Developing a routine for success

Benjamin Franklin was a busy man. Besides founding a country, he served as a diplomat, owned several businesses, and developed nearly a dozen inventions — including bifocals, swimming fins, and his own odometer. And despite this busy schedule he still found time for his wife of 38 years and at least a dozen mistresses. Clearly, Ben knew how to manage his time.

While he developed many different productivity strategies, one of his most helpful tools was his daily schedule.

First, Franklin began and ended each day by asking two versions of the same question. In the morning it was “What good shall I do this day?”, and in the evening it was “What good have I done today?”. By focusing on this one question, Franklin was able to keep his schedule aligned with his priorities.

The rest of Franklin’s schedule consisted of a very balanced life. In the early morning he would plan out his day, do studying of some sort (he learned 5 languages), and eat breakfast. After a few hours of work he took two hours to eat lunch and read or evaluate his accounts. Then, after working through the afternoon, he left his evenings open for socializing and enjoying music.

Franklin’s schedule is simple, yet relevant. If Franklin had attempted to account for every moment of his day, this schedule would have been impossible to follow. Yet, by leaving room for flexibility, his schedule proved beneficial. Not only to himself, but also the hundreds of people who have emulated it over the last two and a half centuries.

Although there is no “one size fits all” formula for a successful life, there are traits and activities that the successful follow. And a daily routine that emphasizes important priorities is often one of these traits.

After starting a million dollar company, I decided routines were something I’d like to try.

Let me be honest with you. When I launched my first business I had nothing close to a daily routine. Some days I filled 14 hours with intense productivity. Other days I achieved little.

Despite this, I was still able to develop a million dollar company.

So before I begin I should make it clear that short-term success is possible without a routine. I’ve done it — and I’ve known many other people who have done it as well.

That being said, I have learned that sustainable success requires discipline and a healthy routine.

During my first few years as an entrepreneur I would overwork myself with 60+ hour weeks. Then I would become depressed and binge on television shows and videogames for the next week. It doesn’t take a NASA scientist to recognize that this isn’t a healthy way to live.

Although my business was still doing well, I was not. And I knew that the future success of my companies depended on me being consistent with my work, scheduling, and mood. That’s when I started making an effort to develop a sustainable work-life balance.

Finally, about a year ago, I decided it was time to become a habit master. There were so many things that I wanted to do, and I just never seemed to have the time motivation to get them done.

As a side note, one thing I hate is when I ask people if they did something and they reply with “I didn’t have the time”. I always respond back (sometimes out loud and sometimes just in my head), “That means the item wasn’t important enough for you to devote the time to accomplishing it — it wasn’t a priority”. That’s the real definition of “I didn’t have the time”.

When I looked at my schedule, I realized that my priorities were not where I wanted them. I would spend most of my day focusing on work. Then, when I came home, I felt like I needed to “reward” myself with food and entertainment. Somehow, the things I claimed where important — like peace of mind and exercise — never made it on my schedule.

After reading a plethora of self-help books on habits and productivity, I decide to make my first habit meditation. Particularly for those of us who focus a lot on what we do, practicing a form of meditation is incredibly beneficial. By taking time to clear your mind, you prevent yourself from becoming trapped in a pointless and monotonous routine.

After mastering meditation, I slowly added exercise, reading, and studying Spanish onDuolingo to my daily routine. I now start my days by focusing on myself, rather than my work — and it has revolutionized my life. Not only do I enjoy life more, but I accomplish more. Even though I only work 6–8 hours a day, my time is more productive and I actually find myself doing more than when I worked 12–14 hour days.

Most of us think about a daily routine as something that holds us back from truly enjoying life — but I’ve discovered quite the opposite. By building my schedule around my priorities, I’ve found myself with more flexibility, better health, and the ability to end every day with a feeling of accomplishment.

We first make our habits, then our habits make us.” — John Dryden

If you would like to bump up your own productivity, start slowly stacking useful habits until you develop your own effective routine

How do you develop a routine?

As Charles Duhigg mentions in “The Power of Habits”, scientists have long recognized that habits simplify our lives. Without habits, every small task requires an exorbitant amount of energy.

And just as lifting weights makes picking up a 25 pound box easier, recent research has revealed that working out your “habit muscle” makes developing new habits easier. With each new positive habit you start, you strengthen your willpower to achieve additional successes.

To develop a routine that works for you, follow these steps.

1. Understand how your brain works

When hiking through a field, it requires far less effort to stay on a path where the rocks and brush have been trampled and pushed off to the side. If you decide to leave the path, you find yourself battling through weeds, stepping in holes, and wearing out your shoes far faster.

This same process occurs in your brain. The first time you do something new it requires a substantial amount of effort to develop the neural pathway. But, with each following repetition, the pathway becomes larger, and the task becomes easier.

The truth is, every action is strengthening one of these neural pathways. If you go for a jog, you make tomorrow’s run a little easier. If you decide to sit on the couch and watch TV, you make sitting on the couch tomorrow a little easier. I have even discovered that my daily jogging habit has made it more difficult to get dressed and drive to the gym! Although I’m still getting the exercise, running has decreased my willpower to travel all the way to the gym.

As you stack these small routines on top of each other, they develop into larger routines — and these large routines are what determine the outcome of your life.

One of the most powerful books on this process of building healthy habits is The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. In addition to showing the science behind habits, Charles presents an easy to understand diagram that reveals how habits work.

Once you understand this process, managing your own habits becomes a much simpler activity.

First, every habit begins with a cue. It is followed by a routine. And finally, there is a rewardthat makes the process worth repeating next time.

