Productivity nerds around the globe can agree on one thing: we can’t get enough of daily routines.
We love watching other peoples’ routines, and we love designing and refining our own— even if it means procrastinating on our current tasks to think about tomorrow.
It’s a healthy impulse. There’s enough conventional wisdom and scholarship out there that confirms maintaining routines and habits can lead you to some beautiful places.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle famously said. “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
So, the simplest way to set a habit is to do the same thing every day. And what is a routine but a collection of habits?
James Clear, author of the well-loved book Atomic Habits, often describes a concept he calls “habit stacking.”
The easiest way to make your second or third or fifteenth habit stick is to anchor it to a habit that’s already established—like flossing every time you brush your teeth.
If we take one step at a time, deliberately adding new habits as we go along, we’ll eventually have a fully optimized daily routine.
That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.
Here’s my routine (when things are going well) and the tools that help make it possible.
First things first: exercise. It’s a cheat code in any routine that vastly improves health, happiness, vitality, focus, mental capacity, and more. I know it sounds like I just made up a list of impossibly positive results, but those claims are all scientifically proven! (Read more about my approach to working out here.)
After my workout, I make a protein shake or a quick breakfast and shower.
After my shower I complete what I—a formerly skincare-averse guy—would consider a luxurious self-care routine. I’m learning about serums, cleansers, and eye…creams? My favorite is this mist that you just spritz on your face that smells nice. I think it’s called toner? Who knows what it actually does.
Now I’m ready to face the day. I sit down at my desk. I’m about to be here for a long time.
For years, in previous versions of my routine, I would always begin with a meditation.
Back then, when I opened my eyes after a meditation, after some deep breathing and clearing my mind, I was better prepared to work, especially if it was creative work. My mind, to oversimplify it, was more open.
I still recommend meditation, but I’ve since moved my practice to the evenings. Now, to start my workday, I prefer to use the RescueTime Assistant.
Before beginning a Focus Session, RescueTime offers a quick series of guided warm-ups. I have the option of choosing voice narration and music to guide me, or I can just read along. The voice guides me through things that are important, but that I also am quick to forget: cleaning the clutter off my desk, putting my phone on silent and out of reach, and resting my eyes and my breathing.
This process is incredibly valuable to me. I love the feeling of everything being ready and in its place before I embark on a work journey. If the fates smile upon me and I fall into a flow state, I do not want to be interrupted.
The warm-up walks me through all the tools at my disposal—app and website blocking, focus music, and even a virtual workplace called WorkFrom, which allows me to silently work with people around the world in a digital “coffee shop” environment.
Then I’m prompted to give myself a purpose, or a goal (or a project or task) for this particular Focus Session. This practice, too, has been proven time and again to give shape and energy to the time spent working. Instead clicking around and refreshing your inbox, you know what your goal is, what programs you need open, and what to concentrate on.
RescueTime even offers me a little encouragement—I’m not the only one working right now. I’m one of 1,513 other people focusing on something important at the exact same moment.
Then, the timer begins.
Work, for real
Now it’s time for work.
For my first work session of the day, I’ll set a timer for 15 minutes, as a no-pressure warm-up. Three or four days out of five, the timer goes off and I blast right by it, focused and in the groove. But on days where the motivation is slow to come, keeping the first “session” brief is vital. It keeps me from judging myself, or setting my expectations too high. If I need a break after 15 minutes, I take it. That simple.
Next, I’ll try a longer one. 30 if I’m feeling a bit more wobbly, 45 to 60 if I know I’ll sink right back into the flow. Since I’ve already gone through the start-up process, I’ll turn off the narration and warm-up for this time around.
This is around the time, if my day is going well, that I feel like I’m flying. The lightness and cleanliness of everything in my digital realm allows me to keep my mind clear.
More than anything, I always love having my process contained into as few systems as possible.
There are a few things I feel like I “need” to work. One of them is music.
But opening the app for Spotify, and then an app for a third-party website blocker, and then the app or apps for whatever I’m working on – that immediately clutters up the clean digital space I’m trying to keep pristine, and a result, the same thing happens to my brain.
That’s why RescueTime is beautiful right up there in the task bar. I can glance up at it to check the time left in a Focus Session or click to open it to check on the task I set for myself.
For these first few sessions, the goal is to use the whole of my energy, and brainpower, perfectly positioned to be open and dynamic after exercising and exfoliating and warming up with RescueTime, on creative work. It’s nearly objectively harder than any other kind of data or email or busy work I could have to do.
I try to hit four sessions or four hours, whichever comes first, and then take a break for lunch.
When I get back, and that post-lunch slump comes, and my energy is diminished already – that’s when it’s time for the opposite of deep work.
I work this system for the rest of the day, until dinner. If I’m particularly ambitious one day (or, in a more likely scenario, seriously behind on deadline) I may try to sneak in a work session before or after dinner. That’s when I can usually feel the rest of the wind rapidly depleting from the sails as I work, but I commit to hanging in until that last timer counts to zero.
Finally, I write a to-do list and a schedule for the next day, and then ceremoniously turn off my computer and my monitor screens.
Getting up and walking away from that desk should feel substantial, and like an achievement – like you did something real that day. Of course it won’t feel like that every day. But that’s always the benchmark I’m aiming towards.
And now that RescueTime is able to provide me with such extensive data regarding what I did, how long I did it for, and how effective I was when I was doing it, I’m able to make that judgement based off of way more than just gut feeling.
I particularly love looking at my Focus Session numbers to see how many total minutes and hours I spent completely in the pursuit of focus and pure work. Week to week I’ll keep trying to get those numbers higher and higher.
The rest of the day is my own. I’ve made the decision to not “schedule” my evenings as exhaustively as I do the rest of my days; something about writing “Netflix and snacks” in a Google Calendar feels like missing the point. I’m proud of the separation between work life and personal life that I’ve been able to strike recently – that’s a sticking where I used to get stuck a lot. I used to always be on-call in off hours, or dipping into YouTube videos at work. Now, it’s like church and state. Much better for both ends.
Then, evening teeth and skin routine, check the phone too many times, start a meditation, and go to sleep.
All in a day’s work.
All other times
There are other times where there is less room for exhaustive scheduling and open-ended structure.
Sometimes, I just have to get some work done, right then and there.
That’s when I love how I can turn RescueTime on within seconds, and dive into the zone. I feel supported almost—like the app is a guiding hand keeping me free from temptation (other apps and websites) and putting me in the best frame of mind to succeed.
The new RescueTime Assistant has combined three or four of the tools most pertinent to productivity, optimized them, and combined them. And it’s presented them in a clean, calming interface that has done more than almost any other app to make me personally supported in my work journey. It’s as if the RescueTime Assistant knows what it’s like to try and push through a tough work day, or hit a deadline, or just resist the temptation to sabotage a day with procrastination. To put it simply, RescueTime is here for me. It’s a must-have in my arsenal now.