Brooks Duncan recently presented the session “Daily Routines Can Help You Be More Productive and Live a Happier Life” at CPABC’s PD Nexus: Business and Leadership Insights virtual conference on July 7. A recording of the session will be available on the PD website by July 15, 2022.
I’m not sure when I fell out of the habit of reading. It could have been while raising two boys. It might have been during a career transition. Or maybe it simply happened over time.
Whatever the reason, it was while attending a conference in California that I realized I’d lost my reading habit. As the breakout speaker praised the book Never Lose a Customer Again by Joey Coleman1 and the audience nodded knowingly, I seemed to be the only one who’d never heard of it. As someone who’d always made a point of reading dozens of books and magazines a year, I was astonished. In that moment, I realized that, somewhere along the line, my reading had been reduced to emails, work reports, and social media posts.
I was determined to start reading books again, so when I returned home, I dusted off my Kindle, downloaded a book, and started reading. The next day, I read again. Success! The day after that, I had a busy day and was too tired. The day after that… well, you can see where this is going. My new reading habit lasted all of two days.
I knew I needed a different approach. If there was something in my work or personal life that I wanted to prioritize—something I wanted to do every day that was important to me but not necessarily urgent—I needed to make it automatic. So I started by noting the things I did during the day, as well as the things I wanted to do but didn’t do consistently. Then I defined a series of intentional and realistic daily routines, recognizing how powerful these can be, and figured out how I could fit reading back into my schedule.
Why intentional daily routines are so powerful
If the idea of creating defined, intentional routines in your work and life sounds constricting, consider the words of author James Clear: “Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it. It’s only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity.”2
A daily routine is simply a collection of habits that you do every single day. You likely have a series of daily routines that you aren’t even fully aware of—for example, things you do automatically when getting ready in the morning, starting your workday, or winding down in the evenings.
Making activities intentional means shutting off autopilot and consciously creating daily habits that increase productivity and generate happiness—while also getting rid of the habits that stand in our way.
Think of what you do throughout the day. How much are you doing because it’s truly important, and how much are you doing just because it’s “urgent” to someone else? Making things that are important to you a part of your daily routines will enable you to make progress.
In part, this is because it will help ensure consistency. If you only go to the gym, clear your inbox, or read books occasionally, these practices will have limited impact. Habits produce results because of consistency.
Having intentional, consistent daily routines also provides an opportunity for habit stacking, which means tying something you want to do with something you’re already doing. For example, if you take the SkyTrain or bus to the office, you could get off a stop or two early to fit in a morning walk. Or as you get ready to turn off your computer at the end of the workday, you could take a moment to write down one thing you want to get done tomorrow.
Making certain activities habitual will also free up your mental energy for more high-level activities. My son is currently learning to drive, and everything he does in the car requires a huge amount of concentration and mental energy. I have been driving for over 30 years, so most of the process is automatic for me—I don’t need to actively think about when to signal for a turn, for example, so I’m able to focus more attention on what’s coming up ahead. Habits build skill, and skill-building reduces your cognitive load.3 Consciously creating positive daily routines also means that you can start your day off on the right foot. Studies have shown4 that starting the morning with a positive mindset will affect how you feel and perform through the rest of the day. Knowing this, you can introduce elements to your morning routine, such as a gratitude practice, to positively affect your mood.
How to find time for new daily routines
Here’s the good news: Daily routines don’t have to be complicated or time consuming. Now here’s the slightly less good news: We’re all swamped. It’s difficult to find time to even think about creating new routines, let alone implement them. Ultimately, there’s only one true solution to make any lasting positive change: We need to make time.
A common mistake many of us make is trying to jam an ideal routine into an unrealistic schedule: “I’m going to wake up, do yoga, plan my day, read a chapter of a book, call a friend to stay in touch, and meal plan. Then I’m going to get the kids up, take them to school, have a Zoom meeting with the London office, and phone the senior care home to discuss my parents’ medications. All before 10 a.m.”
Something needs to give.
The first thing to do is to look at the general time you want to devote to your new habit and see what you already have going on. Move and adjust what you can. Start small. Choose one activity that, if you do it every day, will improve your physical health, your emotional health, your relationships, your leadership, and/or your productivity. Ideally, tie this one activity to things you already do. Then:
- Write it down and decide that you’re going to start tomorrow.
- Set an alarm, a recurring task, or a calendar event to do it at a specific time.
- Create a visual cue to serve as a reminder.
- Pick a realistic time duration. Only have 20 reliable minutes? Your new habit will need to take up 20 minutes or less. You may find that you need to adjust your sleep schedule to make time for this new practice.
Once you’ve established your new habit (typically it takes at least a week), you can consider expanding your routine to include another one. Over time, you’ll be able to create a set of consistent, positive habits that improve your life every single day.
Be consistent and roll with the punches
No matter how well you plan your daily routines, there will always be disruptions. Things will come up, life will get in the way, and priorities will change.
It’s not a big deal if you skip a day, but skip two days and you risk losing your momentum. So here are some questions to ask yourself before the inevitable disruption occurs:
- What are the non-negotiables that I must do every day?
- What can I drop if necessary? Can I postpone it, or does it need to be dropped for that day and that day only?
- Is there a shorter version of my routine that I can use when needed?
When I changed my morning routine to include reading time, I decided that reading was one of my “non-negotiables”—no matter what, I was going to read for 20 minutes every morning. That has since expanded to 30 minutes a day. Does it always happen first thing in the morning? No. Disruptions happen. However, for four years straight I have read every single day, and now I’m usually the one supplying the book recommendations.
Brooks Duncan is the host of The Productivity Show, a top productivity podcast, and the COO of Asian Efficiency, a leading productivity training company. His background includes being a software developer and the director of client services for a large multinational firm. For more of Brooks’ insights, check out his blog.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of CPABC in Focus.
1 Joey Coleman, Never Lose A Customer Again, Portfolio/Penguin: 2018.
2 James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, Avery: 2018.