I Quit Daily Routines and Moved to a 168 Hour Cycle and My Productivity Increased
If daily routines don't work for you, there is an alternative.
It was 3 a.m., and I was holding two screaming babies.
Twin 10-month-old boys that refused to sleep. I had suffered through almost a year of sleep-deprived nights, and the worse part wasn't the lack of sleep. Or the money spent on coffee. It was the recurring advice from everyone:
You need to get them into a routine.
“Babies like routine.” “Have you tried a routine?” “What's their sleep routine?”
I know. Yes. They don't have one. I would reply.
There are books and books about how to get babies to sleep. Sleep schedules and minute by minute daily itineraries for them. It's like baby military. We bought them all and tried them all. None worked. We took them to sleep school. They failed twice.
It took a year before I said, Screw the routines, let's just play each day and night as it comes. And that worked.
Routines didn't work for them, and routines don't work for everyone. This may fly in the face of many articles outlining morning routines and evening routines. This is the routine Elon Musk/Tim Ferriss/Michelle Obama follows every morning. I’m not criticising these; they work for many people. But I want to write some words of encouragement and advice for those who can’t follow a routine.
This is what I learned when I decided not to follow a routine and how it can help you too.
The 24-Hour Trap
I have tried routines.
I am a professional writer and implemented several writing routines. I have a dad bod and try to keep fit, so I’ve tried fitness routines and diet routines. And I’ve discovered, much like my sons, that routines aren't a match for me. (I guess it’s in our genes.)
I keep seeing advice on the best morning routines and why successful people need them, and it got me down. Until I did research and found a method that worked for me. I have scrapped all daily routines and have become much happier as a result.
Productivity and time management expert Laura Vanderkam, the author of “What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast,” has said that while she has certain tasks she needs to achieve each day, she doesn't follow a strict routine. She believes that creating a routine can lead to a negative outcome, saying,
“People get so hung up on the idea of daily rituals that they just don’t do it at all.”
It can become what she terms a 24-hour trap. Whereby if you can’t achieve something every day, there is no point at all in trying.
Her recommendation is to look at things across a week. Where 24 hours can be limiting, 168 hours open things up. This would mean replacing the morning routine or daily schedule with a list of things that would need to be accomplished over a week.
For me, instead of saying I need to write from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. each day, or produce 2,000 words a day, I set a target for the week. This allows me to write in the morning or evening. Some days maybe 100 words and others maybe 5,000. The key is that I don't feel bound by a strict morning or daily routine for “success.”
I still have goals, but the longer time period and flexibility remove the pressure, and for me, increase the fun. I have researched this extensively and found other benefits in not following a routine.
Before we look at how to implement the 168-hour, let's examine why moving away from a strict daily routine may be a better option.
It Can Unleash Your Creativity.
A strict set routine can limit your creativity if you feel confined by a regimented schedule.
As a writer, I rely on inspiration and creativity to get the words to flow. A lot of this is based on my surroundings. I constantly move around my house and write in different rooms. Sometimes inside, sometimes outside. When possible, I go to various cafes, parks, and gardens.
This may seem blasphemous to many writers who have set hours and routines at which they type away at their desks. I read Stephen King's book, “On Writing,” in which he prescribes a set place to write and set hours. I tried this, and it simply didn't work for me. It inhibited my spark and sapped my passion, becoming too much of a job.
Wayne Dyer, an internationally renowned author of 21 bestsellers and speaker in the fields of self-development and spiritual growth, said,
If you choose to be aware of the inherent creativity that resonates deep within you…you’ll assist the birthing of new ideas, new accomplishments, new projects and new ways of understanding your life.”
Annie Paul, author of “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart” wrote in Time Magazine, “The way most of us spend our mornings is exactly counter to the conditions that neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us to promote flexible, open-minded thinking.” This is the opposite of what the morning routine is supposed to do.
