At the time this article is being written and published, the world is going through a rough time, to say the least. An effective routine seems the last thing people worry about.
Economic crisis, lack of social interaction, concern that we won’t be getting out of this situation in a reasonable period of time, risk of losing the job or actually having already lost it… so yeah, things are not going really well.
Even though we finally have the “free” time we desired so much and can finally dedicate more time to our passions, hobbies, and personal projects, it’s (not) surprisingly easier said than done.
During this quarantine, our sense of time is nowhere to be found. Some (many) of us waste all day doing nothing. All we do is watch countless TV series, playing countless games, and read the most recent news countless times.
Heck, some friends of mine are so lost that lately they don’t even have enough willpower to go to sleep at night! Instead, they sit on their couch/chair/bed contemplating the ceiling until 4 am, literally doing nothing but watching the damn ceiling!
Yup, things are definitely not great.
And unfortunately, the current world situation is probably going to last quite a while. Maybe the quarantine will not last for too long, but for things to go back to “normal” (see: world before pandemic) we’ll likely have to wait at least until next year or the one after that, if not more. And even then, the effects of this crisis on countries all over the world will probably persist for much longer. Of course, I would be glad in case my predictions were to be proven to be wrong, but based on the current situation, it’s better to be prepared for things to go the other way.
Forgive me for sounding so negative! I assure you that I’m an optimistic person (a little too optimistic, according to my brother), but I believe that the first step to avoid being overwhelmed by the reality around us is to acknowledge it. Because even if you ignore it, it’s still there. You can’t run from it.
What you can do, instead, is to take control of your life and focus on what you can actually do something about, and stop worrying too much about what you can’t control. Whether you give in to desperation or not, the world and life around you will go on and change regardless.
We will certainly get out of this. The problem is not if, it’s when.
So what can we do in the meanwhile to keep our sanity and protect our mental health?
The answer is to…
Let Routine “Trap” You
That’s right. You need to willingly decide to put yourself in the routine “trap”.
I know, it’s a normally counterintuitive approach.
Normally you would (and should) want to break free from the kind of routine that absorbs you in and is the same boring stuff every single day.
But now is not a normal situation.
On the short term, you could cope with it by watching all Game of Thrones or FRIENDS one more time, you could try making a pizza or a cake for the first time, you could run a marathon in your living room a few times…
But you wouldn’t be able to sustain everything for long.
If you don’t actively plan your days and make thoughtful decisions about what to do, you are likely to get bored and tired of watching countless TV series and making beautiful-cakes-I-saw-on-youtube before than immediately.
Because many of us are used to relying on external factors (like social pressure and fear of being judged) to make us do things, in this moment we feel like we’ve lost our compass and don’t know which direction our days should be following.
So now, more than ever, you need to fall back to your comfort zone, to your routine.
I will show you an evening and a morning routine that will save you from wasting your days mindlessly and help you achieve focus and productivity.
Whether you’re reading this during the current pandemic, or you’ve found this post years later, this morning and evening routine will certainly be useful to you and to all those who are struggling and having a hard time beating procrastination, laziness, low productivity, lack of motivation, lack of focus, etc.
An Effective Evening Routine to Make You Win the Next Day
Let’s start with the evening routine. Why? Because in order to win the day you need a good morning routine, yes, but a morning routine can only be good as long the previous evening routine allows it.
I mean, try going to sleep at 3-4 am and then feel productive in the morning. If you can wake up before noon, that is. Pretty difficult, right?
Your evening is as important as your morning, and it’s the perfect time to set yourself up for success. Here are the most important things to do.
1. Turn Off Your Phone
One hour before going to bed, turn off your phone. There are two main reasons for this.
The first reason is that your phone, as well as your tablet and your computer and your TV, emits the so-called blue light, which is quite the bad guy, since it tricks your mind into believing that it’s still day out there. This reduces your amount of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone that helps you relax and get into a sleep state.
The second reason is that you don’t want to be distracted by notifications of any sort. You want to get the most out of your evening routine, you want to give your mind enough space to relax, recover and reflect.
This will allow you to plan your next day better, to get more inspiration and ideas, and, of course, to sleep better.
2. Write In Your Journal
You’ve probably heard or read about journaling at least once.
Keeping a journal is an extremely beneficial thing to do, but most people don’t even try it.
