A common pattern I’ve noticed in many creative people is struggling to make ideas happen. Their actions do not match their intentions, and this is usually because they don’t have a daily routine.
Below I’ll show you how to create a daily routine that has enabled me to write four books, record over 1,000 podcast episodes, and ship dozens of creative projects.
1. Why Daily Routines are So Important for Creative Work
Creative ideas are usually spontaneous, but routines and rituals are the lifeblood of creative work. Without routines and rituals, your most brilliant ideas will never see the light of day.
First, routines and rituals give us what Jonathan Fields calls “certainty anchors.” The creative life is unpredictable, uncertain, and the creative process isn’t linear. Routines reduce the anxiety that uncertainty creates.
Daily routines give you structure. When you have a structured approach to your work, you become more productive and prolific. Lack of structure causes a lack of focus.
Lower Cognitive Bandwidth
The average person makes more than 300 decisions a day. But we don’t think of some of them as decisions:
- Should I reply to this email?
- Should I post this picture on Instagram?
- What am I going to wear?
- What will I eat?
Even when you make a to-do list, you decide how you spend your time, all of which require cognitive bandwidth. A daily routine increases your cognitive bandwidth, which you can reallocate to your deepest and most meaningful work. Instead of spending your time planning your work, you spend this time doing the work.
2. Design the Physical Environment for Your Daily Routine
Designing your daily routine begins with creating an environment conducive to the person you want to be. Our environment shapes our behavior and has a profound impact on our health, happiness, and productivity.
There are 9 environments that make up your life. Your workspace is your physical environment. This includes your desk, chair, lighting, sound, and temperature in the room. Everything in your physical environment is a behavioral cue. These cues determine which behaviors you avoid and which ones you don’t.
Setup Your Workspace The Night Before
As a person who has to get shit done despite having ADHD, I find clutter very distracting. If you struggle with managing your attention, decluttering your workspace can increase your attention span.
When I sit down to work in the morning, there are only four things on my desk.
- A bottle of water
- Cup of coffee
- Book to read
My phone is in another room and in airplane mode. I use a pair of noise-canceling headphones to listen to Brain.fm, which helps to increase focus and drown out other noises.
Minimizing Clutter on Your Desk
While trays, penholders, and other office items may make you feel organized, they still compete for your attention when they’re on your desk. You’ll inevitably pile up clutter. Recently, I discovered a simple but inexpensive way to avoid this: a monitor stand with drawers for pens, notebooks, and other clutter. You can see it in the picture below:
It is perfect for storing charging cables, pens, and other items you need to get your work done all day long. A simple accessory like this makes it much easier to limit things on your desk to essential things for your current task.
Reduce the Activation Energy
Activation energy is the number of steps required to complete an action or behavior. By setting up your workplace the night before, you reduce the activation energy and increase the likelihood of taking action.
- If you don’t have to get a book off the shelf, you’re more likely to read it.
- When the pen and notebook are already on your desk, you are more likely to write when you sit down.
Reducing activation energy is a small adjustment to your environment that makes a big difference in your daily routine.
Don’t Start Your Day on the Internet
There is probably nothing worse for your attention span than starting your day on the Internet. If you pick up the phone, check your email, or go online first thing in the morning, you will be tempted to do it all day long.
Your brain is in a very suggestive state immediately after waking up. By starting your day on the Internet, you reinforce a distracting behavior. That’s why I only read physical books, use a bullet journal to plan the day, and start writing in a physical notebook.
3. Design the Digital Environment for Your Daily Routine
Your digital environment consists of your computer, apps you use, websites you visit, and everything else you do on the Internet. To design a digital environment for your daily routine, you need to eliminate distractions and harness the power of activation energy.
Increase Activation Energy to Avoid Sources of Distraction
No one wakes up in the morning thinking, “There’s nothing I’d rather do than check Facebook and email 100 times a day.” But these habits are impulsive. If something is just a click away, it’s easy to give in to temptation.
In the battle between environment and willpower, your environment will ALWAYS win. By making it harder for yourself to access sources of distraction, you will find it easier to resist them. There are several ways to increase activation energy to avoid distractions:
- Turn off your Wifi or use a distraction blocker like RescueTime.
- Delete the shortcuts to distracting websites and disable automatic login to social networks.
Activation energy generates a little friction to resist the behavior you are trying to avoid.
Decrease Activation Energy for The Behavior Your Desire
If you need a website or app for your work, reduce the activation energy by opening it before you need it. Suppose you want to develop a daily writing habit. You can reduce the activation energy by using the following steps:
Open your writing tool or word processor the night before in full-screen mode. This will be the first thing you see when you flip the lid on your laptop. As a result, you’ll be much more likely to stick to the writing habit.
