Time to upgrade — How to build a winning routine?

I am one of those people who fails to stick to a routine. I come up with plans to achieve different goals. But within a few weeks, other “urgent” things come up, derailing the plan. Soon, I am falling back to the old habits — spending days without accomplishing much. It has been a constant struggle.

But, something has clicked this time. The routines seem to be working. The blocks of time that I have set aside for different works are followed through on. From checking emails to writing. From practicing for an ultra marathon to reading, project work, etc.

So, what is different this time?

Before I go into the details, let us look into four concepts:

1.Shortness of life: We on average live around 4000 weeks. And we squander most of it. We want to achieve big things in life. Our ambition is limitless. However, this pursuit of happiness results in us ignoring what is truly important. First century AD Roman philosopher Seneca wrote:

This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily, and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.

You can find the complete letter here:

It is an interesting concept. Many authors through centuries have talked about the limited time we have. Here is a modern day view of the time we have to live:

2.Mindfulness (focus): We are starved of focus. Social media and millions of other commitments continue to sneak up on us. A scientific study has indicated that our attention span is now at eight sec., lower than a goldfish which has an attention span of nine sec. We used to have a twelve-second attention span in 2010…

Attention Span Statistics - Statistic Brain

Why is mindfulness practice necessary?

It helps boost happiness, decreases stress and improves life. Here is an abstract from a scientific journal. It explains how mindfulness impacts life in a positive way by improving focus.

Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindful... : Psychosomatic Medicine

3.Happiness: What is the meaning of life if we are not happy? What drives our passion for hard work or be helpful to others?

We believe that we will be happy if we can achieve a certain amount of wealth. We will be happy if we dedicate our life to build a spaceship or spend our time helping others find meaning.

We do things that we hope will make us happy, if not now, after some time.

Is there a formula for happiness?

If you search for, “How to be happy?” Google generates 257m results in 0.58 seconds. There are many views out there. What most of the medical journals agree on is that happiness should be practiced daily. It does not have to wait on the achievement of individual results. It can be a daily habit. Here is what the Mayo Clinic says about the ways to be happy:

How to be happy: Tips for cultivating contentment - Mayo Clinic

One key learning is to train the mind to enjoy the moment.

To be able to enjoy what we are doing right now rather than waiting for the results of our actions.

4.Time management: The idea of time management goes a long way back. Seneca admonished his fellow Roman for wasting time “by baking body in the sun.” I guess that is a natural reaction once you are aware of how short life is.

During the Industrial Revolution, people started moving from free worker to employee-employer relationship. Counting time to pay wages became necessary. Taylor introduced this concept in a factory setting. He showed how much more could be produced by each worker if they did not waste time and worked more. The workers were not happy.

This concept of individual productivity came about by a consultant named Ivy Lee. He was asked by Charles Schwab, president of Bethelhem Steel, to help improve the productivity of his executives. Mr. Lee came up with the idea that the executives should make a list every night of the six most important tasks they wanted to achieve the next day. The executives then needed to follow the lists, starting from the top. This method was put in practice for three months. There was such a dramatic improvement in results that the steel magnet paid $400k (in today’s money) to Mr. Lee.
There are many stories about Benjamin Franklin, as well. He wrote and practiced efficiency as a benchmark for personal and professional goals. Franklin is even credited with introducing the phrase “time is money.

Let us thread the concepts together.

We all want to be happy. The way to be happy is to live a life of meaning — not some grand meaning but to accept the idea that the way we spend every moment is the way our life’s worth is determined.

And the way to do this is to live a mindful life. Enjoy each moment. Focus on one task at a time. Cherish the life and die with a sense of fulfillmentA life not wasted with meaningless activities, despite the shortness of it.

So, how to make the minutes of your life enjoyable?

After many trials and experiments, the following seems to be working for me:

1.Build a morning routine: These are the activities that you do to frame the rest of the day. Many personalities of history have practiced it over time. Here are some highlights:

The Morning Routines Of The Most Successful People

What works for me is waking up by 6 am in the morning. My morning ritual starts with meditation followed by a short exercise (to fully wake up the body), Morning Journal (writing down anything that comes to mind) and working on my blog for one hour. This ritual is adapted from the practice of Tim Ferriss, and I am still experimenting. One area of struggle for me is email. I wake up to hundreds of emails overnight. It is difficult to resist the temptation to check to find out what is happening in my world.

There are a couple of key learnings in developing and sticking to a morning ritual.

First, make it consistent. Wake up at the same time every day and follow the activities without a second thought. Second, get a difficult task out of the way. It is known as “eating the frog.” The idea is to get something done that will be difficult the later part of the day. For me, it is writing blogs. Third, do not indulge in social media or email for the first few hours. The moment we open our Facebook or open our email, our time has been taken over by others. It will be difficult to get this productive time back. Fourth, experiment. Different people use different rituals. Find which one works for you. Which one makes you feel accomplished by the time you head off to the office.

2.Use blocks of time: It is now scientifically proven that our mind cannot completely switch from one task to the next. It compromises the quality of work. When we try to multitask, we end up producing low-quality work and wasting time in the process. The only exception is listening to music. We can listen to music and improve focus on activities like writing or running. The reason, according to Clifford Nass of Stanford, is that we use different parts of our brain while listening to music. You can read more details here:

Interviews - Clifford Nass | Digital Nation | FRONTLINE | PBS

Cal Newport, another professor at Stanford, wrote a fascinating book titled Deep Work. He outlined how we can get ourselves doing high-quality work by blocking a reasonable amount of time and focusing on one task during that block. Here is a blog post on how he does it every day.

Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day

I have found this very effective. I spend few minutes every night to block my time the next day. Blocking time for morning ritual, checking emails, exercise, etc..
The idea is to stick to the block as much as possible and not let other works overflow the slots. For example, once you have blocked time for checking emails, do not continue to check emails after that block of time. If you have blocked a time for physical exercise, ensure that you are in the gym, even if you do not feel like it.

3.Social Media/Apps/Mobile Gaming: These are designed to be addictive. A mobile phone is like carrying a gaming machine from a casino in our pocket. We check mobile phones in an average 120 times a day. Social media algorithm continues to reinforce our belief and value system. It sends news to our feed that we will like to read, creating a cycle of reinforcement and addiction. Around 500 million tweets are sent every day or 300 hours of video uploaded every minute on YouTube.

Psychology of Social Networks: What makes us addicted?

The apps we use are designed to be addictive — from email to gaming. Read about it here:

The Science Behind Mobile Gaming Addiction

It is like a black hole as far as time is concerned. The way to counter is using dedicated blocks of time mentioned before. We need to stop access to the addictive apps during the block of time. Ironically, I use another app Forest to counter these apps. Forest stops all notifications and access to the apps that you chose. It helps to maintain focus during the block of time. There are few other apps that serve the same purpose.

4.Exercise: Build a block for physical exercise every day. Depending on your goal, this may be a light or intense routine. The benefits are now proven beyond doubt. But the challenge is to build the habit. My suggestion is to start slow and improve with small increments. Do not try to go all in. Also, have a target. For example, make a commitment to do a 5k run in 3 months time. According to recent research, it takes 66 days to build a habit. The trick is to ensure that we stick to the routine long enough to develop the habit.

5.Cheat day: Have a day each week to reward yourself for sticking to the routine for the week. It may be a day where you allow yourself more flexibility around the routine. Cheat days have been proven helpful to form a habit whether it is diet or exercise. Build one in your routine.

And that is how I am sticking to my routine. Please do experiment with different options and find what works for you. Once you find the formula, ensure that you continue the practice long enough till it becomes a habit.

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