The keys to staying productive with a full-time job

A lot of the productivity content out there, from videos and books to seminars and blogs, including the ones you read here at RescueTime, seem to operate off the assumption that we’re all freelancers with wide open schedules. They act like we all have the time to build in jam-packed morning and evening routines, and dedicate hours at a time to deep working on our passion projects. They think we all have home offices.

There’s also an outsize focus in their content on procrastination and fighting boredom, which, while necessary and helpful, don’t represent the full spectrum of our problems with our work. There are more complicated things that can also get in our way. Those types of tips and ideas can be useful, and I always found value in them, especially when I was a freelancer. But the bottom line is that some of us, if not most of us, have 9 to 5 jobs. Some of us love them; some of us don’t. But no matter what those jobs are, they, by definition, take up almost all of our daytime hours with activity directly unrelated to our personal projects and passions.

So what do we do when we only have three to four free hours in the day, but are still desperate to accomplish our dreams? It doesn’t mean you can never sleep. It doesn’t mean you have to be exhausted and unhappy all the time. But it is going to take a little bit more planning…and a lot more work. You have to develop a good old fashioned side-hustle schedule. Working 8pm to midnight. Burn the candle, technically, at both ends. It’s possible to do it and not lose your mind. Let’s try it out – and start small.

Start with some kind of system


My first week working a full-time job plus two part-time jobs was categorically rough. Performance began to slip in all three, and my personal life and sleep suffered. It was not sustainable to continue at that level, week-in week-out. I would look at my calendar, and see I had one day off every three weeks, and my anxiety would shoot up on the spot. In a strange kind of way, the anxiety got so bad at times that I felt actual fear. Again – not sustainable.

But I wanted to explore all possible options that I could before backing out of any of those three commitments. So I tried to approach finding a solution as methodically as possible.

I opened my calendar. Every weekday I marked with big red ink: “6am-6pm – WORK.” This was a given. And I painted with a wide brush, so to speak. That twelve hour span accounted for the groggy wake-up, rushed morning routine, morning commute, spending 8 to 10 hours at the office, and driving back home. Next on the calendar I left a gap of an hour or two, and below it marked “8pm-12pm – WORK.” This was the fun new stuff. Typically if I were to color-code a calendar like this, that aggressive red section would have been followed by a calming blue one, probably labeled “watch TV.” Now, things were intimidatingly mono-chromatic. Red all over.

But those big expansive blocks didn’t actually mean that I worked, head-down, intently, for exactly 16 hours every day. Those blocks included time for sitting in a car listening to a podcast, eating lunch, eating dinner, and decompressing with family. More than anything, these marks on the calendar simply acted as a mindset setter. For days when I absolutely had to work during the evening, it was helpful to give my brain “no way out.” There was no time to putter around for two hours and then start working, unless I wanted to be up all night. There was no time to schedule a coffee or dinner or trip to the movies. Instead, during this time, on this day, I had to be fully effortful in at least trying to be working.

And it wasn’t every day, especially not at first. There were beautiful days when I got to click “delete” on that second four hour block. After a while, at the beginning of every week, I would have a little meeting with myself and determine how much side hustling I needed to do that week. Sometimes I could delete four of the five side hustle blocks. And that was totally fine if that’s what my schedule needed.

I think a lot of us, in the throws of our procrastination, can inflate the size of the job that needs doing as another tactic to put it off. I’ve even caught myself saying things like “clearly this needs a full eight hours of work” as an excuse to put it off until tomorrow, because “there’s not enough time today.” Cut to tomorrow, and it takes 90 minutes to finish. A waste of everyone’s time and headspace to try to convince myself otherwise. Could have turned it in early.

When our tasks are crunched in this self-imposed way into these little blocks, with some sort of expectation that they will be finished in that time, they just get done. Simple as that. It’s almost like believing before doing.
This is actually a proven phenomenon called Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands to fill the time allotted to complete it.” Simply, if you give yourself three hours to write an essay, it will get done in that time. If you give yourself two days to write it, it will get done in that time too, and at a similar quality level. So the two hour option is a no-brainer. So if you want to, get more insular with your calendar. Schedule hour-by-hour. Pre-plan what you’ll work on specifically for each section of time so you have an incentive to stick to it.

Keep your routines

It’s easy to fall into thinking that this side hustle life is temporary, and also so unusual, that you can kind of give yourself over to “the college lifestyle.” Meaning, just as you used during all-nighters in school, you can let certain things slip. Hygeine. Diet. Exercise. Wearing the same dirty shirts. That’s a fair assumption, and one that has more or less worked for us late-night procrastinators in the past.

But this process, and the thought we’re putting behind it, is about sustainability. It’s about, if necessary, maintaining this kind of workflow and output for weeks and months at a time. So you have to do yourself all the favors that you can to keep things simple, and keep you happy.

