Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.
― W. H. Auden
One common characteristic of many successful people is that they fill their days with well-defined routines. These routines, when done intentionally, are what allow people to grow their skills and capabilities to the point where they stand out from others in their particular field.
Last year, I came across a passage in the book Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, a fascinating, funny, and—since it’s Vonnegut—sometimes freaky book that takes you inside the mind of the famous author. The quote below comes from a letter he wrote to his wife Jane, in which he describes his daily routine:
In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten.
Benjamin Franklin is also famous for his routine, which he meticulously tracked in a daily log. Franklin based his routine on two main questions: At the beginning of the day, he asked himself, what good shall I do today? At the end of the day, he asked, what good have I done today? In other words, Franklin would decide what he wanted to accomplish for the day first thing in the morning, then in the evening, he would reflect on how successful he had been.
Reflection (along with gratitude, as I previously discussed) is a key attribute of leadership success. Reflection forces you to look back at your processes and results and, most importantly, provides the introspection and analysis to improve your routine and performance. Reflecting at the end of the day turns common habits into an intentional routine. It gives you an awareness of your routines and makes you purposeful about what you do throughout your day.
Every evening, you should look back at your day and ask how your routine affected your performance for the day. You should ask how effective your task selection itself is, as well as how your routine can be improved to better support task completion. Answering these questions converts simple habits into an intentional, high-performing routine, which is unquestionably worth a few minutes of your time each evening.
To tie all of the productivity points together, here’s what my routine has looked like for the last couple years. (Yes, being a morning person helps!)
4:00 a.m. – Wake (without an alarm!) and immediately meditate for 25 minutes.
4:30 a.m. – Eat breakfast, read The Wall Street Journal, review and take quick action on emails from overnight,
5:00 a.m. – Review my journal, determine and record the Big Three Things for the day, record gratitude and write down any other thoughts.
5:15 a.m. – Begin the Hour of Power with the most difficult of the Big Three Things.
6:15 a.m. – Go to the gym for an hour. Strength work three days a week, cardio and CrossFit class three days a week, one day of rest.
7:30 a.m. – Say good morning to my wife! Connect and discuss the day. Communication and respect!
7:55 a.m. – Go into the office. (Yes, I’m lucky—my office is at home.)
8:00 a.m. – Handle any necessary early discussions with the team. Otherwise, continue working on the Big Three Things.
8:30 a.m. – Morning video conference with the team.
8:45 a.m. – Begin pomodoro sequence until 11:30am, turning off distractions and taking a break every 50 minutes. After the Hour of Power, this is my most productive time.
11:30 a.m. – Break for lunch. Get out of the office, perhaps take a kinhin meditation on the beach or a half-hour nap.
12:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. – This is my least productive time of the day, so I try to schedule phone calls and other non- project work during this time. I will also run personal errands if necessary.
5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. – Eat dinner with my wife. Focus on mindfully connecting. No computer, phone, or television!
7:00 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. – Catch up on reading. I’ve found it very difficult to work on projects at this time, so I use it to read something different.
9:30 p.m. – Reflect on the day, sometimes on the back patio under the stars. Review my journal and make initial plans for tomorrow.
10:00 p.m. – To bed.