In my last post, I commented on a strategy that highly successful people use to free up mental energy for the things that matter. This post continues on that theme, offering up specific tactics that have worked for me.
As a full-time academic, my schedule can be quite hectic. And I only control certain parts of it. The timetable of my courses each semester are assigned, not chosen. I end up with gaps and complexity in my day that I can’t renegotiate. In addition, I value being available to my students. This means keeping as much of my day open to “invited interruptions” that otherwise hamstring my creativity.
Find Freedom in Routines
Routines offer a simple way to save mental energy and accomplish the tasks that mean the most to us. You should establish at least three routines, and a set of life-simplifying habits to support them.
An Evening Routine: set yourself up for a productive day tomorrow.
Make low-value decisions at the end of the day, while you’re too tired to add significant value anyhow. Many of the decisions that people put off for the morning can be made in about 5 minutes each evening.
Select your outfit for the next day. Match your clothes hang them in a separate part of the closet. I could dress myself in complete darkness each morning!
Other key decisions to make at night include:
*Choosing and making your lunch
*Selecting the to-do items that you intend on completing tomorrow and ranking them in order of priority.
*Closing all programs on your laptop except for those you need open for your first task of the day (which I intentionally choose as the most important one).
The clarity this gives in the morning is incredible!
A Morning Routine: set yourself up each day to make productivity default.
According to Dan Miller, 44% of high income earners wake up at least 3 hours before work each day. Compare that to the 3% of low income earners who do the same. Its no accident. Waking up early is key to engaging your brain for the day’s work.
What are they doing with that time? Investing in themselves. Jon Acuff says in Start.
Be selfish at 5:00 am.
Take your mornings to focus on five key areas of personal development.
- Wake up, water, and quiet time. I start each morning at 5:00 am by drinking a large glass of cool water while reading and meditating about spiritual growth for 30 minutes.
Coffee and non-fiction reading. Next, I spend 30 minutes reading a non-fiction book while drinking a cup of coffee. Just imagine if you read a book each month on a single topic that is important to you. In 2 years you will undoubtedly be an expert: how many people do you know who have read 24 books on any single topic?
Platform development. I spend 30 minutes each morning reading blog posts, sharing thoughts on social media, engaging with my tribe. We live in a time when anyone can speak to a large audience. But it takes daily effort. In social media, Inconsistent is Invisible.
Exercise. In our busy world, it is way too easy to put this off. Spend a half hour maintaining your body, or risk finding yourself in the hospital wishing you had.
Wash, eat and dress. I spend the last half hour of my morning routine washing, eating, and dressing. This flows like clockwork: I take the same toiletries out of the same travel bag, and put them back. That way, when I travel I feel at home standing in front of a hotel mirror. I eat a bowl of cereal (selected from just two options in my pantry) and a cup of greek yogurt (selected at random from the few flavors I enjoy). Lastly, I put on the outfit that I chose last night in about 3 minutes.
When I get to my office, my goal is to have made no new decisions this morning. I sit down, open my computer, and dive in to the first task which is already keyed up from last night.
As a final note here, I can’t overemphasize the importance of starting each morning by completing your most important task. This is the best chance you have of making meaningful progress before something (or someone) completely derails your day.
A Weekly Routine: Keep it all running.
Unfortunately, everything falls off the rails if certain things don’t happen each week. We need groceries. We need clean clothes. I have a weekly routine to decide what I’ll eat for breakfast and lunch (again once, rather than 5 times), wash my clothes, and lay out the outfits I’ll wear to work. Lastly, I perform my weekly review.
A weekly review is so important that I’ll save the details for another post. For now, I’ll just say that its crucial once a week to spend 30 minutes:
(adopted from David Allen’s Getting Things Done)
- Collecting loose papers and materials
- Emptying your head
- Emptying all inboxes
- Reviewing action lists
- Reviewing previous and future calendar data
- Reviewing your “waiting for” lists
- Reviewing your project lists
- Reviewing your goals
This is simple, but crucial. I always put my credit cards in the same place in my wallet. Always. I always put my wallet, keys, work badge in the same place in the house. Always. I spend zero energy looking for my things each day, because they have a place and its just as easy to put them there as anywhere.
Make a habit out of things like this. Don’t set yourself up for frantic searching as you’re trying to leave the house. If there is something you have to do every day (such as feeding the dog), you shouldn’t have to figure out every day how and when you’re going to do it.
Freedom in Routines?
It may sound drab, but I have never felt more free. Every day I wake up at the same time, do the same things, in the same order. The only thing that’s different: what I am thinking about.
When you have no routine, everything is different. You wake up at different times, do different things, in a different order. The only thing that’s the same: what you’re thinking about.
You’re thinking about what you should eat, what you should wear, what time you should leave, if you have time to do this or that before catching the train. Rather than spend time engaging with something meaningful you’re stuck on the merry go round: making the same decisions again and again, day after day.
Are you burning mental energy each day on low-value repetitive decisions? What could you use that energy for if you didn’t have to make those decisions every day? Leave a comment below.