More Flexibility With Your Work Schedule? One Challenge No One Has Mentioned

Woman running outdoors on the pavement
As we head into the “next normal,” many people will have much more flexibility in their work schedules. Even just in my circle of acquaintances, I’ve talked to many people who will be working from home far more often, and I’ve heard about many workplaces that have significantly changed the layout of their workspaces and their expectations of in-person work. And with health guidelines changing daily, and people’s preferences evolving, these shifts seem here to stay. I’ve read a lot of discussions about who might and who might not benefit from this change; advantages and disadvantages; and various predicted consequences. But here’s one challenge that no one’s mentioned: the effect on habits. In Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I write about the 21 strategies we can use to make or break our habits. You might think, “Why include so many strategies?” I identify 21 strategies because people form habits in many different ways. For most of us, habits form most solidly when they’re followed consistently, every day of the week. I brush my teeth when I get up in the morning. I put on a seat-belt every time I get in a car. Most of us also have weekday/weekend habits. We have habits for the five-day work week, and different habits for the two-day weekend. Maybe you get up at 7 a.m. during the week, and 9 a.m. on the weekends. Or you don’t drink alcohol during the week, but have a few drinks on Saturdays and Sundays. Many people tie habits to this 5-day/2-day schedule. In the pandemic period, many of these habits were disrupted. For instance, in the past, whenever a friend of mine didn’t have a lunch plan, he went to the gym across the street from his office; when he wasn’t going to the office anymore, he had to recreate his exercise habit. Rebuilding these kinds of healthy habits can take a lot of time and effort. However, it’s also true that many people were able to build new healthy habits when they were safer-at-home. “Because I wasn’t commuting, I had plenty of time to go for a daily run,” a friend told me. I think that for many people, the lack of a consistent, familiar 5 day/2 day schedule will make it hard to keep up good habits. Whether you leave for work at 8 a.m. five days a week, or you work from home five days a week, you have a consistent, predictable schedule on which to hang your habits. Many people wisely tie habits to a certain slot in the day. But if you head to the office on different days on different weeks, and sometimes you go in early, and sometimes later, and maybe one week you go in every day or no days…well, it’s harder for habits to stick. Also, many people—and certainly Obligers—benefit from accountability in their habits, and the workplace itself tends to offer many forms of accountability. You and your co-worker have the healthy habit of taking a lunchtime walk. That’s great if you work together every day—but in a more flexible schedule, maybe the two of you will overlap only one or two days each week. And then the habit is less robust. Once you realize that you benefit from outer accountability, many possibilities open up. There are many ways to create outer accountability! (If you need ideas, I review some popular accountability measures here.) For many people, and in many ways, greater flexibility will be a huge benefit. It’s useful, though, to think about challenges that it might create, as well. As we think about our habits going forward, it’s always useful to ask: “When have I succeeded in the past?” If you’ve kept a good habit successfully when it was tied to some aspect of your work life, consider whether you’ll need to find a new way to keep that habit strong, if the structure of your work life changes significantly. For instance, if you consistently went to a Zumba class with a co-worker after work on Wednesdays, try to figure out why you succeeded in meeting that aim. Was it the convenience of going after work? Was it knowing that your co-worker was counting on you? Was it your love for Zumba? Thinking about a past success can help set you up for the future. Because if what you need is accountability, doing an online Zumba class might not work—but if it’s your love for music and dance that kept you going, maybe an online class would work. To understand what circumstances help them to keep their good habits—and not—many people find my Four Tendencies personality framework helpful. To find out if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, take the free, quick quiz here (more than 3.2 million people have taken it). Once you know your Tendency, you can much more effectively set yourself up for success—no matter what shape the future takes. How do you think the “next normal” will affect your habits? If you foresee any challenges ahead, how do you plan to deal with them?



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