I tend to receive more work in the afternoons and towards the end of the week. It also helps to have a to-do list for any lulls in work – short, as you recommend!

  4. You are massively underestimating the cost to constantly shifting back and forth between day and night shifts. People are not robots who can just sleep whenever there is time. Your reader’s schedule is likely making her feel exhausted most of the time, even if the total number of hours worked is only 40-50 hours per week.

  5. Two comments:
    1. A constantly shifting schedule makes routines really difficult. Sleep routines, taking medication, accomplishing chores, etc. The lack of autonomy over your time is incredibly difficult.

    2. As a partner of someone with a more crazy schedule than above, the emotional load/toll is a lot. I can’t count on my spouse for almost anything routinely. That’s not a character flaw, it’s a result of his schedule. He works about 60 hours a week, can be forced to stay and work late, can be called any time day or night, and takes 1-2 weeks of 24/7 per month (Call weeks are usually 80-120 hours in 7 days). As a parent of small kids I have to pre-plan anything important to me. I have to have a sitter for everything. The emotional labor of this is a lot. It’s not something easily shared.

    I think sometimes when you have a lot of autonomy over your own time, it can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has little autonomy. But those sorts of jobs are critical to the infrastructure of society.

  6. This is tough, especially if you thrive on routine – which I suspect most of Laura’s readership does 🙂

    I’ve been working part-time for years and my work is very sporadic. I can have a week full of work…or could have literally no paid working hours in a week (both jobs are salaried, but the mental side of it is still daunting, even though the hours worked don’t impact a financial bottom line). It also makes it hard to ramp up into “work” mode or “home productivity” mode since I’m never sure if I’ll be interrupted by pressing work requirements.

    One thing I might suggest is batching? I’ve been doing this for a while with good success and Laura has discussed this too. Having a space set aside physically (e.g. a tote that contains all your mail/bills) and mentally for tasks and having a running to-do list for each of those batch items. I batch: cooking, paperwork, communications, gift-buying, budget/finances etc. While I might not be able to plan to get everything in all categories done on the timeline I’d prefer, it feels more complete if I tackle one area of life/leisure/home management/work and see it through. I’m also endlessly more efficient this way. It’s a bit like doing Deep Work. Multitasking is a dangerous productivity strategy…

    I can also relate to @Amy. Although this has changed significantly due to COVID, my husband used to travel extensively, often at the last minute. As a result, I couldn’t rely on him for anything. All house management, kid appointments, mechanic visits…everything, basically, I had to take over since we could never predict when he would be home, where he would be in the world etc. I handled, singlehandedly, the oversight of our basement getting jackhammered, the replacement of a broken sewer line, moving to a new house, a 10-day terrifying fever with a toddler…The emotional toll was huge. While I can’t imagine single-parenting, dual-parenting with a spouse that has a very erratic schedule is a different beast (and we have minimal childcare). My kids would be excited for their birthday and them…bam, Daddy’s going to be away. So hard. We were also constantly in a state of jet lag, which of course impacted our whole family. Phew – as much as having everyone home all the time has its moments (many, many tough moments), I do not miss the travel!

  7. This post and all the responses are incredibly helpful. As a person who juggles part-time jobs that do have many scheduling irregularities, the insights underscore a couple of things that I’ve been doing well and pointed out some great ways to stop the “dithering.” THANK YOU!

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