Routines can get routine


It’s easy to get in a routine. Right now I’m in my normal commute: get up, head to the park and ride, and take a bus to Seattle. But routines can get routine.

A friend sent me an email today asking why I was having trouble maintaining a commitment to a project – it’s a 100 blog post challenge – and I realized that the reason was that the idea was not yet a daily task. But the sum of doing interesting and meaningful work is not just daily tasks – it’s creating actual value that you share with others.

So my routine has gotten too routine – in fact writing is the perfect way to introduce more thinking into my mornings and not just more task completion. Doing is necessary but not sufficient to create real value.

Routines are necessary too. Without them you wouldn’t reliably get from one place to another in a timely manner. And they are also a trap – complete the routine for too long without questioning it and it becomes a self-reinforcing loop that doesn’t take in enough information to expand and grow and change. Thanks, Mr. Spinks, for the reminder.

Make your commute into “go time”

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This essay is a contribution to the Startup Edition essay project. See other essays here.

At 7:30 every morning, where are you? Are you in traffic, or just getting into your car? The bus, the train, or the carpool can be your “go time”, combining getting to work with one of the most productive times of your day. You could spend the 30 minutes of the average commute reading a book, catching up on the latest Facebook posts, or get yourself ready to have a really productive day.

In my experience, having a routine for your morning removes choices, makes it easier to focus, and gives you a system that you can repeat and iterate upon to get continuous improvement in your routine to get better. All of our routines are different – here’s what I do to make the commute more effective. First, I review any urgent and important items that arrived via email overnight. Second, I review the list of items I thought were most important on the previous day. And third, I review the email digests and social pings that contain interesting news and articles of the day.

Reviewing urgent and important items is a given – and probably “table stakes” for most people – meaning just the ability to respond to the decisions that your team members are asking you to complete. What makes this activity great for the commute is that by responding to these items and making quick decisions, you train yourself to spend less time deliberating on “the perfect thing to do” and more time expressing “the best decision I can make right now with the information I have at the time.” If you can get more efficient with these decisions, you can make similar “bursts” of activity throughout your day. Time elapsed: 10 minutes.

Yesterday’s “most important items” are probably still important today, which is why you should make sure you got them done. Spending a few minutes to review the incomplete items from yesterday and mentally checking off what you will do to march those same things forward today is an excellent way to spend the next portion of your commute. If there are new items in the top of that list, you should put them there as well – having a stack-ranked list tells you where you should spend your time. Time elapsed: 20 minutes.

Finally, take a quick spin though the email digests you’ve probably received. If you don’t see a great link at least once a week, you might need to unsubscribe from that email list. Using a service like Sanebox will also help you to save time by sorting your email into convenient folders for bulk mail, top responders, and items you just want to deal with later. And you can also use a mail client like Mailbox to snooze anything you can’t review yet for your evening commute.

This routine won’t work for everyone (for example, those who are driving themselves to work), so here are the key takeaways to making your commute time your personal “Go Time”: 

  1. Pick something that you’re going to do every day – and make sure it help you perform at your best later in the day. Whether it’s listening to a podcast, looking out of the window, or responding to the most important requests from your team, you can get better at it.
  2. Follow that routine even when you don’t feel like it – there will be some days when you just want to play that new shiny game, or whatever the equivalent of the new shiny is in your life – and following your routine will help you to stay focused more often.
  3. Keep going. It’s not easy, and it pays dividends for the rest of your day if you can set a routine and stick to it. Your focus will help you respond when there are unexpected things later in your day.

This essay is a contribution to the Startup Edition essay project. See other essays here.


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