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?

Don’t Fear The Spotlight

There is a time for everything.  I’ve written previously about how greatness happens in the shadows, through the thousands of hours spent practicing while nobody is watching.  That time is important but it is equally if not more important to preach what you’ve been practicing when the spotlight turns on.

Display your practiced skill to the world at every opportunity, without self-consciousness and without fear.  If you value a skill highly enough to spend hours upon hours working on it alone then you should also jump on each chance to put it out into the world. Because it is during these times that the greatest lessons are learned.

Don’t Wait Until You Are Ready

You’ll never be ready.  There will always be some excuse lying in wait.  Some type of Resistance holding you back from just going for it.

I’ve been studying Spanish this year.  I strive to do an audio lesson every day when I’m in a car (in the shadows), then mark a little tic in my book for that day.  Alternately I’ll mark my daily practice as complete if I’ve had a short conversation with somebody in Spanish, which is pretty easy to do in Texas.  But it takes an extra force of will each time I start one of those conversations, despite them being well received every time.  Each time I have to push through the Resistance that whispers I am not good enough, or this is stupid.  But each time I’ve done so I learn more than during ten quiet sessions in the car.

Fear of the spotlight is the number one reason that people don’t succeed.  And that fear is entirely in your head.  The fact of the matter is that:

  1. People don’t think about you as much as you think they do
  2. People respect those who push against their current limits

The worst that can happen is mild embarrassment, while the best is a groundbreaking insight or flash of inspiration that will catapult your progress miles beyond your current level.  The reward is far greater than the risk.

You’ve Got to Ship

In any endeavor the circle is not complete until you have delivered.

What good is a body of work if it never sees the light of day?  What is the point of those thousands of hours sacrificed to the trade if it is never released into the world to stand on its own merit?  What if you no longer had to ask “what if”?

Doing the work is only the start.  You’ve got to complete the work.  And you’ve got to put it out there, under the spotlight of public scrutiny.  Only then can you wipe down the chalkboard and start something new, having taken the lessons learned into consideration.

Feedback is wildly important to improvement.  It teaches lessons that you can never learn in the shadows and accelerates your progress 10x.  It builds confidence and it highlights weakness to be focused on.

Skill Level Be Damned

One final point is that you need to put your work out into the world during every stage of your development.  If you wait until you are “good enough” you’ll have waited too long, and missed countless opportunities to speed up your improvement along the way.

The bulk of work will be done in the shadows, but we stay in the shadows too long because of fear.  Fear of ridicule and fear of the spotlight.  But you’ll find that people are incredibly supportive of those that are willing to stick their necks out, and those that ridicule us are secretly envious of anyone who has a strong commitment to improvement.

No matter the endeavor there is always, always somebody who will be better at it than you.  Don’t compare your progress with theirs; emulate or get inspiration from them and apply it to your own learning.  Do the hard work every day in the shadows.  Then step into the spotlight every chance you can.

Greatness Happens In The Shadows

Dwayne Johnson has a motto; always be the hardest working man in the room.  This mindset has served him well, with careers in football, wrestling, and entertainment, leading him to be the biggest actor in the world today (literally and figuratively).

During that same time, we have also seen social media go from zero to full ahead, with people putting themselves under the microscope.  Celebrities like Johnson allow us glimpses into their lives and show us the cars and jets and famous friends, so we assume that this is what their entire day is like. But what they are NOT showing us is where we should focus.  That is where the magic happens.

We see the Rock’s impressive build, but we don’t see the thousands of reps it took to get to that point.  We see the success of Game of Thrones, but don’t see the millions of words George RR Martin wrote before ever having a hit.  We listen to Sweet Emotion in the car, but don’t think that the Rolling Stones didn’t have to pay their dues.

The one thing that everybody who has accomplished anything has in common is that the real work didn’t happen in the spotlight.  That lasts only minutes.  The real work happened in the shadows, and that is the work of a lifetime.

Why do people put in thousands of unsung hours?  How do they grind out the reps each day, with no fanfare or recognition?  There are a number of skills required, but it all starts with one:

Belief

You must first believe in what you are doing; that it means something and has value.  Even if that value is only to you alone.  This can be a vision of where you want to be in the future, or just for pure enjoyment of the activity – love of the game.

Consistency

I’ve been coming back to this topic again and again because I can’t understress its importance.  To improve you must practice every day.  You’ve got to live it.  You can’t just go into the shadows once; you have to live there for a large portion of your life.

Focus

Another popular topic.  Why work on something with only half a heart or half a mind?  When you go to the shadows you must give it your all. Focus relentlessly on your work and two things happen:

  1. It gets done faster
  2. It gets done better

This doesn’t only apply to how you work, but also what you work on. Focus on one thing and kick ass at it. Or focus on many things and succeed at nothing.

Balance

It gets lonely, working in the shadows. This needs to be balanced with friends, family, and good times. Think of them as micro-rewards. Or battery recharging sessions. If you live your whole life inside your head you can forget what and who you are living for.

Let Go Of Your Expectations

This last one is huge. You need to let go of any expectation of where your work will lead you down the line. You’ve got to embrace the suck, love the boredom, and keep pushing because you find meaning in your work that satisfies you on a personal level. Find satisfaction in the shadows so that you are not disappointed if you never make it into the spotlight. And hold your head high that it was not from a lack of effort.

Anyone you see, be it the Rock, GRRM, Keith Richards, or anyone else you admire – they got to the spotlight only through the shadows. Quit worrying about what other people are doing and focus on what you can do.

Start putting in the reps.