Use Distraction-Free Tools and Work in Full-Screen Mode
The use of distraction-free tools and working in full-screen mode are essential components of an effective daily routine.
Standard word processors, such as Google Docs and Microsoft Word are some of the worst tools for writing. Features, such as the ability to format text and select fonts are distractions from the only thing that matters: writing.
“Open but minimized apps and tabs are more accessible than those that are closed even if they appear only trivial so, and thus they facilitate switching,” says Adam Gazzaley, in his book, The Distracted Mind.
Working in full-screen mode with distraction-free tools like Notion helps to avoid context switching. Unlike standard word processors, the navigation and user interface in Notion disappear the moment you start typing.
4. Design Your Daily Routine
With the right physical and digital environments, you’re now ready to design your daily routine. Keep your routine simple when you start by limiting your tasks. There are three key questions you need to answer when designing your daily routine:
- What are you going to do?
- When are you going to do it?
- Where are you going to do it?
For example, my morning routine includes the following things:
- Meditate for 10 minutes right after I wake up
- Read 100 pages and write 1000 words at my desk
What Are You Going to Do?
The secret to tasks that lead to progress is clear goals—a clear goal is objective and within your control.
“Write Something Amazing” is not a clear goal because it is subjective. You might think it’s fantastic, but your audience might think it’s garbage. Writing 1000 words is crystal clear because you either hit your goal or you don’t.
The easiest way to amplify the clarity of a goal is to put a number in front of it.
When Are You Going To Do It?
When you do something matters as much as what you do. This isn’t just true for your daily routine. It’s true in every area of life.
- If you get married before you’re ready, you’re more likely to get divorced.
- Surfers get up early in the morning because it’s less windy and the waves are better.
For most people, the early morning is the ideal time for their routine. Unless you are a rare night owl, I recommend making your daily routine part of your morning.
You might be tempted to look at people doing three hours of deep work and mimic their routines, but that doesn’t work if you don’t have time or are already struggling to manage your attention.
Do not underestimate the power of starting small or the power of consistency. While one focused hour a day of uninterrupted concentration can produce amazing results, start with 15 minutes if that is all you can achieve. Strive for consistency over intensity.
Where Are You Going To Do It?
Your environment and your behavior are inextricably linked. If you repeat the same action day after day in the same environment, your brain will eventually make a connection between your environment and your habit.
5. Document Your Process
If there is a task you do several times a week or a month, document the process. “A process is the mechanism for doing everyday tasks inside a company. Process standardization involves documenting your processes and creating a single “best way” to do the most important activities in your company,” says Victor Cheng, in his book, Extreme Revenue Growth.
The process can be as simple as a checklist, a workflow diagram, or a Loom video. By documenting your process, you avoid reinventing the wheel for something you’ve done a thousand times.
1. Create Simple Checklists
“They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything—a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps—the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical” – Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto.
Your brain is a terrible place to store information, such as the process of completing a task. By creating checklists for tasks, such as posting a blog post, you externalize that information to focus on the most valuable part of the process: writing.
As Gawande points out, without checklists, you tend to overlook critical steps and make mistakes.
2. Record Loom Videos
A few weeks ago, my audio engineer, Josh, was in the hospital with appendicitis. Because I hadn’t edited an episode of the podcast for so long, I didn’t remember how. Fortunately, I had Josh record tutorials on how to edit an episode.
When you sign up for a new app or service, they usually have a FAQ section and video tutorials on how to use the product. You can do the same for yourself. Having videos with detailed instructions on how to finish a task saves you a lot of time and energy when you work with other people.
Documenting your process is like creating an instruction manual for how to be you. The litmus test for a good process is how little you need to be involved in it. Ask yourself, “If someone else were to do this for me today, could they do it without my input?”
Warren Buffet once said: “Build a business that idiots can run because eventually, they will. And your process should be one that any idiot could follow.”
Documenting a process may sound boring because it is, but there is a reason why large companies have procedures that seem like bureaucratic bullshit. Without a process, trying to deal with 1,000 employees would be chaos.
When you document your process, you’ll stop wasting time answering the same questions by email and letting someone know how to complete a task other people have done 1,000 times.
6. Map Out Your Workflow: Advanced Strategies for a Daily Routine
By building a system to maximize your creative output, your daily routine will be a thousand times more effective. Think of your system as an idea factory with an assembly line. Your workflow is the process that leads to your creative output. There are four vital elements to workflow design:
1. Raw Material
The raw material for a blog post is words. In the case of a painter, her raw materials are the paint and the canvas. For someone designing an app, their code is the raw material.
Labor in our modern world is a combination of people, habits, tools, and the technology you use for your creative output.
