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In last week's article, I discussed the importance of having aritual for productivity.
Rituals are the spark, while routines are the logs that keep things burnin'.
One of my idols, Alex Hormozi, actually argues that rituals and routines are a total waste of time.
But I don't believe that's true. In fact, I think that type of thinking is dangerous.
It's because rituals are like superstitions. It's not really why you believe in them or not, it's the function they serve.
For example, walking under a ladder is a traditional form of "bad luck." When people ridicule this, they're missing the point.
It's not really about bad luck - it keeps you from getting hurt.
Here's another one: an apple a day keeps the doctor away. No, the apple isn't the cure all to all your health conditions. The point of this saying is to get more healthy food into your diet.
Rituals are just as necessary as superstitions and routines are just as necessary as rituals.
For instance, what do you do at the beginning of exercise? You warm up your body so you won't get hurt.
You also warm up for your piano sessions to get good results from what you practice.
Useless? I think not.
The Point of a Daily Routine
Now before we get into the benefits of a routine, how should we define it?
For me, simple is best: a pre-planned sequence of activities.
By defining it this way, even your entire work day can be a routine.
Just as I mentioned in last week's blog post, keeping our definition broad creates more versatility.
This means routines are adaptable - you can create them for anything.
These activities can range from work-related tasks, personal projects, or even getting to bed on time.
FYI, the bulk of my own activities are learning projects and habits.
Even better, you can think of learning as an actual habit. Doing this allows you to take principles and concepts from books like Deep Work and Ultralearning (more on this later).
Daily Routine: Deep Dive
Let's go deeper on why we need routines.
In a sense, routines are like schedules. Schedules help us maintain a sense of order - imagine going to work without knowing how many hours you'd be staying.
And we gravitate to things like this because we're pattern-recognition machines. We have a difficult time dealing with randomness.
For instance, my dad often spoke to me about how good his friend's daughter was ... at slot machines.
That's like saying you're a really good coin-flipper.
We have an incessant need to have an explanation for everything and anything out of place has to be put in some type of order.
But routines aren't so much about making every single day as perfect as as possible as they are a way to bring structure to our lives when things get chaotic.
And they also help you think in small chunks.
Huge, massive projects feel overwhelming, mostly because we envision the entire thing from start to completion.
If I had to write this article from start to finish, my thoughts would soon become suicidal.
The optimal approach is to break it down into manageable segments.
And once you know what these segments are, then you can lock them into a chain of sequences (routines).
Next, some benefits.
By having everything planned ahead of time, you get rid of decision fatigue.
I believe the bulk of people's time is wasted on making decisions.
One form of decision hell is something we all know too well. For example, my wife and I go through the same song and dance every weekend - what do you feel like eating hon?
Sometimes having too many choices (see: Yelp) is worse than not having enough!
But I digress.
It's much better to accelerate decision-making or abolish it altogether, so you can conserve all that mental energy for the important work that matters.
As I've said before, expectancy creates productivity.
When you know what to expect, it's easier for your mind to lock in with the right type of focus.
It creates a "mind like water" as David Allen says.
Another thing I'll never get sick of repeating is that productivity - like creativity - is a process of elimination.
Many times people are looking for things to add: this app, that tool, etc.
But too many choices causes confusion (see: Yelp). Instead, think about what you need to remove.
This is why your work environment matters so much. The less clutter you have (both physical and digital) at your desk, the simpler it is to get started.
It's easy to work when there are no distractions.
So if your work environment is about eliminating visual distractions, routines serve to eradicate mental ones.
It's like programming your brain: you just need to execute one command after the other.
If you have no idea where to start, and need a template to follow, I'll share mine in a minute.
But before that, a few general guidelines.
Don't be rigid, unless you want a nervous breakdown. Routines should operate like good schedules and allow a certain amount of flexibility.
Just think of yours as a compass to point you in the right direction.
There will be moments where you lose track of time or get behind on your workload. When that happens, just revise, reprioritize and get back on track.
If you're able to accomplish 70-80% of what you set out to do, I'd say that's a great day.
One last word of advice: spend time on preparation before you settle on a routine. This could mean gathering all the right tools (see next section) or envisioning your day unfolding realistically.
A good suggestion is from Scott Young's Ultralearning. He recommends you spend at least 10% of your total projected time on research.
For example, if I'm going to spend 40 hours learning a new language then at least 4 hours of that will be spent on groundwork.
Even if you aren't planning a massive undertaking like becoming fluent in Spanish, as little as 10 minutes of upfront exploration can you save hours of wasted time.
Here's how I go about my routine.