Why? Maybe it’s because they don’t think it can really give all the benefits people claim to experience thanks to journaling. Or maybe it’s because they don’t have a clear idea how to do it. The latter is most likely the actual reason for most people.
However, there really is no need to overcomplicate things.
Journaling is just a simple yet powerful self-improvement tool, it helps you better manage yourself and have more clarity in life.
You can journal on paper or on a digital document if you prefer typing on a keyboard.
I recommend using pen and paper, since you would want to turn electronic devices off avoid unnecessary exposure to blue light, at least 1 hour before going to bed.
You can totally do it on a computer, though, if you feel more comfortable. After all, we all type much faster than when we write by hand. Still, try to stay away from electronic devices at least 30 minutes prior to sleep.
Now, what to write in your journal?
Write About What Happened During The Day
Just take 5-10 minutes to write down the details of your day. What you did, what book you read, what skill you’ve been practicing, which people did you call or text, etc…
While you’re reviewing how your day went, you can see what you can do make the next day even better, and what are the activities that you should or should not do. This serves as a record of what you’ve done, helps you keep yourself accountable, and helps you with tracking your habits and behaviors.
Also, isn’t it cool to have a detailed personal history that you can read weeks, months, years from now?
Write Down a Simple Plan for What You’ll Do the Next Day Before Noon
In order to set yourself up for success the next morning and to have a good night sleep, you need to clear your mind of all the things you have or want to do the next day.
Now, try to keep it simple. If you have many, many things to do the next day, you’re probably not clear on your priorities.
A tool you can use to help you get clarity is the Time Management Matrix, popularized by Stephen Covey in his bestseller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.
It looks like this:
As you can see, we have 4 categories of activities:
- Important activities that are urgent;
- Important activities that are not urgent;
- Not important activities that are urgent;
- Not important activities that are not urgent.
Some people have no control over their lives and are go from one Quadrant 1 problem to another, all day. They only find relief in escaping to Quadrant 4. Living like this causes stress and burnout.
Other people focus on Q3 but mistakenly think they’re in Q1. They spend all their time reacting to urgent but not important things, believing these are important. This results in short-term focus and zero goals and plans.
And those who spend most of their time on Q4, and occasionally Q3 … no comment.
It appears clear that you should focus on Quadrant 2 and stay away as much as possible from Q3 and Q4.
By focusing on Q2, your productivity increases and your Q1 problems shrink because you would be thinking ahead and planning effectively, preventing small problems from developing into crises and emergencies.
So, write in your journal a simple list of things you’re going to do the next day.
Make sure to recognize your Quadrant 2 activities, those activities that can actually give you results toward achieving your most important goals, and do them before noon.
Why before noon, you ask?
Because the morning hours are the most important hours of the day, and there are two simple reasons for that:
- Your brain is most active and creative immediately after sleep.
- Your willpower and energy levels are highest after you wake up in the morning.
Now let’s finish our evening routine with one more thing to remember.
3. Go to Bed at the Same Hour Every Night
There’s a thing called circadian rhythm that acts as an “internal clock” for our body, and it’s aligned with sunrise and sunset. It makes us want to wake up when the sun rises and want to sleep when the sun goes down, as it should naturally be.
Now, when you constantly go to sleep and wake up at different times, you’re messing with your circadian rhythm, and this leads to bad sleep quality.
Ideally, you should always get 7-9 hours of sleep, and you should always go to bed between 8 and 12 pm, because these are the most restful hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
I suggest going to sleep at 10-10:30 pm, since the next day you’d want to wake up pretty early 😉
Try to get into a regular sleep/wake pattern, and follow it every day. Yes, even in the weekend (although lately for many of us there’s not much of a difference between a Tuesday and a Saturday).
I know, it’s difficult. But hey, it’s your health (and your productivity, and your goals, and your success) we’re talking about, so do yourself a favor.
An Effective Morning Routine To Become Successful
So, the previous day you have diligently followed your evening routine.
You have written in your journal, you have cut down on notifications and blue light at least one hour before bed, and you went to sleep early. Oh, and you have also made a plan for the following day,
If you’ve done all of that, then you have set yourself up for a great day.
Now let’s see how to conquer your morning.
1. Get Up Early (Ideally at 5:30 AM, or Even Earlier)
Waking up early shouldn’t be difficult for you if your evening was restful. If you haven’t screwed up your evening routine by giving in to bad habits (playing games, watching TV, exposing yourself to blue light, going to sleep very late, etc.), then you have slept well. And if you slept well, waking up early will be really easy.