Exercise helps you work productively. A good diet keeps you mind sharp. And, a shower feels good. It keeps you healthy. It’s a wonderful way of resetting yourself, maybe to start fresh in the morning, or maybe after work before you dive in to “the second half” of the day. Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin famously takes something around six showers every day when he’s writing – he says it’s “not about germs, it’s about a fresh start.”

A day off a week

What this plan is not is a seven-day no-days-off burnout generator. If you try to work both days of the weekend with zero breaks, you will be the thing that breaks. It’s a standard that the human mind and body aren’t designed to easily achieve, and you will hurt yourself confirming the theory. Try to set it so you have at least one or two days a week to “not hustle.” A 9-5 plus an 8-12 every day for five days then a 9-5 on Saturday, plus maybe more? That’s a recipe for something ugly – and fast approaching.

There are many “inspirational figures” out there that falsely claim to do the “no days off” lifestyle, and, yes, some freaks of nature that actually manage to, but they’re incredibly rare. And if you’re not one of those people, don’t worry about it. You don’t need to be one of those people to get seriously meaningful work done with minimal hours four to five to six days a week.

Make sure it’s something you love

There’s one “hack” at your disposal that can instantly make this proposition 80-100% easier: just have your side hustle be something you truly enjoy, or better yet, your dream. It will feel less like a chore, and increasingly less like work in the first place. You will objectively have less time during the weeknights to goof off, but hopefully you’ll be having so much fun you won’t even notice.

And because your dreams and passions are things that you enjoy thinking about, you’ll find yourself devoting spare brain power to them throughout the day, and daydreaming about them. It may sound insignificant, but there’s a great amount of subconscious legwork and mental progress you can get done towards something in those moments between the work.

Always, always prioritize sleep

The key to longevity in the “burning both ends of the candle” game is good and consistent sleep. Sure, your soul might wear a little thin after weeks of true 16-hour days, but you’d be surprised how long you can go if you’re physically rested. And whatever that number is doubles and triples if you actually and deeply enjoy one or both of your jobs. But burnout starts with physical exhaustion.

So, you owe it to yourself to keep your sleep as a top priority. It will directly affect your productivity. Without it, your performance will slip across the board.

This process, when done right, is not about a sacrificing a single important or health-bringing aspect of your life. You’re just trying to condense every last bit of wasted and wandering and “free” time into the pursuit of something you truly value.

This, of course, is a nearly-impossible high wire act with risks and disappointments awaiting on either side of the equation. But if you can nail it, you can remain remarkably fulfilled, productive, and even peacefully happy.

Train the muscle

Work life balance survey lead

The other thing that might be hard to believe is that, like anything, this is a skill that can be improved like a muscle. You’ll start to learn, inherently over time, what works and what doesn’t. Maybe your midnight oil is weak, but you come sprinting out of the gates at 4am. Maybe your exercise time is as important as your sleep in terms of making sure you “feel right.”

If you do the right things to keep yourself healthy – sleep, exercise, actual days off, actual breaks, enjoying the work you’re doing, keeping perspective – you’d be surprised how long you can keep it up, and how at a certain point it begins to feel natural. When these types of routines are regular for you, they become your normal. Your capacity literally increases. Your expectation of yourself shifts.

I feel like every two months, a college kid on Twitter will tweet some variation of the same thing: “I can’t believe I used to get up at 6am to go to school, stay in classes all day, go to gym class, do a two hour sports practice after school, then come home and do homework and do it all again. Now I can’t even wake up for a 10am spanish class.”

Your capacity grows and shifts to conform to what you expect of yourself. When we were younger, for better or worse, the world thrust those baseline expectations on us. Everyone else went to track practice after school, so we could too. I remember hearing some of the smart kids say they got to school even earlier than everyone else (utilizing something called “the early bus”) so they could hang out and even do extra homework before school. That hadn’t even occurred to me as a possibility but, once I heard they were doing it, I joined them the next week. Added another hour to my “work day” without a second thought.

Remember why you’re doing this

This process is hard. This work is hard, even on its own. Doing two or three-times as much work over the long term is, to put it lightly, astronomically hard.

If you do, you might lose understanding of why it’s important to do it in the first place.

Because we love it so much that it’s worth doing by any means necessary. Because it means so much to us that some condensed schedules, or extra stress, or late nights, or even pain, will be worth it in the short term if it means deep fulfillment and happiness and dreams achieved in the far term.

Try a day or two a week. See how bright your candle can get. You’ll surprise yourself.

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Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

3 comments

  1. Much needed, interesting and straight-to-the point reflection on the peculiarities of full time employed workers.
    Very good post indeed!

  2. What an insightful article Robin. Although, I’ve heard these advices everywhere, your writing put a refreshing take on this topic. I especially like the time-blocking advice at the start. That’s what I’ve been trying to do and improve for myself. Thanks so much for sharing this, I like it so much I had to share it to my freelance network.

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