Routinize Yourself — Why Routines Will Make You Better at What You Do

Thierry Meier
The Essentialist
Published in
5 min readJun 9, 2015

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Jack Dorsey leads two of the fastest growing companies in the technology industry. It is not an easy task, but he makes it work. Dorsey developed a routine that frees him up of distractions and uncertainties. Every day he devotes himself to one area of his businesses, no exceptions.

Monday is for meetings and management tasks. Tuesday is explicitly reserved for product development. Wednesday is devoted to marketing, communications and growth. Thursday to developers and partnerships and Friday to the company and its culture.

Dorsey calls this approach theming days. It never leaves him with a question about what to focus on. Dealing with interruptions is also easy. He can just push away anything that does not fit in the day’s theme.

“There’s interruptions all the time, but I can quickly deal with an interruption and know ‘it’s Tuesday, I have product meetings, I have to focus on product stuff”. — Jack Dorsey

For Dorsey, his routine eliminates decisions on what to work on upfront. More importantly, the routine helps him build a shield for potential distractions. Dorsey frees himself from possible distractions and decision-fatigue. This framework allows him to focus on the essential things day-by-day.

Boost Effectivity — End Uncertainty

Everyone can benefit from creating routines and in any given area. People tend to get overwhelmed by the choices they have to make. Therefore, the more decisions you can eliminate upfront, the more mental resources you can free up to focus on the essential tasks. Routines do just that. Routines declutter your brain. Creating a routine means making decisions before instead of during the heat of a battle.

“In fact, the brain starts working less and less. The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.” — Charles Duhigg, Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown calls routines “one of the most powerful tools for removing obstacles” and without routines “the pull of nonessential distractions will overpower us”. Greg then goes on quoting Ray Zinn (founder and CEO of a successful semiconductor business):

“We already have too much to think about. Why not eliminate some of them by establishing a routine?”.

Again, the goal of routines should be to remove obstacles. Because such obstacles could hold you back from being your most effective self. Once you see that a certain routine works for you, you have built an environment to strive in. You can use the same routine over and over again, with complete confidence . This is something that American swimmer Michael Phelps did and later on won 22 olympic gold medals.

Obama: “Routinize Yourself”

In Francesco Marconi’s fantastic piece “Frankly Speaking: How I Found Purpose” he refers to a great article called Obama’s Way.

“You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

If Obama relies heavily on routines and you still don’t think it is a good idea, then something might be wrong with you. Jokes aside, he is spot on with his observations.

Change It Up If You Don’t See Results

Having won 22 olympic medals, it is safe to say that Michael Phelps’ routine works. This is not always immediately the case though. Routines can be both, constructive and destructive. They can also be good, better and exceptional. Thus it is important to actively question your routines and tweak them if necessary. It would be a shame if you’d establish a routine where you do your creative work at noon, only to find out later that you do your best creaive work in the morning.

Do not fall prey of narrow framing. That is focusing on just one routine or option (e.g. creative work in the morning) without widening your options.

Stick to a certain routine for an extended amount of time before you start to tweak or completely change it. Every routine takes time to settle in.

Add Buffers and Break the Rules

Don’t be a slave of your own routine. Routines that are directly tied to time only started to work for me once I added buffers. Your day never runs as smooth as you want it to be and chances are likely that you’ll be running a bit behind from time to time. As a rule of thumb, I am always adding buffers that are around 15% the size of the actual timeframe. For example, my mornings are made up of four hours of client work. This means that I am adding 15%, which results in 4.5h time window for client work.

This one is important. When I find myself being in the flow, I ruthlessly ignore my routines. This allows me to benefit from the increase productivity and creativity. It would be wrong to bend yourself to your routine in this case as it actually would make you less effective.

Take-away: Craft Your First Routine

Pick up your notebook and a pen and identify daily tasks you repeatedly do. Those are the activities where you can benefit from routines the most. Think day structure, what to wear, what to eat etc. Think about what decisions you can eliminate before you encounter them.

Then, clearly define what will be done and when — don’t be vague, be clear. As a general rule of thumb, the vaguer you are, the less likely you are going to stick to the routine.

By now you should already notice how much more relaxed you feel about the day to come. This is why “planing tomorrow, today” is sound advice. Start executing your routines and stick to them. Over time, they’ll become natural to you. Start with just one new routine at a time but be consistent instead.

Where I use Routines

I am using various routines to make my life simpler and more enjoyable:

  • Daily structure based on work, leisure time, reading, personal development.
  • Food intake (it feels so good not having to think about what to eat)
  • Work day structure (I pick five items I want to complete. I always plan it the evening before. I always leave buffer.)
  • Writing process
  • Product design process
  • Exercise

I observe my routines and their results for possible improvements on a weekly basis. Since I am utilising routines I find myself with a cluttered mind a lot less. But when I do, then taking a step back and reapplying focus is most often the solution.

What routines are you using to make your life simpler? Feel free to share them so everyone can get inspired.

For more writings about simplicity, focus and decision making, join my mailing list The Essentialist.

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Thierry Meier
The Essentialist

Product Designer. Digital Nomad. Creator of @betterdaysapp. Follow me on Twitter @thierrymeier_.