Notion is the tool I use to complete the task of writing 1000 words per day. I use a combination of Grammarly and a human proofreader to correct typos, add links, etc. I use Zencastr to record interviews, an artist designs the album cover, and the sound editor prepares it for our listeners.
As a creative, your habits are the labor of your daily routine.
3. Build Your Assembly Line
In Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email, he shared a fundamental lesson about systems that is key to making ideas happen. By putting every project and task into overarching categories, you start to streamline your systems and the production process.
The rest of the process, minus the actual creative work, should be like an assembly line. Your goal should be to eventually remove yourself from most of the process.
Tiago Forte’s methodology for building a second brain is one of the most effective ways to build an assembly line for creative work or knowledge work. A second brain has four key areas:
- Areas of Responsibility
First, separate your work into projects and areas of responsibility. Projects have a defined end date. Areas of responsibility are ongoing. Something like a new ebook would be a project. Writing would be an area of responsibility.
Separate your areas of responsibility into overarching categories. These are a bit like the different departments in the company or factory. The only difference is that you are the head of each department.
For example, when I reorganized Notion to reflect this, my areas of responsibility fell into three main categories:
- Writing: This includes my freewriting, my editorial calendar for our blog, and book projects.
- Podcast: Here, I have all the upcoming ads I have to record and everything else that has to do with the podcast.
- The Mighty Network: All tasks that relate to our Prime group and the Listener Tribe.
You can see how this looks in the picture below:
In assembly line manufacturing, a product has:
- Tasks to be completed in each phase
- People who are responsible for these tasks
How this works for our podcast looks something like this:
- Srini: record the interview
- Illustrator: creates an album cover
- Audio engineer: edits and publishes the episode
Apart from writing, interviews, and speaking engagements, there is almost nothing valuable I do for my company. This is why I often joke that I am the most useless employee in my company.
4. The Output
What you ship, be it a product, a blog post, a podcast, or a new feature in your app, is the output of your daily routine. And you need to consider bottlenecks and build buffers if you want to ship your work on time.
Every assembly line has bottlenecks like people in different time zones, services that fail, etc. If you want to do something in the next hour, but the person who has to do it is on the other side of the world, you have a bottleneck.
Buffers help you avoid bottlenecks. If there’s a 13-hour difference between your time zone and theirs, you need at least 13 hours of buffer for them to do their part. An excellent way to create a buffer is with what Greg Mckeown calls “extreme planning.”
We air 8 new podcasts each month. Our artist has to design an album cover for each episode. Two weeks before the end of the month, I make a design request for all 8 covers. This gives us a buffer.
In the editorial calendar for our blog posts, I set a deadline of 4 days before publication, which creates enough of a buffer to be proofread by our assistant and add illustrations by the artist. By building in buffers and eliminating bottlenecks, you avoid missing deadlines.
Poor workflow design is one of the main reasons people struggle with digital distractions. If you take the time to design your workflow, you’ll find it much easier to focus on your essential priorities.
7. How to Deal with Pitfalls and Problems in Your Daily Routine
Because you’re not a robot, sometimes you’ll inevitably fall short. Below are strategies to help you stick to your routine.
1. Schedule Daily Routine Tasks on Your Calendar
When you schedule something in your calendar, it is more likely that it will happen. You schedule meetings in your calendar to know when to show up and how long the meeting will last. Your daily routine is a meeting you have with yourself. If you schedule it in your calendar, you are more likely to follow it.
2. Reduce the Scope and Stick to the Schedule
When people miss a day of exercise or meditation, they give up the habit altogether. One way to avoid this is to reduce the scope but stick to the schedule.
- If you cannot meditate for 10 minutes, try 2 minutes of meditation.
- If you can’t write 1000 words, write 10.
By reducing the scope and keeping to the schedule, you will maintain consistency.
3. Track Your Progress
Tracking your progress helps you stay motivated to achieve your goals. If you see a bundle of x marked on a calendar, you are more likely to stick to your habits—this is known as the progress principle.
Conclusion: Putting it All Together to Design Your Daily Routine
If you have made it this far in the article, you may feel overwhelmed. Think of your daily routine as building a house. Lay the foundation, build the walls and roof, lay the carpet, and paint the walls.
- Design your physical and digital environments
- Design your routine (What, Where, When)
- Document your processes
- Map your workflow
It’s not a coincidence that the most prolific and productive inventors, artists, and people in every field abide by daily routines throughout history. If you want to learn more about the power of a daily routine, check out Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals.
A Free Template to Help Your Design Your Daily Routine
I’ve put together a free Notion template you can use to design your daily routine. This will help you get clarity on what you are doing, and also give you the structure necessary to decrease the likelihood of procrastination and distractions. Click here for access.