On Routines

Introduction

Routines play an integral part in all of our lives. We wake up and passively go through a certain process: shower, brush our teeth, get dressed. This process is so ingrained in all of us that we rarely need to think about each task individually. We don’t actively consider things like which shoe to tie first or the best strategy for brushing our teeth each day.

In this post, I’d like to examine how expanding our routines to include other daily tasks can be enormously beneficial to our well-being.

A few weeks into my current job, I noticed a poster in our office that read “What gets measured gets done,” which prompted me to start thinking about how I could use this philosophy to measure my own productivity at work. As a result, I ended up creating a list of my daily objectives, including things like eating healthy, exercising, meditating, and productivity at work. Before bed each day, I would mark down which tasks I had accomplished. At the beginning, I was surprised to find that I was usually completing less than half of the things I set out to. However, after a few weeks of measuring my progress, I began to improve this number significantly, and I was suddenly getting about 75–80% of the way through my list for each day. After a few months, I grew bored of tallying my progress each day, and eventually stopped keeping track.

Then, something interesting happened. Even without the gratification of “checking them off the list,” I maintained my new, more productive habits. It was only then that I realized the power of routines and began to read more about them. So, without further ado, here is my routine.

Weekdays

6:45 — Wake Up & Shower

It was always difficult for me to wake up on time in college, so once I started working, I was terrified that I would oversleep. Luckily, I found a system that works quite well for me. I’d recommend it to anyone who struggles with getting up in the morning. The key for me has been to set two alarms. I set the first alarm on my phone using the Sleep Cycle app, which wakes you up gently in your lightest state of sleep within a certain time window. (I set the window for between 6:25–6:45.)

The second alarm is on my computer, which is on a desk at the opposite end of my room by the door. The location is key because it forces me to physically leave my bed to turn it off. This alarm is always set for 6:45. By setting the first alarm, I’m already (mostly) awake when my second alarm goes off at 6:45, so it is far less jarring in the morning. If you have trouble waking up on time, try this out and let me know how it works for you!

7:00 — Meditate for 15 minutes

It’s a shame that meditation still has a taboo attached to it (though it seems mindfulness practices are starting to become more mainstream). I started to practice and study meditation in high school. In college, I unfortunately lost track of it, and it was only once I started working that I really got back into it. If I had to organize my daily habits according to which is the most beneficial, I’d put meditating at the very top. It allows me to start off my day with a clear my mind and has taught me how to control my emotions far better. Before I was meditating regularly, I’d sometimes let bad moods permeate through my entire day, affecting both my relationships and my work. Now, when I have negative feelings, I’m far better at stepping back from them, realizing that they aren’t necessary or helpful, and that in itself is often enough to make them disappear, or at least diminish.

For those starting out with meditating, a word of caution. At the beginning, it can be, ironically, quite frustrating. Clearing your mind of thoughts seems quite easy, but it is only once you try to maintain that clarity that you realize how busy your mind can be. If you find yourself getting frustrated at these intermittent thoughts, it’s helpful to realize that this underlying anxiousness is exactly why meditating is so helpful. Give yourself at least 10 sessions, and I promise you will start to notice a difference in your mood and perspective. Two helpful apps are Headspace and Calm to get started!

7:30 — Walk to work and pick up breakfast.

I usually listen to an audio book on the way to work. Most recently, I’ve listened to the Steve Jobs and Elon Musk biographies. Listening to these types of books rallies my motivation for the day.

As for breakfast, I eat the same thing everyday: eggs, bacon, avocado, and coffee with milk. I’ve jumped on this low-carb bandwagon, and I’ve noticed an enormous difference in my energy levels throughout the day. Instead of crashing after meals, my blood sugar level stays relatively constant, so I don’t feel like I need to nap after lunch. I’ve also noticed I need less sleep at night to feel alert during the day. With that said, everyone works differently, and I am particularly sensitive to eating complex carbs (I can’t stay awake after eating bread or pasta). I’m not sure this diet is perfect for everyone, but I would certainly recommend experimenting with your own diet and seeing how it can affect your mood and energy levels.

