Unexpected disruptions can have a big effect on our routine and schedule, but we can adjust without sacrificing our health or productivity. This week we talk about how to manage life when an unexpected monkey wrench is thrown into your routines.
Give yourself some grace when life throws a monkey wrench into your plans
When you care about being productive, when you take the time to plan, to organize, and to develop, on purpose, routines that work for you, it can be discouraging when something comes out of nowhere to throw all your plans into disarray. For reasons I’ll explain in a minute, I’ve been thinking this week about how to manage life when an unexpected event occurs that completely disrupts your normal routines.
My life is pretty simple. I work from home, so I seldom have reason to leave home during the week. I have a basic routine for my mornings, my workday, and my evenings. There’s a fairly repetitive rhythm to my weeks that generally allows me to get my legal work done, get podcast episodes published, and get my house in order. Some people probably would think my life is boring, but I’m content with it. I like the routines and rhythm of it and I like generally knowing what to expect and what I can get done over the course of a week.
This week, though, something unexpected happened that disrupted everything–my work, my daily routines, and my thinking. The short story is I was selected as a juror on a criminal trial that started immediately and continued through the week, and is expected to take up most of next week as well. In a matter of a few minutes, everything I had planned for the week had to be tossed.
When the unexpected happens
The phrase I’ve been thinking about all week is “monkey wrench”–as in something happens that throws a monkey wrench into your plans. This is a phrase I heard often growing up but as it was on my mind this week I got curious about where it came from:
The phrase “throw a monkey wrench into” means:
“Sabotage or frustrate a project or plans, as in The boss threw a monkey wrench into our plans when he said we’d have to work Saturday. This transfer of industrial sabotage—that is, throwing a tool inside machinery—to other subjects dates from the early 1900s.”
I learned in researching this there actually is a tool called a monkey wrench. According to Wikipedia:
“The monkey wrench is a type of adjustable wrench, a 19th-century American refinement of 18th-century English coach wrenches. It was widely used in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is of interest as an antique among tool collectors and is still occasionally used in maintenance and repair when it happens to be convenient. . . . The largely US idiom “to throw a monkey wrench into…” means to sabotage something. The British English equivalent is “to throw a spanner in the works”.
What kinds of unexpected things can disrupt life?
- Jury duty
- The car breaks down
- Injury or illness
- When COVID first hit–schools and businesses closed, having to work and learn from home (even if you were already home, having everybody else there)
- Serious weather event
What’s the effect?
Routines are disrupted. And here I’m not talking about just routines we’ve crafted intentionally to boost productivity, but simply the routines that develop organically because we are creatures of habit. In a fall 2020 article on the London School of Economics and Political Science online journal, talking about the initial decline in workplace productivity when COVID-motivated changes began, the writer notes: “routines are quite fragile and can be thrown off by mundane aspects of everyday life such as a power outage, a sick child, or a construction delay.”
Why does it matter if our routines are disrupted? That same article says that there is lots of evidence to support the idea that “routines (particularly morning routines) provide a foundation for a productive day. . . . Because routines automate basic elements of daily life, they help conserve energy to dedicate toward achieving goals during the day. But when a routine is disrupted, what was previously automated requires conscious thought. . . . [The studies done by the article’s authors found that] whatever the routine, disruptions to it leave employees feeling less engaged and being less productive over the course of the day.”
How to respond?
- Keep in mind: During a crisis-triggered disruption, productivity is less important than well-being. Take care of yourself.
- Resist the urge to turn reactive. Take a minute, take a breath, and take a step back. Evaluate the situation as calmly as possible.
- Try to manage your thinking about the disruption–looking for the lesson to be learned or the growth opportunity.
- Let go of everything you can. “When a disruption forces you to drop things, or you simply run out of time, choose your casualties with care. Begin by removing items from your task list and calendar from the bottom up. For example, remove your daily meditation (#4 Stress Management) before you abandon your daily exercise (#3 Exercise). Avoid the temptation to let everything go and start living on McDonald’s hamburgers (#1 Nutrition) and limited disrupted sleep (#2 Sleep).” [from 3 Tips for Handling a Life Disruption]
- Professor Christina Moore, in an article titled “Productivity” During Disruption, recommends: Modify your usual productivity system to a “survival productivity system”. The idea here is to set aside your robust task manager or planner with its detailed plans and to-do lists and stick with a simple system with only the most essential tasks listed.
- Ask for help. When I was selected for the jury, I came back to my home office and reached out to colleagues, explaining what was going on and asking for specific help: Can you cover this call with a client? Can you step in to work with me on this time-sensitive matter for another client?
- Bottom line: GIVE YOURSELF GRACE.
As Professor Moore reminds us, “Productivity during disruption is about staying healthy and safe so that you are ready to work when the time is right.”
What do you think?
Resources and Links
- “Productivity” During Disruption – Teaching Tips
- Productivity Calendar, Your Personal Assistant: Teaching Tip – Google Docs
- How disruptions to our morning routines harm daily productivity, and what we can do about it | LSE Business Review
- softuary.net – 3 Tips for Handling a Life Disruption
- How To Thrive In The Face Of Personal Disruption
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