I schedule everything in 25-minute blocks. This is what's known as the pomodoro (Italian for tomato) technique, so-called because the inventor, Francesco Cirillo (also Italian) used a tomato-shaped timer for work.
Why 25 minutes instead of 30? This is to include a 5-minute "buffer" which acts as a safety-net.
There will be days where you execute everything perfectly, but most of the time things will be dropped on your plate at a moment's notice.
For example, you might suddenly need to call someone back, shoot off an email or, file this under TMI, battle the toilet because of those nachos you ate last night - bad decision (but somehow still worth it).
If you don't have these buffers in place, any small disruption can unnerve you and throw off the entire day.
That's also why it's a good idea to start small.
Be ambitious, but temper that with reality. Use small experiments to find out what works, lest a disaster implodes in your face.
The other reason, at least at the start, is that you want to accomplish everything you set out to do. This is why checklists are so satisfying - when you finish every last bite on your plate, you can't wait until your next meal.
To accomplish this, focus only on one thing at a time. For example:
And so on.
For piano sessions, this could be:
You might devote the first 30 minute session to technical practice (scales, arpeggios), another for musicianship (ear training, harmony, solfege) and finish up with repertoire (songs or pieces).
Or you could schedule 1 or more hours on one area.
For example, musicianship could be divided into 3 blocks of ear training, harmony and solfege.
For repertoire, you could work on a Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy piece.
Technique could be split into arpeggios, scales and etudes.
You get the picture.
However, I don't recommend this last option until you've developed enough concentration to handle the workload - it takes a lot of focus to pull off these longer sessions.
Now, I happen to have a ton of digital tools at my disposal. However, I love using a physical habit tracker for the following reasons:
And when you see those x's tic-tac-toeing across page after page, it's easy to stay motivated and disciplined enough to keep the chain going.
But you don't have to limit this to habits or things you're learning.
You could just as easily include responding to emails and more technical tasks - or even remembering to take your supplements every morning.
In addition to a habit tracker, you might want to track your time - the app I use is Atracker.
I've previously covered why it's useful to measure what matters as this helps you keep records of what you spent time on.
For example, I have data on every minute I spend on work and learning.
Once you have a record of your time, you can see if you've been using it well (your target areas) or if you're falling behind.
You either keep doing what you're doing or allocate your minutes to the things that matter.
Lastly, it can be useful to have several routines scheduled throughout the day.
For example, my work routine might be different than the work I do in the evening. Or it can be a continuation of the same routine - to squeeze in more valuable hours before bedtime.
A third option is to use a routine to recharge. This is the purpose of my stretching and meditation session before teaching.
I'm usually exhausted after my morning-afternoon pomodoros, so doing this gives me a second wind.
If you're interested in more, see my blog post where I utilize this concept with ideas from Deep Work.
With this plan and these tools, you have a powerful formula for productivity and discipline.
Now, I'm going to share a few concepts and strategies that will not only boost the quality of your work sessions, but act as safeguards.
The 2-minute rule from Atomic Habits will help you maintain discipline no matter what life throws at you.
The idea is that you should make your routine as easy as possible to start - meaning it should take no more than 2 minutes to get going.
What this does is reduce friction, which ties in directly with what we discussed earlier performance by subtraction.
Productivity = elimination (of obstacles).
However, I've found it most useful for bad days - when you've mismanaged your time (played too much with the corgi) or when something gets tossed at you unexpectedly).
Instead of skipping any parts of my routine, I elect to shorten the time I spend on them:
Side note: I do take weekends off, however - it's like a longer buffer. If I had to actually skip a part of my routine during the weekdays, guess what? I can "make it up" on the weekend - and minimize the risk of burnout.
A bad day in the gym is still a day in the gym. Over time, this becomes your identity: You become a person who never skips a day.
And whatever identity you have, you'll do everything possible to live up to it. It's much better than having to constantly motivate yourself.
Lastly, you can pair certain habits or actions together. For example, during my stretching routine I'll also study my language app on my iPhone at the same time.
You've probably done some version of this already - such as doing laundry, washing dishes, or commuting to work while listening to a podcast.
Get creative and see what else you can come up with. And if you figure out something cool, let me know!
What're You Waiting For?
One simple routine can mean the difference between failure or victory, between a productive day, year, or even life.
But this only works when you see how each single action you take is connected to the trajectory of your most important goals.
One action, one habit becomes a small, but crucial, part of your work day. And the entire routine becomes critical for your success.
"We are what we repeatedly do," said Aristotle.
You are your actions. In the same vein, your routine is you.
So take what you've learned today, put it into action, and prove to yourself the type of person you want to be.
I have faith in you. Happy practicing!
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