8:00 — Morning Activity

Every Sunday, I make a list of my projects for that week and spread them out across my mornings. Last week, I studied the Advanced Swift book (which is an awesome resource btw) on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and worked on an upcoming blog post on YAP Database on Tuesday and Thursday. By allocating these tasks on Sundays before the week begins, I don’t have to make a decision each morning on what to work on. It also feels great at the end of each week to know that you got ~10 solid hours to work on pet projects.

This has proven the most intellectually rewarding part of my day. No one is in the office yet, so I’m completely free of distractions and my mind is clear and alert. I never check my email, Hacker News, Twitter, or anything else during this period. I’ve noticed that the way I start my day can dictate how productive I am for the rest of the day. If I start my day passively reading the news or emails, it’s much harder for me to zone-in afterwards. However, if I start off running, it’s much easier to maintain that pace.

10:00 — Work

At 10am everyday, my team has scrum. I try to keep morning meetings to a minimum, for the same reasons I mentioned above: I think they put you in the wrong frame of mind for the day. After scrum, I usually take a quick 10 minutes to catch up on emails before transitioning to programming.

Maintaining high levels of productivity throughout the entire day was always, and still is, my most challenging task. I’m still working this out, but here are some helpful tricks and tools I’ve picked up from experimenting.

  • Quit Slack — The constant distractions from getting notifications can derail your train of thought. In my experiences, it is far better to silence applications like Slack and check back in every hour or so.
  • Hide my phone — I have gotten into the bad habit of checking my phone during spare moments. For that reason, I usually leave my phone in my backpack, so I’m not tempted to check social media while waiting for builds or during loading times. That way, I don’t need to waste energy afterwards trying to figure out where I left off.
  • Headphones with ear plugs — Whenever I really need to get work done, I put in earplugs with overear headphones on top. Then, I listen to music with just a beat and no lyrics so it doesn’t interrupt my train of thought.

Apps

  • Focus — This app effectively saves you from yourself. You set an amount of time, and the app blocks any websites that it deems distracting. You can manually add and remove websites, so if you listen to music from YouTube like me, you can remove it from the blocked list. I’d definitely recommend this one!
  • FocusList — This is essentially a Pomodoro timer. You set a task list for the day, along with how long each task should take. Then, you start the timer and check things off along the way. This app was less helpful for me because I like creating physical lists and it can be more annoying than helpful to reset the timer. Definitely worth trying for yourself though.
  • Escape — This app is crazy eye-opening. It monitors your activity throughout the entire day and keeps track of every time you get distracted and what the source of the distraction was. I like to think I am relatively good at keeping focused, but it wasn’t until I downloaded this app that I realized how often distractions come up. During my first week, it was clocking around 150 distractions per day, which is the equivalent of being distracted every 3–4 minutes! (This was before I started silencing Slack and Gmail notifications.) HIGHLY recommend trying this tool for yourself! Context switching is enormously expensive cognitively while programming, so minimizing distractions can really help with output.

1:00 — Gym

I think this is perhaps the best example of how habits have helped me reduce the amount of mental energy exerted on everyday tasks. Before I had a routine, everyday I would have to decide whether to go to the gym and at which point it would be most convenient. Then, while I was at the gym, I’d worry about how long I had been there and if I were missing anything at work.

Now, I don’t even consider these things. I go to the gym everyday at 1pm, and I know not to schedule any meetings during that time. This not only frees up mental space by reducing the number of decisions I have to make, but also makes my time at the gym more enjoyable because I can be more present. I also have a routine for workouts so I don’t have to spend any energy deciding my workout on the fly each day.

2:00 — Work

Not much to report here. Grab some food and back at it!

4:30 — Coffee Break

Around now I’m starting to struggle. I’ve already spent far too long staring at a computer screen and lines of code are starting to look like hieroglyphics. At this point, I usually take around 15 minutes to reset and decompress. I’ll get up, walk around the office and catch up with people, and then head out to grab a coffee.

4:45 — Work

Phew, much better. Okay, now I’m ready for another solid few hours of programming.

7:30 — Leave Work

By this time, I often have what I call “mush-brain”, which is when you just don’t have the mental energy to program anymore. When I get to this point, I’ll pack up and call it quits for the day. Time to grab some food and head home.

