The Daily Routine

My job is to help teams work together more effectively. As a result, I spend a lot of time explaining the difference between working hard and being effective; between busyness and impact. It’s also something I’ve spent time trying to figure out in my own life. I’ve had the advantage and challenge of being self-employed for almost 20 years now. For better or worse, my time is my own to shape how I see fit. Along the way, I’ve tried dozens of different time, task, and project management techniques for myself and in collaborative efforts with dozens of different work teams. I can’t say that I’ve found the silver bullet, but I have developed a short-list of guidelines that seem to work pretty consistently across groups and types of work. I would love feedback from you if you have any other guidelines that work for you.

  1. Don’t do anything until you are grounded.

Start each day with a reflective practice that helps you achieve a grounded sense of perspective on what really matters most to you. Find a practice that works for you. I like journaling, but you might prefer meditation, a work out, or a quiet walk in the woods. Anything that helps you find that calm, expansive state of mind that can sense the difference between importance and urgency.

I also use a daily reminder, like a mantra that keeps me focused on what really counts. I highly recommend writing down something for yourself. Think of it as a message that you would like to send from the person you are when you are calm, energized, and enthusiastic to the person you are when you are down, demoralized, and not sure which way to turn. Since you’ve been in both places, you are the best person in the world to know what you need to hear to get you back on track again.

If you start the day in a mindless rush, you will likely spend the whole day that way. You might be busy, but you aren’t likely to be effective. Even if you take an hour to get your head on straight, you will more than make up for it in the increased effectiveness of the rest of your day.

2. Structure sets you free.

Willpower is overrated. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and has only spotty success. Habits, on the other hand, are incredibly powerful — whether for good or ill. Once established, the habit does all the heavy lifting, letting you spend your precious energy actually getting things done. Until a habit is established, use external structures copiously to help do the work for you. This can be anything from an accountability buddy (like a workout partner, but for work), to using alarms on you phone to remind you to take breaks. Try a variety of tips and tricks to see what works for you, but favour ones that don’t depend on willpower at all.

On the farm, we break our day into five work blocks, divided by breaks or small routine tasks. As a result, I know that I can’t realistically take on more than five tasks a day — fewer if any of them are big things. Then, I use an alarm app on my phone to ring a warning bell 15 minutes before the end of each work block, so that I have time to clean up and then when the bell rings, I take a break and switch tasks. In a way, I’m on autopilot, but that means that without any effort, I end up making steady progress on a variety of important goals at the same time.

3. Create Russian Doll Plans, and then let them go.

Eisenhower said “plans are worthless; planning is essential.” The goal of planning is not to create a plan, but to think through priorities, sequencing, and dependencies. Done well, a plan will also help you balance the various demands on your time, and most importantly help you say no when appropriate. NOTE: Never imagine that you will ever complete a plan as written and don’t get freaked out when you are off plan by 10 am. That’s just life.

Russian Doll plans are nested plans at different time scales. Think about important projects in chunks of work that can get broken down in to smaller and smaller chunks. Start with a quarterly plan that breaks 3-month goals into 12 weekly chunks and make sure that those chunks represent a reasonable amount of work that you can get done in a week. Hint: it’s probably half as much as you think.

Use those weekly chunks at the beginning of each week and break them into tasks that will take between an hour and 4 hours to complete, then schedule them out over the week — leaving ample space for all the other routine and expectable unexpected tasks. Then, each day, decide what tasks go in what blocks of time (see #2 above).

4. Eat the frog first.

This is most definitely a practice the depends on knowing that discipline is the difference between what you want now and what you want most. It’s hard to imagine the amount of productive energy you release when you click off your most dreaded task first thing in the morning. I don’t know the science behind it, but from personal experience I can tell you it must be some combination of endorphins and adrenaline because you start to feel like a superhero.

In the past, I was guilty of pushing off dreaded tasks onto a special day where I vowed I would completely dedicate myself to them. The problem was that I always had to push that day off because of this and that, and then suddenly it was a huge, looming mountain of nothing but dreaded tasks. The mere thought was debilitating.

Now, I do one small chunk every day — usually only committing to 30 minutes and then I’m done with anything dreaded for the rest of the day. That usually stretches into 45 minutes or an hour and as a result, I end up getting a few little dreaded tasks off my list every day. Suddenly the list of dreaded tasks looks very manageable and I am actually enthusiastic to be “allowed” to get back to the important tasks I have on my list.

5. Switch it up regularly.

My parents had a saying: “a change is as good as a break.” Turns out, it’s true. Research consistently finds productivity — physical and mental — declines rapidly after about 90 minutes of any single activity. Learning to switch between different types of activities can allow you to maintain a higher level of comfortable focus and productivity AND make your days healthier and more enjoyable. To the extent possible, switch between mental and physical activities; detail-oriented and “big picture” tasks; solitary and collaborative tasks; etc. Even if you still need to spend the majority of your time working on a particular type of task, breaking it up with even 15 minutes of a different kind of activity can have a surprisingly positive effect.

6. Spin the important plates every day.

Annie Dillard says “how we live our days is, of course, how we live our lives.” If you can’t make time for an important goal or aspect of your life every day, you probably can’t make time for it in your life. This is probably the most radical guideline and the one people resist the most. As a rule, the biggest mistake I see people make is planning as though there will be a magical time in the future when you will finally have time to get around to [fill in the blank]. After this latest project… or after I catch up on that stuff… or after that next deadline. If it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist. And if it’s only on the calendar but that time keeps getting moved back for other things, it doesn’t exist.

The biggest challenge is that we must finally face the fact that there is less time in our lives than we hope for and so we have to make some hard choices about where to put that time. That is a reality. The only way to face that reality is to make those choices today—this actual day right now — and not fantasize about how you might get to it tomorrow.

Practically, I have determined five “big buckets” of work that are important to me, plus self-care and nesting (which I recommend for everyone). I try to dedicate at least one chunk of work to each bucket every day and I only do things if they feel like they contribute to this bucket. Every quarter, when I’m creating my 3 month plan, I also review what buckets seem important to me now.

7. Rediscover Sabbath.

Breaks are important — they help you reset and refocus. They keep you from getting that rat-in-a-maze hazy brain. Sabbaths do the same thing, but at a deeper level. Don’t be fooled, though. Having the discipline to actually take a complete day to unplug yourself is challenging. You are likely to struggle with feelings of guilt or feeling overwhelmed — like you can’t afford to take the time off. This is all just ego talk and is the real work of the sabbath. However, when you manage to do it, you will be amazed at the positive impact it has on the rest of your week. The increased effectiveness on the other days more than makes up for the “time lost” for the sabbath.

So, those are the guidelines I’ve come up with for myself. Use them if they help or use them as a starting point for developing your own. I would love to hear about your guidelines and the things that you’ve found work to help you hit those flow moments.

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