There is more than one way to get things done.

“So what are you going to do for your workout?” my husband asked as we drove to the gym. I dreaded the question.

I likely have twenty-four ideas of activities floating around in my head, but I usually don’t know what my plan is until I’m actually doing it. This process doesn’t stem from indecision, but from a natural tendency to gauge what will be the most effective course of action in the moment. (Maybe the yoga studio is too crowded! Or, I can’t get in the flow of lifting). I find this approach to my plans invigorating and freeing. It’s never failed me.

My husband, meanwhile, knows that he did his back and biceps routine yesterday and plans to focus on shoulders today. And yet, he finds his routine invigorating, freeing, and it simply works for him.

I've noticed that in general people tend to gravitate towards either the term “routine” or “flow” to describe their daily rhythm and how they like to organize their time. Of course, we all have routines and habits that are essential to functioning as adults in society. In general, though, when I have asked others this question, they would highly identify with one over the other.

Finding Productivity in the Flow

I discovered I was a flow person while teaching in the elementary school setting. While I loved the kids and have a deep passion for education and learning, and in many ways, love the work, I found the rigidity of the schedule to be challenging. I knew what I accomplished every day, at least in a practical sense. It was right there in my schedule. But I felt restricted and somehow less productive. Most importantly, it felt like the energy I expended in being productive or creative thinking never came back to me. It was all ebb and no flow.

Over time, my husband and I began discussing how the schedule of teaching did not seem to match my energy flow. What did I need? A little more flexibility and freedom.

Fast forward to present day, I am an event planner and small business owner. While the entrepreneurial life still presents challenges, I can tailor it to my unique workflow. I have general objectives and tasks, but I’m free to accomplish them in the time and space I’d like.

To me, being in the flow is critical to productivity, reaching my goals, and my overall feeling of success in my work. My measuring stick of achievement tends to align with my sense of how often I am in the flow. If I am honest with myself, I know intuitively if my week has been in the flow or disjointed.

I find the best image to describe a good flow is the ability to “ride the wave.” When I am in the flow, there is a “je ne sais quoi” about the whole process, when it is just organically working. It is inexplicable sometimes how the flow just comes—or doesn’t. Being out of the flow, is like standing in that awkward zone on the beach, between the breakers and the swells, and the waves are passing me by.

Many creatives identify with the word flow (although they may design routines as a vehicle to achieve the flow state) and would even admit to being addicted to this state. The challenge is that entering into this state can feel elusive and mysterious. Moreover, when I struggle with finding this inexplicable rhythm, I feel scattered.

The mystery too, is that time seems to both help and hurt. Sometimes a time limit helps—setting a block of time, such as three hours, can provide a little urgency. But if I add too much urgency, the pressure pushes that sense of freedom away. There is a necessary element of freedom for flow: freedom to fail, freedom to offer mediocre content (at first), and freedom to adjust the environment as needed.

Finding Productivity in Routine

I will admit, I am jealous of people who can adhere to a routine in spite of adverse factors getting in the way. There are many reasons that routines can be tremendously beneficial. Think of your morning routine: Perhaps you brush your teeth first thing and then stumble down the stairs to start brewing coffee. Those actions just happen, with no in-the-moment decision on your part. The habit did the work for you. Reducing that cognitive load allows you to dedicate your focus to what matters to you.

A routine is linear, perhaps akin to walking: a steady, incremental, building. For a routine-lover, the structure and boundaries provide security and a predictability. The goal of establishing firm routines would be to achieve the desired task or project in the allotted amount of time. The ideal outcome of a well-structured routine is entering into a laser- focused state.

For my husband, a routine is his measuring stick of achievement and being in rhythm. It gives him an accurate sense of how well he can structure his days and his week to meet his goals, in the approximate time frame he predicted. In fact, the very essence of a routine is to eliminate distractions, with the objective at the center. When he is out of his routine (for instance, returning from vacation), that efficiency or focus might be less than normal. Just as for a flow person, environment matters.

Learn From the Other Type

As you can imagine, the rhythm of our marriage hasn’t always been simple to find. Take this scene from early in our marriage.

“Honey, I’m home! Wait ... What’s going on here?” my husband queries.

“Well, we talked about me clearing out the front yard this week (and you agreed with me). And well, today, was sunny and the ideal day for it. So, I took the plunge! Wait … I don’t understand how my productivity is frustrating to you?”

Where he was expecting an exact plan and time in the schedule, I thought a general understanding that the task was coming would be enough. Somehow this same exchange played out again when it came to me painting the kitchen. We had a lot to learn about each other and how we operate.

When I think back to that time three years ago, I realize how much we have grown in learning from each other and giving each other the space to operate naturally. I’ve improved at “surprising” him less after a long day, and he has come to accept that my creative process is critical to my productivity. Sometimes tasks don’t unfold the way you scheduled them.

He keeps me on schedule and in structure when the elusive flow isn’t an option because of time, logistics, or some other constraint. I, on the other hand, help him step out of what he’s always done and into a world of possibility which might include spending longer on a certain project to get it right, or veering in a different direction than originally planned, because a little experimentation revealed a great vision.

He’d say our team works because we’ve found a routine that works. I’d say it works because we’ve gone with the flow. In actuality, it’s taken a bit of work for both of us. But most importantly, we’ve learned together that identifying what works for us—routine or flow—has been key to keeping our energy levels, motivation, and sense of achievement high.

How do you operate?

So, which are you? Perhaps you’ve tried to get into a routine time and again, only to find yourself failing in it. Perhaps you’ve seen the contrast of styles play out with a writing partner, or a roommate. (She wants to schedule the collaborative work task right away, while you need time to get in the proper headspace.)

I was not able to find a quiz or other diagnostic to determine if you are routine or flow, so I wrote one! This quiz is by no means scientifically proven, but is simply a fun way to understand yourself better and harness your strengths.

  1. Do you prefer to plan activities or tasks ahead of time or go with how things play out in the moment?
  2. Do you find that “visual inspiration” in your environment is critical/essential to your productivity? OR, is the ideal environment simple (almost sterile), and reduces any stimulation or distractions?
  3. Are conventions, facts, numbers important to you or do you live in a world of endless possibilities?
  4. Do you resist or welcome the idea of doing similar tasks/ activities every day? (Do you find freedom and security in completing tasks in the same time frame and having consistency in your schedule? OR, does having room in your schedule to adjust as needed actually enhance your productivity? )