8:00 — Evening Activity

I try to dedicate some time each night to doing something non-programming related that I’m interested in. Honestly, at that point in the day, it has been tough for me to get motivated to do anything. Sometimes I’ll mess around with a design class on Treehouse, or brush up on my Italian from school. Whatever it is, it’s always a more passive, less taxing activity. I’d say realistically my success rate for doing anything truly “productive” during this time is around 40%. Equally as often, I end up watching Netflix, going out to dinner, or playing basketball, which are important too!

10:30 — Evening Routine

If you’ve gotten this far, then you probably already think I’ve gone a bit overboard with this whole “routine” thing. Well, if you haven’t yet, then you will now.

I, like a six-year-old, decide what to wear the next day. This may seem excessive (and probably is), but a routine is particularly important for me because I am, unfortunately, incredibly indecisive. I am always the “come back to me” person at the dinner table, and spend far too long making trivial decisions like which path I’d like to walk to work on a given day. (This is pointless because I live in Manhattan, so every path is equidistant to my office.) For this reason, establishing habits have proven particularly beneficial because they greatly reduce the number of decisions I have to make in a given day, thus reducing decision fatigue. A lot of people think this idea of reducing cognitive overhead by ‘automating’ our daily decisions is rather over-blown in Silicon Valley. There is the famous example of Mark Zuckerberg wearing the same shirt everyday for this exact reason.

I think critics have a fair point that the Zuckerberg example is taking the rule a bit too far. However, I can say on a personal level that this rule of automating certain decisions has proven quite useful in my own life. By dramatically reducing the number of small choices I have to make each day, I have to exert far less mental energy and self-control on them.

10:45 — Read

Time to relax and read a bit before bed. Most recently it was Hadji Murad by Tolstoy and Hunger by Knut Hamsum, and now Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevski. These sorts of books have been great before bed because they’re interesting, but are not meant to be overly thrilling, so it’s usually quite easy to fall asleep afterwards.

11:30 — Sleep

zzzzzzzzzzzzz :)

Weekends

Saturdays

Hooray — no work! Instead, I usually reserve Friday nights for going out, so Saturday mornings are usually spent either getting brunch, recouping from the night, or both. After a long week at work, it can be tough to get motivated to go out, but programming is a very isolating profession, so I think it’s important to meet new people and get out of your comfort zone on the weekends.

I also have a strict rule of not doing any work or pet projects on Saturdays. It gives me a full 24 hours to regroup and reset mentally for the coming week. It’s also just enough time to give me some anxiety about not doing anything productive, which is motivating for Sunday.

Sundays

Sundays, oddly, may be my favorite day of the week. I usually get up early and head to the office around 9 or 9:30. With the office all to myself, I can work on projects, like this blog, without any distractions. (It’s a Sunday right now as I’m writing this.) I’ll also schedule out my morning and evening tasks for the coming week. Then, I’ll usually go for a run in the late afternoon, run errands, cook dinner, and watch sports or TV with my roommates.

Conclusion

I think the most common criticism of highly relying on routines is that they can be associated with boredom and a lack of spontaneity. After all, the phrase “getting into a routine” typically has a negative connotation associated with it. I would argue, however, that forming a routine has actually had the opposite effect for me. By having a schedule, my mind does not have to be constantly considering alternatives, opportunity costs, or what is next on the to-do list. Instead, I can focus squarely on my current task and be more present while doing so. It also gives me a greater appreciation for freetime, which I can enjoy without anxiety because I know I’ve gotten my work done for that week already.

With that said, I’m not sure it’s necessary to maintain this strict of a routine all the time. Initially, tracking my goals individually each day was helpful, but it was no longer necessary once I had formed new habits. More generally, I think a strict routine is helpful for establishing better habits, but once those habits are formed and solidified, it makes sense to give yourself more room to improvise day-to-day. The best analogy I can think of is the movie Yes Man with Jim Carrey. In the movie, his character must say “yes” to everything, until he becomes more open to new experiences. It is only then that he learns to make decisions for himself.

In sum, forming a routine has been incredibly helpful for my well-being, happiness and productivity. We are all “works in progress,” and establishing habits are a great tool to ensure you are improving, without being consumed by your to-do list.

I’ll continue to update this post as I refine my routine, but would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Hope this has been helpful!

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