Bookend Your Day

A strong, habit driven routine is the best way to make progress towards your goals.  By focusing on your Most Valuable Tasks each day, even for as little as 15 minutes, the gains you will accumulate over time will be amazing.

We have looked at creating unbreakable habits before, now I want to examine the best time to apply those habits for maximum leverage.  A habit consists of three parts:

  1. A trigger, or cue
  2. The routine
  3. A reward

While we have many small habits and routines running throughout the day, there is one specific routine that will offer the greatest return over time.  If you take the time to develop it.

Your alarm clock will be the trigger and completing your Most Valuable Tasks will be your reward.

The Morning Routine

Whether the day is for writing, designing, or painting, the consistent practice of a morning routine is the doorway into it all. – Elle Luna

Much has been written about the power of a strong morning routine.  There are websites dedicated to it, and books full of inspirational quotes and stories about it.  Famous people throughout history have lauded the morning routine; Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain.  On The Tim Ferris Show all the guests (all of whom are world class in their field) are asked what the first 90 minutes of their day looks like.

The evidence is all around us; if you want to go far then pay attention to the first thing you do each day.

Creating a morning routine is simple.

  1. Choose what to do – list your goals and dreams.  Then for each, write down what action you need to do again and again to reach that goal.
  2. Do that thing as soon as you wake up – jump out of bed and head straight to the typewriter, the easel, the gym.

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to wake up at the same time each day in order for this to be the most effective.  The routine begins from the moment you open your eyes, and the best work is typically done before the rest of the world wakes up.

My personal morning routine looks like this; I wake no later than 05:45 with my alarm, though often I wake naturally around 05:30.  I stretch, throw on my running clothes, go downstairs and turn on the coffee.  Now I sit down and write until 06:30, sometimes a little later depending on what time I need to be at work that day.  I hit save on my progress, throw on my shoes, and head out the door.  The next hour is spent running, then doing calisthenics and swimming if I am at home.  Finally I move into the routine of having breakfast, getting cleaned up, and heading out the door.

It is the same every day whether at home, in a hotel, or on a ship.  If I need to leave earlier to get to a work site then I modify by waking earlier or training later.  If I’m on a tug with no way to run I’ll focus on the calisthenics for that day.  Simple.

My one word of caution is to keep your routine simple.  Subtraction > addition.  There is plenty of great advice out there, the trouble is that if you try to follow it all you will end up following none.  Stick with those two or three actions that will make the biggest impact in your life, and only add in something new when the previous actions are firmly established.

The Evening Routine

The evening routine has one single purpose – to facilitate the next day’s morning routine.

Some people do their writing or training in the evening so will need to modify this, going so far as switching the two routines from morning to night.  But the bulk of people will have better long term success working to build a strong morning routine and working with that.  Life doesn’t start to get in the way at 5:00 a.m..  That typically comes later in the day.

The evening routine will be much shorter, as it is comprised of smaller tasks.  Creating a good one means you must examine everything you want to get done the next morning, then systematically remove as many barriers as possible the night before.

In way of example, my evening routine goes like this;  after dinner is over I’ll make my lunch.  Kids lunches too.  I’m in there tidying up anyways so better to do it all at once.  The coffee gets set for the next morning and the dishwasher is turned on so that it can be emptied in the morning then re-filled throughout the day.

I might poke around in the garage, pack my bag if I’ll be traveling, or prepare paperwork for the next days job until it is the kids bedtime.  Brush teeth, read stories, lights out.  Then I go lay out my running clothes so I don’t need to turn on the light when I wake up.  With that done I like to do a little stretching, often times running through a Founder Sequence from Dr. Eric Goodman (great for your back!).  Finally, I fill out my Bullet Journal for the day, logging that mornings run, write down thoughts, make lists, whatever needs to go in there.  Then I jump into bed and watch an episode of something on Netflix with my wife, or read a bit, until it’s lights out at 10:00 p.m..  That time is important as it’s what ensures I get the sleep required to wake up energized and ready to get after it.

Nothing earth shattering there, but it really helps me to start strong the next day, thereby maximizing the time I have available for my morning routine.  By eliminating the  mundane jobs the night before you open the way for creativity and clear your mind of those niggling little thoughts of tiny tasks to be done, thus allowing stronger focus.

