Essential Life: A Realistic Routine in 5 Steps
There's a simple process to creating a realistic daily routine that starts with living each day intentionally.
External stimuli often dictates how we plan and navigate our day. Think about it. It's likely that the demands of your work priorities, family obligations, and social commitments add a plethora of complexities to your daily schedule. I also bet that you put pressure on yourself to make it all work and assume the worse if you fail to do it all.
But have you ever considered that you may have a choice in how your day flows? A choice that's not about downloading dozens of productivity apps or packing every hour of your calendar with a to-do?
The simple solution? Be more intentional in what you want out of the day and more thoughtful in planning. Here's how in 5 steps ...
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1. Determine Your PrioritY
Greg McKeown, author of the book "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less" clarifies the definition of priority:
When the word priority came into the English language in the 1400s, it was singular. Think for a moment: What did it mean? The answer is the prior or very first thing. What’s interesting is it stayed singular for the next 500 years. It wasn’t until the 1900s that we came up with the pluralized term and started using the word priorities.
Do you ever start the day without assessing what matters the most? If you take the time to consider what matters do you find it hard to edit, often ending up with a laundry list of "priorities"? If you want to own your day, instead of it owning you, then you must exercise awareness, clarity, and focus.
First, you need to be aware of yourself—your desires and ideal lifestyle and how that might manifest in a typical day. From there comes clarity—about what you do and do not care about. Clarity, then, allows you to have focus so you can prioritize and efficiently allocate your time, effort, and resources to what matters most.
2. Make Your Modules
Do you ever look at the clock and wonder where the day has gone and what you have to show for it? Or maybe you rush from appointment to appointment and task to task never feeling like you’re actually accomplishing anything meaningful.
There are natural transitions in the day that you can work with to break your schedule into manageable sections. Creating a modular structure entails keeping similar activities grouped within pre-determined time blocks so you can be more efficient and focused.
You can use these blocks to your advantage by evaluating your priorities and other demands and considering the best time in the day to situate them.
For example, if you work an office job, perhaps your day naturally breaks down like this:
In this case, maybe it makes more sense to try and schedule all meetings in the morning so you can use the afternoon to work on action items uninterrupted. Being focused in the afternoon might allow you to make more progress and stop work from spilling over into the evening so you can actually get a few errands and personal tasks done before going home. That then means you're less likely to be up late at night losing sleep because you’re panicking about the many things left incomplete.
This is just an example but do you see the logic? It sounds overly idealistic until you actually execute this method and see the benefits of putting tasks in their proper place. If your day is not strategically charted out then you risk being all over the place, exerting energy inefficiently, and never feeling satisfied with the outcomes of your effort.
Having some kind of structure will yield more favorable results than haphazardly navigating the day.
3. Find the Friction
We all have certain situations, people, or habits that threaten our ability to stay on track—be it personal procrastination, an intrusive boss, or even a draining volunteer role we accepted without thinking of the implications.
Even when you've determined your priorities and modularized your day, these big time consumers can completely derail your ability to adhere to a well thought-out schedule. So it's important to put a plan in place (upfront) for how you're going to handle them.
If you need to have a candid conversation with your boss about her tendency to throw random work on your plate, then do it. If you have to graciously pull out of that volunteer activity because it interferes with more meaningful interests you want to devote time to, then do it.
This is the point where you have to take bold inspired action so that the passage of your schedule is much more aligned with your ideal day.
4. Guard the Gaps
When you see a 30-minute opening in your calendar are you often compelled to put something there? Do you start the workday with a few free slots only to have them booked with meetings against your will?
The biggest routine-busting culprit is not being able to resist the urge to fill breaks and downtime with a task, activity, or meeting—or allowing someone else to.
You will never be able to stay consistent if you jam-pack every available minute. You can't perform at your best if you don't allow some time to recharge before transitioning to the next task or activity.
Even if it means blocking free time in your calendar so colleagues can’t’ see that there’s an opening, do what you have to do to protect those precious pauses. Use the free time to meditate, take a walk, stretch, or whatever helps you feel refreshed before continuing on.
5. Streamline the Superficial
There are many major and minor activities we need to engage in to make it through the day. However, the non-essentials shouldn't be given more energy than the priority.
An example: spending an exorbitant amount of time getting ready in the morning is an issue for a lot of people. If you stare blankly at your closet for 30 minutes overwhelmed by the myriad of subpar options then you're allowing a small activity to get you frazzled before you even make it out the door. In this case, creating a capsule wardrobe or even wearing a daily uniform could be a great solution.
Even if it's not stressing over what to wear, it may be deliberating too long on what to eat for lunch, or wasting time on social media. There are probably inconsequential things that you give more time and consideration to than they deserve. Identify and eliminate these routine busters.
Before you embark on your 5-step daily routine process, try to monitor yourself for a full week. You want to be self-aware and fully cognizant of the realities of your day-to-day so you have a clear idea of activities and tasks you want to start, keep, and stop.
Despite the concept's popularity, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to crafting a daily routine. If you force-fit yourself into someone else’s way of doing things you’ll ultimately fail. It's better to use a solid process that helps you craft and refine a realistic routine, slowly but surely getting you closer to your unique idea of a perfect day.
I originally wrote a shorter version of this editorial for a feature on Minimalism Life. I adjust my routine often (sometimes every month) so that it aligns with my goals and priorities. You can read more of my ideas and methods in the Morning Routine and Luxury Routine editorials.
Essential Life is an ongoing series about using productivity and organizations tools to focus on the things and activities that matter most.