We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.Will Durant, summarizing the thoughts of Aristotle
Turns out, building a business is a lot of work. Particularly so if you’re working from home.
I have been struggling with motivation lately, so with the amount of stuff that has to be done, I knew I had to do better. After realizing that I was wasting a lot of time on procrastination and on non-essential tasks, I decided that I need to build a new daily routine that will allow me to take control over how I spend my time and increase productivity.
On social media you can regularly see crazy morning routines of the rich and powerful. If so many successful people have strict routines, it seems like something worth emulating. But I honestly believe that routines have merits.
Below I’ll share my thoughts on the benefits of building a routine, my process of designing a new routine for myself, some observations from following it, and what jalapeño peppers have to do with anything.
Why have a daily routine?
We all only have 24 hours a day. That’s equally true of Jeff Bezos and of the guy who walks by my house twice a day smoking weed. The difference is how we choose to spend this time. You can educate yourself, build leverage, set up income streams, or you can stay in the same place. The choice is yours.
You already have a routine. We are all creatures of habit. Almost everything we do are habitual behaviors. You are your habits. If you don’t choose what your habits are, you’re just a dead leaf carried by the wind.
My morning routine 3 years ago was: wake up as late as I could, have a hurried breakfast and rush out to work. I arrived there hungry, groggy, and stressed, which was not helping my professional growth. This illustrates that routines can be beneficial, or they can drag you down.
Enforcing structure on your day is useful because it helps make work automatic. You don’t need to force yourself to sit down and start working, you just do it out of habit. That applies to all kinds of beneficial behaviors, like physical exercise or meditation.
Since I quit my job two and a half months ago, I’ve been juggling working on three projects, maintaining an exercise habit and a diet to lose weight. In each of these areas my performance was not as good as it could be.
My time was very unstructured. I’d wake up and work at different times, allowed a lot of non-urgent tasks to distract me and procrastinated on social media a lot.
In addition, I quit all caffeine consumption 5 weeks ago for a 100-day challenge. After the withdrawal symptoms waned, I realized that caffeine was providing a source of energy and focus that I now needed to replace through other means.
So I made a list of all activities that I’ve found beneficial in the past and tried to structure my day around them, and of course, intending plenty of time for work. Here’s what my days look like now.
|7:30 – 8||Journaling (Morning Pages)|
|8 – 9||Breakfast and relax, shower|
|9 – 12||Work|
|12 – 13||Lunch, perhaps walk|
|13 – 16||Work|
|16 – 16:30||Break, snack|
|16:30 – 18||Work|
|18 – 19||Exercise|
The exact times vary somewhat, but that’s the general idea. Now I’ll describe the benefits of each activity and the rationale for including it.
Waking up early
Waking up early is great. I always have lots of energy in the mornings, I can achieve a lot of before I start the “formal” workday, and it makes days feel long. Unfortunately, that’s much harder to do in winter, when sunrise is late.
You don’t need to use any fancy tools to get the benefits, but I use the physical Five Minute Journal. I like its structure and it’s pleasant to touch, so it helps in building a ritual. I find that gratitude makes me start the day with positive vibes and setting an intention helps me achieve something good later on.
The reason for doing it immediately after waking up is to have a reason to get out of bed. I found that without something to do, I am more likely to lie in and waste time.
I tried running in the mornings, but for some reason, it exhausts me, and I start my day tired rather than energized. But if I don’t exercise, my body feels sluggish, like it’s still asleep. So I’m going for some light stretching to gently wake the body up. Currently, that involves a 20-minute-ish Yoga With Adriene video. Yoga is great because it’s also meditative and calming.
I came across the practice of Morning Pages, which involves writing 750 words every morning. No editing, nothing fancy, just freestyle stream of consciousness. I found it both therapeutic and great for creativity. If anything negative is on my mind, like some nebulous worry, I’ve usually processed it by word 300. And after that, you’re still compelled to write, and it can be anything, so it can help plan the day, organize thoughts around projects or ideas, or even do some creative writing. The whole thing usually takes me around 30 minutes.
By the time I finish journaling it’s usually 8am. Breakfast is meant to be a reward for completing the previous activities. I try to keep it high-protein and low-carb and I finish it off with some chili peppers.
For most of my life, I considered the so-called chiliheads crazy masochists. That’s until I found out that the real benefit of spicy foods is the pain-triggered endorphin release. I’ve become a rapid convert because it bloody works. I have a few bites of jalapeño or other chili pepper with almost every meal, and sometimes for a snack. The euphoria is real, it improves my mood and substitutes caffeine as an energy source but without the downsides.
After breakfast I may hang out with my girlfriend or read a book and shower.
I aim toward deep work and minimizing distractions. I put away my phone on silent and airplane mode and avoid checking email, social media and the news. These things always suck me in and are huge time wasters.
At the end of each working day I write down what I’m working on and what the next step is, so when I resume work in the morning I know exactly what to do. It saves time because there’s no need to remember what I should be doing.
An hour of relaxation, possibly followed by a walk if it’s sunny. Sun exposure is very important for mood regulation.
Again aiming for deep work, although I’m usually sluggish at this time.
30-minute break, usually with a snack. I’m following 16-8 intermittent fasting, mostly for weight loss, but also for other benefits, so this is the last thing I eat this day. I find it’s much easier to fall asleep on an empty stomach too.
I try to run 2-3 times a week, otherwise it’s a walk. The reason to do it in the evening is to work off the day’s mental effort, get energized and set myself up positively for the evening. It provides contact with nature, fresh air and rest for the eyes.
Meditation also helps with relaxation and awareness. I finish it off with the evening section of the Five Minute Journal.
The idea of this evening routine is to get enough rest to avoid collapsing on the sofa like a sack of potatoes to watch Netflix. If I manage to maintain enough energy and awareness, I’ll be much more likely to spend the evening mindfully and productively.
This may involve spending time with my girlfriend, watching movies, listening to music, or light creative work like reading books or writing. The idea is no expectations to be productive, mainly relax and have quality relationship time.
Go to bed when I feel sleepy, which is typically 10-10.30. Get enough hours of quality sleep.
Implementing the routine
Building new habits is difficult. I know because I’ve failed to do it many times. But this time the change was very smooth: one day I designed this routine and the next I followed it to the letter. Why was it so easy?
I think primarily because I felt a real need to have a routine after months of lamenting my lack of productivity. I also had experience with all the activities from past experiments, so I know they are beneficial and that I enjoy them. Finally, I internalized a lot of knowledge about habit formation from sources like Atomic Habits, so I automatically applied some tricks.
For example, before bedtime, I put my phone on the desk on the other side of the room, next to a desk lamp. I put the Five Minute Journal on top of the phone. This way when the alarm rings in the morning, it’s easy to turn on the lamp, because it’s right there. In addition, I am forced to physically hold the journal in my hand, and then it’s very easy to sit down and fill it out, especially that I also keep a pen inside it. That’s an application of the Make it Easy law from Atomic Habits.
This routine will evolve and vary, because nothing in life is constant. But even though I’ve only been following it for a short time, I see that it’s working for me and will be easy to keep up. I’ve noticed much more energy, improved mood, discipline and productivity.
You need to leave room for flexibility. There’s no need to stick to the schedule religiously.
To design your own routine I’d recommend the following process:
- List things you want to do
- Design a schedule to fit them in
- Use knowledge of habit formation to make those behaviors automatic
If it’s easier, start one habit at a time. But if you plan to do several activities in a sequence (like journaling after yoga), it may be pretty easy to start doing them together.
If you want to be more effective in life, designing a routine that optimizes your performance and well-being is crucial.