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Eight Keys to Establishing a Daily Routine


It might not be obvious to you, but I like to write. I may not be a great writer … but I think I’m reasonably good. And I write for myself as much as for anyone else. It helps me focus my thoughts and helps me center. As I learn from the process, it makes me a better strategist. A better coach and mentor. A better person.

My intentions to write have always been strong, but it took me way too long to establish the daily routine of writing. This routine is the key to my writing success. Without it I would likely still be floundering around, writing a little here, a little there, but without the discipline needed to keep it up.

The routine I established for myself is simple. Each morning, I carve out an hour, starting at 5:15AM. This is iimmediately after my first pot of coffee has been made (OK, so in the spirit of full disclosure there is the occasional morning that finds me sleeping in a little later … and that’s alright … the important thing is that these are exceptions and not the rule). I don’t read emails. I don’t surf the web. I don’t turn on the TV or radio. My concentrated focus is on writing. Period.

So that’s my routine. It works. And I have found that eight simple steps are the key to establishing a disciplined practice, an unwavering routine, whether it is writing, as with me, or meditating, exercise, woodworking, painting, online networking … you name it.

Think about these words from entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn:

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”

So here are the steps that I discovered that give me the discipline needed to accomplish my goal of writing and that, at the end of the day, are the key to establishing any daily routine.

They have worked for me … and they will work for you.

Establishing a Daily Routine

1.  Be very clear from the outset about what you want to commit to.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

George Harrison in “Any Road”, with a tip of the hat to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Be crystal clear about what you want to commit to, and understand not just the what but the why. What are the underlying reasons for your committed goals? Challenge yourself. Challenge yourself again. And do so as long as it takes for you to clearly understand what you are setting out to do and why you are doing it. Time spent on this first step can make all the difference between success and failure. Without this front-end discipline and discernment, you will end up not sticking to your roadmap. In fact, any roadmap will get you there if you aren’t clear where there is, or why you’re going there. And any roadmap is essentially no roadmap at all.

Establishing a Daily Routine

2. Establish cues.

Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, wrote a wonderful book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. In that book he says:

“[The] process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”

The cues, or triggers, that kick your brain into “automatic mode,” are critical. These cues trigger neural pathways in your brain that remind your conscious and subconscious self that it’s time to deploy the habit you’ve set out to practice. They tell you when to engage. They can be something as simple as a set time of day. Or an object in your presence. Or the smell of fresh brewed coffee. Or, if you’re particularly forgetful, a string tied around your finger (actually I wouldn’t recommend that one, lest people stare at you in public). In time, as you associate your cue with your desired habit and routine, the connection between cue, habit and routine will become second nature. It’s a form of procedural memory.

Equally important, for me anyway, is that the trigger occurs at the same time every day. That’s the rationale behind my own 5:15 cue. While some people have told me that it isn’t important that their routine occurs at a set time every day, my experience working with people of all ages and walks of life over the years is that setting a specific time and sticking to it goes a long way toward making the routine “stick.”

3. Make sure you have everything you need at your fingertips.

Regardless of your routine, the last thing you want is to be all set, ready to roll, only to find that you don’t have the resources you need readily at hand, when and where you need them.

Henry Ford said:

“Time waste differs from material waste in that there can be no salvage.”

And he was right. Time is a fixed commodity. We all are given the same amount of it in the course of a day, a month, a year. Waste it and there’s no recovering it. Time can’t be salvaged.

When I first embarked on my “5:15 routine” I would settle in to my chosen chair, absent distractions, coffee readily at hand, only to find that I had left my notes in the other room. (Or, heaven forbid, I had left my coffee in the other room!) I learned quickly to prepare ahead of time so this didn’t happen. In fact, I have worked diligently over the past year to become “paperless” … and I’m almost there. This has helped a lot because now, wherever I am, pretty much everything I need is on my laptop or in the cloud. This step has saved me an uncountable amount of wasted time and has helped me streamline my routine.

4. Avoid all distractions.

“We live in such an age of chatter and distraction. Everything is a challenge for the ears and eyes.”

British-American actress and singer-songwriter Rebecca Pidgeon

This one’s a no-brainer, right? We struggle with growing sensory overload. I’ve referred to it in the past as “collective ADD.” The “disease of distraction.” And it’s killing us. When the average American checks his or her phone nearly 50 times a day, when people check their phones while shopping, watching television, during leisure time, and even while dining out, we know we have a problem.

Put your phone away … out of sight. Disengage your texts, email and social media. Turn off the TV and the radio (although for many of us a little background music is perfectly fine).

Bottom line: Focus on the task at hand at the exclusion of everything else!!

5. Establish a clear plan and stick to it.

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Alexander Graham Bell

Front-end preparation and planning, clearly understanding and articulating the how of what you’re endeavoring to do, fully aligned with your purpose (see step 1) will help ensure the success and sustainability of your routine.

6. Track your progress.

“Setting myself a concrete task, and measuring each day whether I’m complying with it, makes me far more likely to stick to my resolution.”

Gretchen Rubin, American author, blogger and speaker

Keep track of how you’re doing. This is part of holding yourself accountable. Without this discipline, it’s simply too easy to forget how much progress we are, or are not, making. Whether it’s tick marks on a daily calendar that shows you successfully practiced your routine, or recording progress in a daily journal, or using an app on your phone, measuring your progress and enforcing accountability will keep you on track and honest with yourself.

7.  Reward yourself.

“We all need little rewards in our lives to keep us motivated.”

Laura Vanderkam, “Ten Ways To Reward Yourself For Working So Hard” in Fast Company

External rewards are important. They reinforce your habits. They’ll keep you motivated. They’ll contribute to the “stick-to-it-ive-ness” of your daily routine. And they don’t have to be big. Little, incremental rewards provide reinforcement. After a week, or a month, of sticking to it, make yourself a cappuccino or pourself a cup of green tea, sit back and pat yourself on the back (metaphorically, of course). Laura Vanderkam recommends taking yourself out for a nice breakfast. Go to lunch and order “sushi–spicy tuna rolls and avocado salad, washed down with a glass of Chardonnay.” Order a pizza and watch a movie. After a particularly long, successful run, take a field trip.

Celebrate. Inject some enjoyment into your daily routine. It will make a difference.

8. But cut yourself some slack when you slip.

“Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new.”

Albert Einstein

Establishing a new habit, as with most things new, requires work. It’s never a “slam-dunk.” Unless you’re the rare exception, there will be setbacks. When you slip, go easy on yourself. It happens to the best of us. Don’t beat yourself up. Otherwise you’ll become frustrated and demotivated.

But going easy on yourself doesn’t mean shirking the responsibility to stick with your plan. It doesn’t mean making excuses. It doesn’t mean simply dismissing it. On the contrary, it means recognizing that you aren’t perfect, that you falter at times just like everyone else, and committing to doing better tomorrow, pulling yourself back up and getting back on track, and accepting responsibility without guilt.

If you’re too hard on yourself, chances are you’ll give up.

Try these eight steps. See if they help you establish and stick to your daily routine, whatever it may be.

Please reach out. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Mike Cobb