Planning for chaos:
How creative solo self-employed people navigate the chaos

Non-atomic habits

How to stop forcing yourself into routines that just don’t fit.

Surely you’ve come across them before: The aesthetically pleasing videos that tell you how to finally stop being a routine-less loser who’s still asleep at 5am and doesn’t consider a protein shake a full meal.

If you’re wondering how to get some structure into your work life without obsessively planning everything, rest assured: you can be different and still be successful.

Accept how you are

You’re chaotic? That’s ok. You don’t have to get up at 5 o’clock. You don’t have to get up at the same time every day either. You generally have to do very little. If some days you’re so in the flow that you’re hitting the keys until 3am, then you don’t have to torture yourself into getting up at 6am the next day.

If you’re not prone to routines, and your clients don’t expect you to be available for a fixed period of time, then there’s little reason for you to follow a standard routine. Researchers assume that it is good for us and our sleep rhythm to always get up at the same time. But statistics are not laws of nature. They only mean that a large number of people benefit from them – and maybe you just function differently.

Question the meaning of routines

Man is a creature of habit. Then I guess I’m not human. Of course, our brains tend to have certain thought routines (if you’re interested in that, check out Daniel Kahneman’s research). But that doesn’t mean we have to live by the routines that the organisational and motivational gurus on social media try to explain to us. Not everyone likes routines.

As a rule, routines reduce the mental effort of wasting energy on separating tiny decisions, such as whether we brush our teeth before or after breakfast. Contrast this with the idea that breaking out of everyday routines makes us more mindful and creative, such as taking a different route to work every now and then or spooning soup with our right hand instead of our left.

Don't force your brain into rigid routines

Do you have the feeling that routines stress you out rather than giving you peace and security? Have you written down a thousand times how you want to structure your days from next week and then given up on it by Monday afternoon? This could be because it’s just not your way. Some jobs also don’t allow you to go through the day in rigid routines. When a client calls spontaneously, 30 minutes can disappear. If our routine doesn’t have a solid buffer for that, the chaos is forced into our routine from the outside.

Create a buffer and stay flexible

If you’ve found that neither your job nor your personality structure can provide a fixed routine, you can finally find the right plan. Instead of sticking to rigid schedules of employees and non-chaotic people, you can just create a schedule that lets you and your tasks breathe. Because without planning, you probably won’t get your projects done on time. So it’s not about banning planning in general – but planning in a way that suits you. What generally helps me:

  • I divide large projects into each small step.
  • I enter the sub-steps in the calendar.
  • It’s not about the specific time I want to complete this sub-step, but about seeing how many hours it will take. In this way, I can see at a glance in which week the project will probably be completed and when I can start working on new assignments.
  • Always schedule time for the sub-steps longer than I think. This leaves a buffer in case it takes longer or something unforeseen happens on that day.
  • Buffer, buffer, buffer – and no, the weekend is not a buffer. After two and a half decades of being self-employed, I know that everything takes longer than I thought and that something unpredictable happens almost every day.
  • To avoid this throwing you into chaos and causing enormous time pressure, create a buffer. Besides, unsolicited time is important to clear your mind, to have new ideas and to be able to work on them.

If you’re interested in this kind of planning, feel free to read my article on calendar blocking.

Find out how you work best

For a long time I thought that I should also have a 9-to-5 job as a self-employed person. But since I have neither good ideas nor much energy in the mornings, that makes little sense for me. I usually spend the morning procrastinating, writing emails or doing things that are simply not urgent. In the afternoon, when my brain finally decides to work productively, I still have all the urgent tasks ahead of me.

It took me – admittedly – almost 10 years to realise this. In order to finally sit at my desk for fewer hours a day, I wrote down for some time at what times I could do what well. It turned out that it is good for me to start much later in the day and to cut a swathe through my social life every now and then to work in the evenings or at night. Again: If routines don’t suit you, don’t force yourself to do them. You don’t have to be at your desk every Wednesday at 8am. You can also take Monday off and write your big family novel on Sunday night. You are self-employed – so your rules apply.

Say goodbye to Habit Tracking

New numbers keep popping up about how many days it takes for a new habit to take root in our daily lives. But here too, unfortunately, the number is more clickbait than really helpful information. Because neither does it take the same amount of time to establish every kind of habit, nor is every person equally fast at adapting a new behaviour. To document their progress, some people use a so-called habit tracker. This is a piece of paper or a page in your bullet journal where you record whether or not you have implemented this new habit today.

A classic habit tracker includes, for example: Did I drink enough today? Did I exercise for 30 minutes? Did I read for 10 minutes? And so on. For people with a rather chaotic disposition who don’t enjoy routines, however, this can quickly feel as if every little everyday thing now turns into a task that has to be ticked off. You can try it out and see whether the Habit Tracker motivates you or is not for you. Just like the days it takes for new habits to enter our lives, the tools that help us in everyday life also differ from person to person.

Social control and real help

Every few months I buy a dear friend dinner, luring her into my studio and to the flipchart or the Zoom room when I’m away. The diabolical plan behind it: She helps me plan. Sometimes we plan her next professional steps and sometimes what should happen with my small business. Of course, we could do this on our own and just meet for dinner – but that’s really how we do it. Social control can be very effective, especially if you tend to think and act chaotically.

If you make a set date with another person, you are more likely to actually work on what you set out to do. Besides, a second brain is worth its weight in gold in many cases: the other person can see the weak points in your plan better than you can. Because even if our company consists of only one person, we can become operationally blind.

Create motivation

You have a big job that needs to be finished quickly? No problem, you can do it. So that you stay motivated and don’t just work faster towards burn-out, you can plan the reward directly into the schedule. You work late on Tuesday to deliver the print files to your customer overnight? No problem. Then you can take Wednesday afternoon off and go to the museum or the swimming pool or sit on the sofa and stare into the air – whatever makes you happy, relaxes you and above all motivates you.


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