For example, coming home from work (the cue) motivates you to turn on the TV (the routine) which distracts you from the stress of work (the reward).

If this is a habit you want to break, it will be essential to change one of the elements of this process. Clearly, you have to come home from work, and you need to find a way to detox from a stressful day — so the cue may be hard to eliminate.

Perhaps you can change the routine by going for a jog the moment you get home. Or, if this is too difficult, maybe you can get rid of the reward by shutting off your television service entirely.Ultimately, you’ll need to find a way to hack the process and reshape it.

In order to develop successful habits and eliminate bad habits, you must understand the basics of how your brain works. The better we understand ourselves, the easier it is for our conscious mind to trick our subconscious into doing what actually matters to us.

2. Determine what elements should make up your routine

Celestine Chua, a prominent productivity coach, breaks routines into two types: Powerful and Stagnant.

Powerful routines are those that energize you and help you achieve your personal goals — think exercise, meeting new people, and building your professional reputation.

Stagnant routines are things that drain you over time and prevent you from accomplishing what really matters. These could include watching TV, oversleeping, or interacting with negative people who zap your energy.

The more time you spend developing Powerful routines, and the less time you spend on Stagnant routines, the more energy you will have to accomplish those things that truly matter to you.

Our willpower is just like a muscles — and if it’s overworked it will wear out. Therefore, if you spend all of your time trying to eliminate Stagnant routines from your day, you may run out of energy to develop Powerful routines.

So, my recommendation is that you forget about eliminating negative habits. Instead, spend your time developing positive ones.

To do this, envision your perfect day. What kinds of things would you accomplish? Write these items down and list them in order of priority.

Some common examples of things you may want in your daily schedule include:

  1. Exercise (running, swimming, walking, working out).
  2. Meditation or devotions.
  3. Reading.
  4. Practicing an instrument.
  5. Learning another language.
  6. Writing.
  7. Journaling.
  8. Strengthening relationships.

For other great ideas (and easy ones to get started), check out the ideas page onMiniHabits.com.

Once you are aware of the activities that matter most to you, it’s time to begin building your daily routine.

3. Start with one habit

According to UC Davis, focusing on one habit at a time is essential for success. People who focus on just one habit have an 80% likelihood of keeping that habit for over a year. If someone attempts to implement two habits, their success rate falls to less than 35%. Meanwhile, if someone implements three habits their odds of success drop to just 5%.

Don’t try to improve your diet, stop watching TV, build a six pack, and learn Spanish all at once. You don’t stand a chance.

As I mentioned earlier, your willpower is limited. By focusing all of your willpower on one activity, your odds of success are substantially higher.

Take the list of prioritized items that you developed in the previous step and start with the habit at the top.

4. Don’t break the chain

Jerry Seinfeld is one of the world’s greatest comedians. However, he didn’t become a success overnight. It took Seinfeld years of hard work to get to a point where he can charge $1 million to do a one-hour stand-up routine.

Seinfeld attributes a large amount of his success to a very simple routine: writing a joke every day and never letting himself break the chain.

If you walk into Seinfeld’s house, you will find a wall with a giant calendar consisting of the entire year. On this calendar Seinfeld places a big red “X” on every day that he writes down a joke. If he doesn’t write down a joke, he doesn’t get to mark an “X” on the calendar.

After several days in a row, the chain begins to grow. Then, the only objective is to “not break the chain”.

Although Seinfeld mentioned on reddit that this strategy was not developed by him, because he became a phenomenal success using this habit, it is often attributed to him.

Implementing this strategy is easy. Create a calendar for your first habit and start adding X’s to it. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you become obsessed (in a good way) with keeping the chain going.

5. Develop routines by stacking habits

After mastering one habit, it’s time to add the next.

Although people frequently state 21 days as the time necessary to build a habit, a study at the University College of London suggests that the actual amount of time necessary varies from as little as 20 days to well over 80.

Despite this varying timeframe necessary to fully develop a habit, after about a month you should be at a point where you can add on the next habit.

One of the smoothest ways to add the next habit to your routine is by stacking it on the other — making the end of the first habit the trigger for the next.

This is what I do everyday — as I mentioned above. My morning routine starts with exercise, meditation, and reading. I then follow up reading with a language lesson on Duolingo. Finally, I end my morning routine by creating a list of the top three things I wish to accomplish that day. This entire process takes me until close to 10 am — which makes being my own boss very nice.

This routine works well for me because I generally have more control over my mornings than my afternoons and evenings. But even if I get caught up in some project later in the day, I have already accomplished my essential tasks.

My personal schedule didn’t start with all of these morning activities at once. I’ve added new ones after mastering the previous. However, by placing all of these activities in one block of time, at the beginning of my day, it’s made adding new ones significantly less work.

If you want to rapidly grow your routine, find a way to connect habits together.

Conclusion

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Ben Franklin left a lot of flexibility in his daily calendar. He gave himself two hours for lunch and looking over his books, and several hours in the evening for socializing and reflecting on his day.

Overfilling your schedule will ruin your daily routine. Not only does overwork cause exhaustion, but it also prevents you from maintaining focus on your priorities.

Everyone uses habits to simplify their lives. However, those who live a life of purpose deliberately decide what their daily habits will be. Rather than letting others fill their schedule, they focus on the priorities that matter most to them.

Take a look at your current routine. Who’s controlling it? Is it you, your boss, your kids, the TV Guide? Clearly, you need to go to work and care for your kids, but make sure that you schedule time for those activities that matter most to you. After all, it is your calendar that reveals your true priorities.

Your life is built upon the single moments in each day. Today, are you spending those moments on what truly matters to you? If not, what could you do right now to become more deliberate about your daily routine?