But why wake up so early? We’ve already discussed about why the morning hours are the most important (higher levels of creativity, energy, and willpower immediately after a high-quality sleep).
Being focused and productive for the first 3-5 hours in the morning means that you could already call it a day before lunch, basically.
If you wake up at 5:30 AM and be productive until noon, then you’re already done for the day. You will have achieved more before lunch than most people do in days or even weeks.
If you have a full-time job and/or you’re a parent with kids, all the more reason to wake up early, so you have a few hours before everyone in the family wakes up.
I am not a parent myself, so I can’t say I have a 100% understanding of what it means, but I know that it’s not easy because you have so many responsibilities. However there’s one thing I’m certain of: you must proactively decide to create time to dedicate to yourself and your goals, every single day.
If you don’t be intentional about it, you will most certainly get sucked up by the numerous activities, responsibilities and events that make life noisy. And this is true for every person.
You can decide to be controlled by what happens in life, or you can decide to take control of your life.
“In life you are either a passenger or a pilot, it’s your choice”
2. Stay Away From Your Phone
“Again? Seriously, Paolo, what’s with you and your hate for your phone? Did you get bullied by it when you were little?”
But seriously, I’m pretty sure we all know the bad effects of being too attached (just another way of saying addicted) to smartphones.
Just think about all those people who eat with the fork (or spoon, or chopsticks) in one hand and their phone in the other. It’s pretty clear that smartphones have an absurdly strong power of making people addicted to them.
You don’t want to be like that. But just to be clear: using your phone is totally ok, if you’re not addicted to it.
However, if there’s a time of the day when you should NOT use your smartphone, that’s the early morning.
Most people spend a big (too big) amount of their time on their smartphones, without even realizing. Their phone has taken control of their mind.
They wake up, turn on their phone, scroll some Facebook or Instagram feed, get out of bed and start their usual day made of distractions, unfocused work, zero productivity, and a lot of wasted time.
But you don’t want that. You want to be intentional about what you do and take control as the pilot of your own life. Don’t let the smartphone, or any other unimportant thing, control you.
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least”
Make sure to avoid using your phone at least during the first 2-3 hours of your morning, and you’ll see how effective you’ll be with your work.
Ok, no smartphone, now let’s see what you should do instead.
3. Read a Good Book for 30 Minutes
Ha! Reading! You thought there wouldn’t be a point dedicated to reading books, but here it is!
Read, read, read!
It’s not a coincidence that the most successful people are also voracious readers.
It’s not just a trend or something that makes you look cool, although some people like to boast about how they read a bajillion books every year.
Reading has so many benefits that you can’t count them on the fingers of your hands, but my favorite reason is probably this:
A Book Is a Great Teacher That Makes You a Much Better Learner
A book is like a mentor to you, and having a good mentor teach you something is the best learning method, ever. A mentor has already done (or tried) what you’re now trying to do, and they can teach you what are the right things to do and what are the mistakes to avoid.
Now, you’ve probably heard that making mistakes is not always a bad thing, that your mistakes can actually teach you a lot and help you learn things. And it’s true.
But life is short, we don’t have enough time to make every mistake of the world just by ourselves.
This is why books, good books, are awesome.
Whatever you’re trying to learn, be it a skill or some knowledge, there’s a book that can help you.
There’s someone out there that already went through many experiences and made many mistakes, and has written a book to share the knowledge and the lessons they learned.
And you can get a book for little money, or for free if you’re borrowing it or if it’s a gift, and learn what they have learned. You can do it without having to spend the time and energy yourself to go through unnecessary mistakes.
I mean, how great is that? Years of research, trial-and-error, work, knowledge, and experience, all in one book, ready for you to consume.
“Fools learn from experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others.”
— Otto von Bismarck
So make sure to read a book every morning for at least 30 minutes. It’s not too much and it’s not too little.
If you read at an average speed, you can read more or less 20 pages in 30 minutes. Considering how most books have around 350 pages, this means you can complete a book every 17 days, which means at least 20 books in a year. That’s much more than what most people read in one, no, in five or even ten years.
Make reading books a habit. Just as little as 30 minutes every morning. You won’t regret it.
4. Put First Things First and Eat a Frog for 90 Minutes
Mark Twain once wrote:
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
He was right. Many successful people live by this quote. They tackle their hardest but most important tasks first thing in the morning.