Two Routines = Results

Each night, clear the decks for the work you want to perform the next morning.  Each morning, wake up right when you want to and get straight into it.

Roll out of bed, into your running shoes, and out the door.  Or push a button on the coffee pot, sit down, and start writing.  Whatever your goals, now is the time to make it happen.

That same evening, think about any friction points that morning and eliminate them ahead of time.  Remove any obstacle that takes valuable time away from your mornings work.

Finally, take the time to reflect on your day and to track your progress.  A small ‘X’ each day placed next to a completed task is great motivation, especially as the string of unbroken X’s grows longer over the days and weeks.  Writing out what you intend to do the next day can help you set your intentions.  Then checking it off the next day will encourage you to do it again.

Greatness happens in the shadows.  The hard work is done in the quiet hours, year after year.  These two routines are how you carve out the time and create the proper mindset to make this happen.

Do you have a morning routine?  Or does the morning have you?

Focus

In a recent article I made a case for Focus and Consistency as being the two most powerful metaskills that can be applied anywhere in life to increase your results.  This was followed by an article on Consistency and today I want to focus on Focus (see what I did there?)

The key takeaway here is nothing new; apply undistracted attention to a task in order to achieve better results in less time.  Multi-tasking doesn’t work.  But how do we create the conditions for this kind of extreme focus?  What are some actionable tactics that can be applied?

I’ve created the following list based on lessons learned during my 21 Days of Digital Minimalism experiment conducted earlier this year.  That was a great start down this path and I’ve been working towards refining these ideas ever since, with noticeable results.

Build Your Walls

Focus requires solitude.  It takes very little to break your concentration when you are in the thick of things, so the best thing to do is build a metaphorical island to work from.

If you have an office, this can simply mean closing the door.  In a shared environment you can put in earplugs, or put on noise cancelling headphones.  Either will send a powerful Do Not Disturb message.  Working from home can be a bit trickier and will likely require boundaries to be discussed with your family and put in place.

In rare cases I’ve even heard of people renting a hotel room (Maya Angelou), or taking a round trip intercontinental flight in order to finish a project.  Extreme no doubt, but desperate times and all that…

As Stephen King says, your workspace really only needs one thing: a door you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.

Eliminate Distractions

Firmly entrenched in your fortress of solitude you should have a clear barrier against external distractions.  Next come the distractions from within the room.

Device notifications should be the first thing to go.  Whether from your phone, your computer, or your smart watch (which I still can’t believe is a thing), every beep or flashing light will pull you away from the task at hand with the promise of solving a perceived urgent task, yielding instant gratification.

The trick is to differentiate between what is Urgent and what is Important.  The work in front of you is important, the email that just came through is most likely not.  Personally, I only leave my phone ringer active.  If it requires immediate attention then somebody will pick up a phone and call.

Taking this a step further, consider removing the time-wasting apps from your phone entirely.  Completely eliminate the distraction.  It doesn’t mean that you can’t check social media, it just means that you empower yourself to do so on your own terms.  Set a time and do it then; during your lunchbreak or on Facebook Friday.  You won’t miss as much as you think, and you’ll gain so much more.

Finally, you can go fully analogue.  Enter the room with nothing but a pad and a pen.  Work entirely from paper, then transfer to digital later as required.  I’ve begun to do this with much of my writing and am finding that it offers two distinct benefits:

  1. I think more carefully about what I’m going to commit to the page. Writing is harder than typing and more permanent.  This helps you to be more mindful about what you write.
  2. It offers the chance to truly complete a full edit, while transferring those notes to digital. Most (all) work I’ve completed using a computer gets a spell check at best.  Having a built in requirement to retype everything allows a fresh look at the entire work.

There are many studies that show handwriting taps into the creative side of your brain better.  And it allows you to develop your handwriting at the same time, which is a prime example of layering projects; getting two things accomplished with minimal additional effort.  Try it, you just might like it.

Prime the Pump

This part is a little more esoteric, but I’ve found is truly one of the keys to success.

Before starting the work I stop a moment, straighten up, take a deep breath, and set my intention towards that task.