Personally, to release my creativity, I needed to be free of the writing routine and mix things up.
Spontaneity Can Be Enlivening
Routines can be boring and by nature are repetitive. Predictability dampens enthusiasm. Nothing has hammered this point home harder than COVID-19. Life became Groundhog Day under quarantine, and we fell into set routines.
There is a need to break free of a routine — the feeling of freedom and autonomy needs to pervade. As Lisa Firestone says in Psychology Today, “Seeking out and actively choosing novelty helps us feel more alive, engaged, and attuned to ourselves and others.”
Being spontaneous can keep your mind sharp by taking you out of your comfort zone. It can also help alleviate stress.
Not scheduling activities in advance could actually be a good thing according to a study from the Journal of Marketing Research. Planning each part of the day in advance can remove the fun from them and make them all seem like work.
“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it is lethal.” Paulo Coelho
Freedom Can Be Motivating
Going back to the task of writing, there have been studies showing that writing each day doesn't necessarily improve output. Dr. Cal Newport, who published his research into scheduling in the book “Deep Work,” found that in an age of distraction, it’s not the frequency of work that leads to productivity and satisfaction but the depth and level of concentration we can achieve.
For me, when I forced myself to write from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., the time passed slowly, and I was unproductive. The confinement and pressure of the three hours didn't help my work.
A rigid routine was affecting my motivation. If, for some reason, I didn't stick to my routine, even just once, I was negatively affected and demotivated. The routine was just ticking a box each day, writing for three hours — tick. The quality of my work didn't improve; in fact, it was worse.
The False Perfect Routine
This can, however, place more pressure on people. Gordon Flett, a personality researcher at York University, studies “perfectionist presentation” — which is how people present the perfect version of themselves online and how it influences others. He raises concerns over the mental health benefits of feeling the pressure to follow suit.
I’m concerned about people seeing the way things are for other people and thinking they really have to do the same thing, and they don’t take into account necessarily some of the constraints and realities that they have to deal with. People are sitting there going, ‘I need to be perfect. Other people are doing it; I’m not. It’s attainable, but I’m not that way.’ And they get locked into a very self-critical pattern.”
How the 168-Hour Plan Worked for Me
Just like my two infant sons, routines didn't work for me. But when I read about Laura Vanderkam's 168-hour plan, I decided to try it for a month and see how it went.
Before I take you through what I do, I want to reinforce a point that works for me. I removed the word “week” from this method. So I always refer to it as a 168-hour cycle. Again this was a small psychological trick I was playing with myself to move it away from the perception of a daily routine. I didn't want to see this as a seven-day routine block.
With that in mind, here is the checklist I went through:
Plan what I wanted to achieve for the cycle
I broke this down into my work/writing goals, my fitness goals, and any other personal things I needed to accomplish.
- Work: This was broken down into writing and sales/marketing (which is an important part of writing). I wanted to produce a certain amount of content, and I settled on five finished articles for the cycle. I deliberately avoided choosing seven as that would work out to one a day, and as mentioned a daily routine just didn't sit with me. I also had a set amount of Sales and Marketing I wanted to achieve. This involved looking at opportunities to promote myself, networks, social media, and associations. Approaching editors and corporate clients for new work.
- Fitness: That dad bod needed to be kept in check. I have a rowing machine, so I decided on four rowing sessions for my cycle. Complimented by 10 walks with my dog. I also wanted to limit my alcohol and bad food intake, so I allowed myself three free passes to indulge in one (or both together!).
- Personal: I wanted to ensure my mental health was in check and continue with my breathing and positive affirmations that I had been working on. I shifted these from daily and planned them around my fitness and work. Before each writing session, I would practice my positive affirmations. And after each exercise stint, I would focus on my breathing exercises.
I knew that shifting these from daily to cycle (and task-based) was a shift, but I wanted to go all-in on my new method.
These were the main tasks that needed to be accomplished in each cycle.