Stephen Covey has featured the habit of putting “First Things First” in his bestseller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, because the most effective people know the importance of doing the most important things before anything else.
If you have correctly followed the previous evening routine and used the Time Management Matrix to find out which activities are most important to you, you should have a clear idea of what “frog” to eat first.
Try to dedicate at least 90 minutes every morning to working on that task that is going to get you closer to your most important goals. If you have two frogs, start with the more important one; if you have three, again, put them in order of priority and tackle the most important first. Make sure to start in the morning.
If you procrastinate instead and decide that you’ll do it later in the day, then you can be almost certain that you won’t.
I’m not even talking about all the things that might happen in a day that can hinder you from working on your goals, I’m talking about the things that don’t happen, because you will be procrastinating all day.
Suppose your most ambitious goal is to write a book. If you don’t dedicate time to writing in the morning, you will say “I’ll do it after lunch”.
And after lunch what happens? You say “I just had lunch, I’m gonna rest a bit and then start writing”.
Then comes the infamous “afternoon slump”, and you feel groggy and tired, so you say “I’ll do it later”.
And so on…
Suddenly, it’s already been 3 years since you decided that you’d be working on your dream of writing a book.*
So you think “Damn, if only I started 3 years ago, now I would have almost, if not entirely, finished writing the book. Guess it’s too late to start now…”
Wrong. It’s not too late. Or, to be exact, it’s not too late if you really want it.
If you give up just because you think that “it’s too late now” or “I don’t have as much time as I had before” and other overused excuses, then it just means that you didn’t actually want to reach that goal, after all.
However, if you still want to achieve that goal and are determined to do so, then give yourself at least 90 minutes every morning to “eat that frog”.
You will have time for the less important things later in the day, don’t worry.
But you need to put all your effort in the most important things, first.
A Few Suggestions for the Rest of the Day
If you set yourself up for success the day before with your evening routine, followed by your morning routine, you shouldn’t have any problems with being productive and focused on the right things during the day.
You will have already made a plan during the previous evening routine, so you should just follow through it.
However, allow me to give you some suggestions on which activities you should not neglect. Note that, ideally, you should have completed your work/productivity hours before these:
- Exercise. Or at least try not to sit too much and get your body moving. Never neglect your health.
- Dedicate time to your passions and hobbies. Life is boring if you don’t allow yourself to pursue some passion. Be it playing an instrument, drawing, singing, etc. make sure you don’t put it aside.
- Play. If you’ve completed your most important tasks, there’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself with something fun to do. In fact, it’s actually really important, because playing helps you detach from work and allows you to recover both mentally and physically.
“When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.”
— Cal Newport
It’s Time to Take Back Control of Your Life
Singing on the balcony.
Hosting a video-party with friends.
Baking five cakes a day.
Watching all episodes of Game of Thrones, FRIENDS, and Beautiful… in one day.
We see people trying all different kinds of things to kill time and survive another day, but all these activities don’t, and can’t, last for long (except for Beautiful, Beautiful lasts forever). Normally these would be fun to do but, if that’s all you do, you’ll get bored extremely easily.
The only sustainable solution is an effective routine that enhances your productivity, your creativity, your motivation, and your happiness.
If you don’t have a plan and you’re not clear about what you should do, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the sh*t that happens in the world and give in to sadness, laziness, and apathy, only hoping that all this mess will end soon, and then, after everything is finally ok, decide to try to pursue happiness again.
Hey, don’t even think about this as a nice “solution”.
You want to be productive, focused, motivated, happy, not only when there are no problems in your life, but in spite of all the obstacles that life puts in your way.
But you need to be intentional about it, you need to take the pilot’s seat and fly towards your desired destination.
There will certainly be turbulence on your path. Sometimes it will be light, sometimes it will be strong, but don’t let it lead you astray. You have to maintain control over the plane you’re piloting, and fly through the dark clouds.
Only then, after all the challenges, you’ll get where you really want to be.
“Sometimes life is like a dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end, but if you keep moving, you will come to a better place.”
— Uncle Iroh
So stop worrying too much about things that you can’t do anything about. I’m talking about the “turbulence”. It won’t disappear just because you complain about it or insult it.
Focus instead on what you can actually do something about. Focus on your mornings, your evenings, your goals, your skills, your relationships, your passions.
Life is designed to be hard; you just need to be harder.