This may involve a time frame, word count, or some other marker that I plan to achieve before stopping, or it may not.  The important thing is that you are sending a message into your subconscious that this is what we are doing right now.  By verbalizing what you intend to do, even if only internally, you set the stakes of the moment.  Your self-talk is like your operating system.  It can influence you negatively or positively, the choice is yours to make.

The Pomodoro technique is a well-known task completion method where set a timer for 25 minutes, then take five to regroup when it rings.  This is a different way of achieving that same thing.  You set the intention and a pre-defined stopping point.  Failure to hit your mark is not an option.

Whether you set a stopwatch, develop a mantra, or spin around three times, take a moment where you make a conscious decision to do the work.  You’ll be amazed how effective this is.

Prioritize and Execute

Figure out what is the most important thing that you need to be doing right now, then do it.  This approach comes directly from Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babbin.  If you haven’t read it yet  I highly recommend you pick up a copy.

Every minute of every day we are pulled in multiple directions.  Things pop up and they seem important enough that you drop everything and focus on that.  But when you jump from one task to the next you are left with nothing but a bunch of unfinished tasks.  The key is to always be asking “What is the most important thing I can be doing right now that, once completed, will make everything else easier or unnecessary?”

Having a strong daily routine helps ensure that you hit all of your marks for the day.  I know that exercise is important.  But if I leave it “until I have time/energy/motivation” then I’ll never do it.  But by making it the very first thing that I do every day then I never miss a workout.  I’ve identified it as a major priority and I execute every morning.  Six weeks in on my latest training program and I have not missed a single session.

This strategy allows you to be proactive; setting up your dominoes then knocking them down.  The alternative is allowing your day to run your actions, always reacting to the newest inputs and information.

Stay Focused

The tactics mentioned above are easy to implement and, more than that, are freeing.  Turn your phone off all weekend and see if you don’t feel a little bit better, and get a little bit more done.

Identify what you want to accomplish, keep coming back to those tasks consistently, and perform them with focus.  This is the simple formula for great results.

Layering Projects

When working to develop a new skill or improve your performance at a certain task, a given task comma it is often approached in isolation. However there are many opportunities to incorporate that practice into your daily routine if you will just be if you will just keep your eyes open for them.

For example, you can develop your writing skills while while doing the day-to-day writing that you might normally do at home or at work. You can practice your negotiation and active listening skills during your day-to-day conversations with people. And you can improve your handwriting while jotting down your shopping list.

The key is to recognize these opportunities then layer these complementary projects on top of one another.

Project Layering

The first step is to identify what skills you would like to develop or acquire, that are going to be meaningful enough for you that you will be able to work on them consistently. Next, you’ll examine your daily workflow to identify points where you can easily incorporate this practice.

It doesn’t need to be a new skill either.  An area that I myself am applying this is when using my company’s new CRM program.  I’m not going to lie; it’s confusing.  I liked the old system better (does that make me sound crotchety?) But the new system is here to stay and I can get onboard and learn it or get rolled over.  But I don’t try to learn it all at once; rather I work to improve every time I use it.  I stay mindful of the fact that while I’m completing my time-sheet or setting up a project, that I am also working to improve my knowledge of the system.

There are many inflection points during your day where this applies.  Writing a grocery list is a great chance to improve your handwriting.  Calculate tips in your head to work on your math.  Work on your posture while sitting at your desk.

You can see in these examples that the Common Thread is a desire to improve then finding a way to incorporate this into the daily routine so as not to have to make more free time available in order to work on these skills.

This is an excellent strategy that will help you excel at your work. If you can find a way to turn every tasks that you complete into an opportunity for Learning and Development you’ll eventually end up miles ahead of the competition. Whether this takes the form of gaining additional technical proficiency at something, or better utilizing and understanding the various software packages and company processes that you use, this learning will be invaluable.

The key is mindfulness while completing jobs, not just going through the motions, but to complete them to the you’re the best of your ability and to learn something new while doing so. Think of everything you do as practice then, like practice, you’ll work to get incrementally better each time. And rather than just completing the task at hand, you’ll be completing two with minimal additional effort required. This is the secret to getting more done in less time.

Is Project layering something that you’ve tried before? If so what skills or projects did you layer? And if not, what skills can you see yourself attempting this on?