Permit myself to adapt
Once my list for the cycle was complete I made a promise to myself. These were my goals, and I needed to achieve them. But it wasn't life or death. I said out loud to myself that I would try my best to achieve. Three times.
I practice positive affirmations. This was a spinoff of that. I wanted to remove the pressure and burden of a routine while acknowledging to myself it needed to be achieved if possible.
Start the week at midday Tuesday
Twelve p.m. on a Tuesday? Seems ridiculous, right? This arbitrary rule I set for myself to distance my new format from a strict routine. Starting it on a Monday morning felt like too much like a seven-day, daily routine. And I wanted to move my mindset as far as possible from that.
I needed to frame this new schedule as a 168-hour block and the random time chosen made this happen.
Review and revise
At the end of the 168-hour cycle, I would review my efforts.
- Did I achieve my goals?
- Did I have fun?
- Do I believe I was more productive and creative than before?
- How would I rate my well-being?
Hopefully, I answered yes to the first three and great to the fourth and would then move onto the next cycle. It also reminds me of what I have achieved and what I can do again. Marquita Herald, author and resilience coach says, “Acknowledging your achievements, even in a small way, increases positive emotions such as self-respect, happiness, and confidence.”
I wanted to acknowledge my efforts before moving onto the next cycle.
The First 168 Hours
It was an average Tuesday in May when I began my first 168-hour session. As time ticked down, I found myself more productive than anticipated. Every day was different.
Wednesday I went for a long walk and had a coffee. I didn't start writing until after lunch.
Thursday started with an early morning row, and I wrote before I had breakfast.
Friday I spent on admin working on my laptop in my backyard and was finished by 4 p.m. with a Happy Hour beer.
Saturday I wrote for a couple of hours and then went on a hike with my family.
The freedom helped my writing. I looked forward to it each day. It also helped my fitness as I rowed three times in the first three days. Not being locked into a daily routine somehow made me want to row more.
My partner even commented to me that I seemed more positive. It seriously felt like a rebirth. And all I did was remove the daily routine albatross around my neck.
At the end of the first cycle, I asked myself the questions listed above. With a smile on my face, I answered a resounding yes to the first three. And a triumphant I feel great to the last question.
Onto to cycle two!
Round 2, 3, and 4
The key to any new idea or activity is to ensure long-term success. With a diet, you want to keep the weight off, not yo-yo up and down. One cycle does not make a successful change so I needed to ensure it could be a long term plan for me.
The next three weeks — or should I say three blocks of 168 hours — went just as well as the first. Every day was completely different, and each 168-hour block was different. I was also achieving my goals in advance and writing and exercising more.
Often my day was dictated by the weather. If it were sunny, I would write outside or meet a friend for a walk and coffee. Rain would see me adjust.
I was adapting. One night, my partner and I watched “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook.” It looked like fun so the next day we went to the market bought ingredients they recommended and spent an afternoon cooking. This would never have fit into my daily routine, but there was ample time in my 168 hours.
My Groundhog Days had ended, and I was free.
If routines work for you, then, by all means, stick to them. But if they don't, and if you can't get into the groove of a routine, then you need to break free from them.
If they make you anxious as they made me, then don't stress. Don't feel the pressure of following the perfect routines of highly successful people who have different conditions and realities to yourself. Removing the pressure of a daily routine can be invigorating. Escaping the 24-hour trap worked for me.
I moved to the 168-hour plan, which is less of a routine and more a way of keeping myself accountable. Just try the 168-hour plan for a few cycles and see how it works. It’s been over five months for me and my productivity has improved as have my physical and mental health.
Hopefully, it inspires and motivates you, just like it has done for me.
“Daily rituals are great, but they are not the only way to make things happen. By being creative and looking at all 168 hours in a week, we can often find space for more things than we think. The 24-hour trap limits possibilities. Looking at 168 hours opens things up.” — Laura Vanderkam