How to Build Routines

(This is the second of two posts on Routines.)

We already discussed why we need effective routines to navigate our complex lives. Now, let’s discuss how we can build effective routines for ourselves. In order to do that, we have to first understand how routines work.

We form habits about things we don’t have to think about. What if we form routines about our most important things so that we don’t have to think about doing them every day? We just show up and do the work. For me, that means having morning and evening routines around sleep, food, and work.

You can’t actually create a routine. Routines start out as rituals first. When we do something at a specific place and time, we form a ritual. When we do this ritual enough number of times, it becomes a habit, and then we no longer have to think about it. For more on this, I suggest reading Rituals and Habits. In other words, a routine is formed when two or more habits are tied sequentially to each other. They are learned and practiced over time to the point that you stop thinking about them consciously and do them without thinking.

For instance, in my morning routine, each of the things I do now were once rituals that over a period of time became habits, and when I started to do them one after the other, it became a part of my routine. Doing all of the things in my morning routine every day helps me be at my best and allows me to put my best foot forward in terms of doing my best creative work every day.

As an example of having a routine, I do things each morning that are part of my routine without having to think about them. I wrote about things you can do to be at your best with a warmup with the “I’m at my best when…” exercise.

Author and executive coach, Jason Womack wrote about the “I am at my best when…” exercise in his book, Your Best Just Got Better. The exercise entails listing out things you need to do in order for you to set yourself up to do your best work. For you, it could be three to four things in your morning routine. For others, it could be something else. Whatever those things are for you, there is tremendous value in being conscious of those things (and executing them) in order for you to set yourself up to do your best work.

Routines don’t have to be just in the morning or evening. We can also have routines around our work, sleep, and eating habits. For instance, your work routine could involve working in 3–4 increments of 90-minute intervals with breaks in between. I wrote about that in 90 Minutes and Getting Work Done.

I don’t mean to suggest that by having routines you’re scheduling every minute of your day. That would be unrealistic and unsustainable.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t want to routinize your life so much that it seems monotonous. That would result in routine fatigue and would also defeat the point of having routines in the first place. The point is to have routines around the essential things in your lives so you do them consistently without thinking. Otherwise, it would be difficult. I wrote about this in Doing What Matters.

You can start by designing a morning routine for yourself. I suggest starting out with a morning routine because it sets you up for the rest of the day and enables you to do your best work.

Decide what time you’re going to bed each night and what time you’re going to wake up each morning. Then, write down exactly what you’re going to do after you wake up. It is imperative that you pick no more than one habit at any time to add to your routine.

Here are some ideas for rituals that you might want to convert to habits and, by extension, incorporate into your routines:

  • Go to bed an hour early and read fiction. It turns off your logical mind, and engages your emotional mind, which helps you sleep better.
  • Consider taking some time every morning to read non-fiction. By this, I mean reading classic, inspirational literature — not the non-fiction produced today.
  • Write Morning Pages first thing in the morning to find out what has your attention so you can move on with your day. This habit is one of the most important ones in my morning routine.
  • Perform a daily review to get a handle on your day’s work. This should not take very long if you also follow the next point…
  • At the end of each work day, take some time to define your work for the next day. You’ll need a trusted system to manage your commitments with others so you can get work done.
  • Perform exercise, meditation, yoga, etc. as ways to renew yourself with physical and spiritual energy.
  • Schedule your day around your meals so that you have meals at the same time every day.
  • Read Getting Work Done to learn about how I use areas of focus to get the most out of my time and attention in a given day.

Once you know how routines work, you can create effective routines for yourself. That will make doing the essential easy over a period of time, and it will also create momentum for you in the long-term for doing things that matter to you the most. Then you no longer have to think about it — you’re just doing it.

Routines make difficult things easier. Use routines to do the most important work and make the execution flawless.

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