The Power of Routine : Creating Habits

One of the toughest things I battled the past few years is developing a routine.  I wanted so badly to establish regular habits, but I just couldn’t commit and stick with it.  I finally realized that I needed to gain control of my life after reading a number of time management articles reporting on the importance of regular habits and routine.  Particularly because routine sustains energy by reducing the time and effort that goes to making decisions.

Everyone has a finite capacity for good decision-making and staying on your “A game” before laziness, stress, and temptation kick in.  In order to increase productivity and make positive moves throughout the entire day, you need to automate as much of your life as you can.  While this sounds like a boring life, the opposite it true.  When you automate the predictable things in your day it allows you to react to the unpredictable and really take control with flexibility and poise.power of morning routine

A routine forces you to “do it now” rather than putting it off until later.  In the past when a big project would come up at work or in school I would say, “I’ll do it tonight.”  Then I would waste the afternoon stressing about how much time this project would take and how I can’t workout or meet up with so-and-so for dinner because I have project ABC to tackle.

I would stay up until 2:00am finishing the project followed by snoozing my alarm, missing my breakfast, and scrambling to get to work by 7:00am.  And of course, this would repeat itself over and over until I took control of this monster.

My improved habitual lifestyle keeps order among the chaos of random projects and assignments.  I keep as much of my life as automatic and boring so I’m flexible to embrace unpredictability.  In a Harvard Business Review interview with Bob Pozen, he says “The key to productivity is not to be boring, but knowing what to be boring with.”  He said this in the context of having a very boring breakfast and lunch.

He eats the same thing everyday because choosing lunch should not take a much effort away from more important tasks that require decision-making.  Save the decisions for dinner when your work for the day is done.  On a larger scale, automate your weekdays so you’re not having to play catch up on the weekend.

The first thing I tackled when I started to structure my routine was waking up at 5:00am every morning.  My friends, family and old roommates can attest for my infamous alarm clock habits.  I would set three all with different times and I snoozed all of them about eight times per morning.  I had no routine and mornings were miserable for me.

I finally decided that I would implement a snoozeless 5:00am wake-up and I’m happy to say I’ve been snooze-free for months.  Most noticeably is that I don’t even think about waking up anymore, I just do it.  I quickly realized how effective a simple automatic wake-up time is and I try to apply this to as many aspects of my day as I can.  This way I can just do and not think about it.  The following are the steps to establish your  routine:

1. Write down your must do daily habits.  Personally, I have to clean out my email inbox first thing in the morning and last thing at night.  I work much better throughout the day knowing that there is nothing hanging over my head and I love leaving the office with the inbox empty.  The rest of my must do includes reading the news, working out, and casually reading on a daily basis.

2. Slot these daily goals into your schedule.  Your schedule consists of six big time buckets throughout the day and you need to figure out where these goals fit.  Think of your routine and schedule just like your budget.  You have different income streams (time buckets) and expenses (your daily habits and work).  Match the two up appropriately just like you would for your budget.  The six times slots are:

  1. Early morning (6:00am – 9:00am)
  2. Morning (9:00am – noon)
  3. Lunch (1 hour)
  4. Afternoon (1:00pm – 4:00pm)
  5. Early evening (4:00pm – 7:00pm)
  6. Evening (7:00pm – 10:00pm)

power of daily routineYou want to make sure to keep 1-2 of these slots open for yourself to enjoy hobbies, friends, family and down time.  Don’t try to fill all 6 buckets with to-do items and work.  I keep one of these slots open when I’m in school and open another one up when I’m in between quarters or take a quarter off.

These personal open slots are just as important as your work slots and should not be used as work overflow; this defeats the whole purpose of routine.  The down time renews your energy and sets you up for the next day.

3.  Leave flexibility in your schedule to adjust for chaos.  Don’t make the routine so rigid that when project ABC does come up that you can’t adjust.  The routines and habits are the things you have to do everyday despite projects coming up and should not be interrupted.  Here’s my daily routine and how I adjust for unpredictability:

5:00 –  6:00:  Shower and take the dogs out
6:00 –  7: 00:  Read the news and clear out personal/school email inbox over breakfast
7:00 –  9:00:  School homework
9:00 – 12:00:  Work project 1 (top work priority)
12:00 – 1:00:  Lunch and misc. errands (workout if I have evening class)
1:00 –  4:00:  Work project 2 (replace with chaos or ad hoc project if necessary)
4:00 –  5:00:  Clear out work email and review tomorrow’s to-do top priority
5:00 –  7:00:  Workout (replace with class a couple of days a week)
7:00 – 10:00:  Chill out and personal time
10:00 – 10:30:  Read for 30 minutes before bed

A few notes on how I established my routine and why I set it up this way:

  • There were a number of days when I got very little done on my work projects, primarily because of hours of meetings and email overload.  What I’ve realized is that I don’t need that much time to knock out these big work projects but just a few uninterrupted hours, which I have carved out from 9:00-noon.  And even better if it’s a slow day and I can do another one from 1:00-4:00.
  • I don’t check my email that much throughout the day but always make sure that I clear them out in the morning and in the evening.  I’m also surprised how fast I can do this if it’s the only thing I’m doing and it’s the one final to-do before I head home.  It’s a great feeling.
  • I workout as soon as I get home, or I head straight to the gym from work.  I don’t tempt myself with the couch or fridge when I get home at 5:30 after work. Many people start the day with their morning workout and I’m envious of those who can.  I tried to implement this into my routine but I couldn’t pull it off.  I like working out after a long day of work and enjoy waking up to reading the news and doing some homework.
This may sound like a lot to tackle but take a shot at it, at least try to set a regular time to get wake up without hitting the snooze button.  Then, try to set up a routine for the end of the day.  After these two habits are established then fill in the middle.

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