10 Ways To Create A Productive Routine

Ever since coming back from bouncing around the world, I’ve been mulling over the cost of constantly changing up a routine. While traveling around is amazing, with change abounding - it’s really hard create a flow to your day. I find when people both work and travel, they tend to do neither one particularly well.

With these thoughts in mind, I popped open Manage Your Day To Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, a book which was highly recommended to me by a friend.

The Book

The book is authored by self help gurus 99u, and it had a profound influence on me - specifically about structuring my day for maximum productivity. Below are the top 10 things that I learned from the book.

1. Start Your Day With Flow

My biggest take away from the book is to start your day with an un-interrupted period of creative work, ideally for 90 minutes. This sets a good pattern for the day and we tend to do our best quality work when we are well rested.

This period, ideally should require no external inputs and should focus on work which contributes to your long term goals. So this would exclude meetings, responding to emails or picking up the phone.

The book suggests working on projects which are well defined like writing a blog post or coding up a portion of a website during this period.

I’ve been trying to do this for the past week and have noticed I’m significantly more productive and happy overall with how my day has gone!

2. Associative Triggers Tell Us To Work Or Play, Choose Your’s Wisely

The book also mentions that associative triggers tell us if we should work or play.

Why else do people let their guard down with a beer in their hand but not in the office? Our brains have learned over time that we socialize in a bar but we get shit done in the office.

If we’re working from home or in even in the office, the book suggests establishing the triggers which tell our brains what mode we’d like to operate in. If we do the same routine over and over before we get down to productivity, our brains learn what should follow after the routine is completed. If the routine isn’t completed, our brains will actually crave the completion of the routine and be frustrated with us if we don’t complete it.

For me - my productivity routine has become cleaning my desk, setting up a cup of coffee next to my laptop and putting on some light background music before getting to work.

3. Build Renewal Into Your Day And Week

Sleeping on the job

Why is it that I’m not nearly as productive on Thursday as I am on Monday? I think this stems from being renewed on Monday but feeling somewhat exhausted from the week on a Thursday.

According to section authored in the book by Tony Schwartz, our capacity for work is limited and we need to guard this capacity to work on the most pressing things and renew this capacity each day and each week.

We can build this renewal into our day via breaks, naps, exercise, walks and lunch. We can build this renewal into our week by doing fun things which are completely unrelated to work - for me this includes dancing, cooking and just doing a thai dinner watching a movie.

4. Establish Hard Edges To Your Day

The book also suggests creating a routine for our work day which includes hard lines to start and end our day.

Work generally fills up the space allotted to it, so if we have a lot of time allocated to a task, we tend to slack on the task until our deadline hits.

He also feels that the hard edges make us naturally prioritize doing things outside of work, which ensures we are renewed for work the next day. He mentions that workaholics are much less productive at work than those who take time in the nights and weekends to renew themselves.

5. Harness The Power of Frequency

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit - Aristotle

According to the section of the book authored by Gretchen Rubin, we tend to over-estimate what we can do in a short period and underestimate what we can do in a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently.

She suggests embracing working in small increments for months on end, realizing that in the end the frequency will pay off. Slow and steady wins the race.

She mentions several other pros to frequency:

A. It makes starting easier: picking up where you left of is easier than starting fresh

B. It keeps the pressure off: when you’re producing something everyday, we are more at ease with just getting a rough draft out. We can just pick up where w left off tomorrow.

C. It sparks creativity. When we work on something regularly, you can’t help but think about the project in the back of your mind. The times when we usually get our best creative thoughts is usually not during the time which isn’t dedicated to the task but rather in the time where we are focussing on something else - for me, this is usually on a walk or in the shower!

D. Frequency nurtures frequency: When you get accustomed to working in short blocks, you give yourself permission to work in a short block more frequently - you don’t need to block off a day to getting something done!

6. Realize the Cost Of Distractions

If we’ve established that our focus is really a limited commodity, we should be doing everything possible to harness this focus and only direct it to the things which matter most.

Unfortunately, most of us - myself included, tempt ourselves with distractions nearby and allow ourselves to be drawn away from our big tasks to checking facebook, email or our phone, thinking t will just be a minute.

The problem is that we don’t realize that the minute is really a lot more than a minute since the shift in focus causes us to completely lose our train of thought and worse - lose our flow. Further switching tasks can send us down a rabbit hole where since we are already distracted for 1 minutes, we allow ourselves to be distracted for 2 or 3 and to do our carry out our full distraction routine! For me my distraction routine goes from email -> facebook -> Tech Meme -> Hacker News. The routine is hard wired in my head, once 1 is checked, I crave checking the rest.

There have been many studies which have shown we all suck at multi-tasking. One showed that the human mind can only truly multi-task when it comes to automatic behavior like walking. Another showed that people took 25% longer to read a textbook when they were constantly being pinged with IMs.

I need to banish multi-tasking from my life. But first, just give me a sec, there’s a shinny thing over there.

7. Tame Your Email, Facebook + Smart Phone

Once we realize the cost of distractions, we need to re-work our tools to harness our focus rather than take it away. While technology has allowed us to stay better connected than ever before, this connectedness is also causing us to lose our creative focus. The biggest culprits are email, social media and our smart phones. Apparently, we on average spend 28% of our day on email alone!

Dan Ariely suggests that we have gotten addicted to email, social media and our smart phones through random re-enforcement. Mr Ariely explains that while normally it isn’t that exciting to see updates on our smart phone or our email - from time to time, it’s very exciting. This excitement, which happens at random intervals causes us to keep coming back to check for new things all the time, hoping to find something exciting. Before we know it we’ve established a routine of checking for an excitement when we have a lull of activity.

Mr Ariely suggests that the best way to get out of this habit is to keep these temptations as far away from ourselves as possible. Therefore he suggests sticking to defined times for checking email and closing our email and facebook while we focus. He also suggests turning off your smart phone.

8. Appreciate Actively Doing Nothing

You can do anything, but not everything - David Allen

Next time you ride the bus - play this game, count the number of people NOT looking at one of their digital devices. I’ll give you $5 of you count over 20%. I’ve noticed that we look at our phone constantly and one of the book’s authors, Scott Belsky, suggests that there is a significant cost in doing this.

He says that as a culture, we have made processing information at our fingertips such a priority, that we have de-priorized the world which is directly in front of us and minimized the value in doing nothing.

This causes us to be less present in the moment and become both much less accessible to others, reflect less on ideas which are already brewing and miss opportunities which are right in front of us.

This constant processing of information also takes away from a natural process of reflection which most of us engage in when we are not being stimulated. This causes us not to draw the connections, which would otherwise be obvious, if we would just reflect on them in unstructured moments.

9. Let Go Of Perfectionism

The perfect is the enemy of the good. - Voltaire

I had an old boss, Mark Mydland, who constantly encouraged us to not let the the goal of creating something great, get in the way of moving the ball forward.

The book too harps on perfectionism, stating the perfectionism often paralyzes people in their creative workflow. These are some of the problems:

A. Refusal to start: since the end product must look amazing, there is a very high bar to starting any project, since it must look amazing at the end.

B. Refusal to finish: since the end product needs to be perfect, projects tend to drag out almost infinitely.

I’ve personally found that a better approach is to look at everything as a work in progress. Is this blog post done? No! It could be edited for the next 10 years - but is it good enough to publish on some low traffic blog which only my mother reads (hi mom!) - absolutely!

10. Invest in Building Willpower


At the end of the day a lot of these habits come down to nurturing the self discipline to follow them. This requires developing our self control muscles.

Studies have shown that willpower has a finite capacity and if we exhaust all our willpower, we will give into temptation much more easily.

We can however increase the size of our willpower reservoir by strengthening our habits in other areas of our lives un-related to work. This can include exercising when we say we will, going to sleep when we tell ourselves to or even just developing the habit of flossing!

If we increase the size of our willpower reservoir, we will find that our capacity for doing hard work will naturally go up as well.

PS - Habit Change Is Hard

One thing to note - as I typed out this list, I broke almost every single habit! I checked my email first, I got distracted, I was a perfectionist about re-writing this list, etc etc. While it’s good to have high ideals, I’m also starting to understand that many bad habits have been developed over years and years, and to replace them, will similarly require years and years of practice.