The Best Daily Routine

Watching Denzel Washington in his latest movie, The Equalizer, was like watching myself on screen. His character, Robert McCall, rises early, is never late, drinks a lot of tea, makes protein-packed blender drinks, and even arranges his cutlery at a right angle when eating.

I’ll admit it. I have a few quirks in my daily routine. I start my day wearing the same old sweatshirt, drinking a peppermint tea, listening to classical music, and neatly arranging my books, pens, and notes at right angles on the corners of my desk. This ritual must be followed before I can settle in to write these ETR essays. It signals my brain that it is time to start my 3-hour workday. Yes, just 3-hours. I’ll explain why in a moment…

But first, let’s talk more about the power of rituals. John Carlton, an ETR contributor who makes claim to being “the most ripped-off copywriter on the Web”, once told me that he walks around his desk before sitting down to write, just as my dog spins in a circle before laying down to rest. Carlton’s ritual relays to his brain that it’s time to switch into work mode.

Having rituals that signal the start and end of your workday are ideas worth borrowing. Developing a routine will allow you to get an incredible amount of creative work done in a short amount of time.

In one of my favorite books, Daily Rituals, author Mason Currey chronicles the productivity routines of the greatest thinkers, authors, painters, playwrights, and composers of the past 300 years.

Almost every author writes every day without fail, even holidays.

“I write when the spirit moves me, and the spirit moves me every day,” said William Faulkner, American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi.

For most of us, the early morning hours are magical. This is when we have the strength to overcome temptation, and when there will be fewer distractions in our days.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner wrote every morning for 90 minutes immediately after breakfast but before seeing patients. He plotted his writing output on a chart for decades, always pushing to do more in his magic time.

It is not just authors of the pre-Internet era that started their days with disciplined routines and near obsessive behavior to aid productivity. Contemporary writers such as Nicholson Baker and Haruki Murakami are up early, sticking to what seems to be a bland routine, but getting so much accomplished as a result.

“I like the feeling of getting up really early (4:30am),” Baker says, “The mind is newly cleansed but it’s also befuddled and you’re still just plain sleepy. I found that I wrote differently then.”

Murakami, a former jazz club owner who once smoked 60 cigarettes per day in his early writing career, moved to the countryside with his wife, took up healthy habits, runs every day instead of smoking, and focuses his relationship building on that with his readers. Said Murakami in an interview with The Paris Review, “”I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Having a morning ritual supports what I call, “Magic Time”. This is the time of day when you are three to five times more productive than you would be at any other hour. For me, it is first thing in the morning.

But I also accept the fact that genuine night owls exist, and I agree with author Anne Beatty who said, “”I really believe in day people and night people. My favorite hours are from 12am to 3am for writing.”

She is not alone in history. Great authors and artists that worked through their evenings and even until the sun came up include Samuel Beckett, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka.

However, true night owls are few and far between, and many can be rehabilitated to see the virtue of working early in the morning.

Neil Strauss, a former NY Times rock music critic and multiple NY Times best selling author, began his career sticking to a late night schedule while composing his books and reviews on bands like Motley Crue. Strauss assumed that he could not be like Ben Franklin, early to rise and write. But after committing to an experimental schedule that saw him writing early in the morning, Strauss was surprised to find he was as productive as ever, if not more so.

There are difficulties with relying on a nighttime habit of creativity. First of all, there are too many temptations. Your willpower has been drawn down from the chaos of the day. I urge you to give a morning routine a test. I’m willing to bet that like Strauss, you will be pleasantly surprised with your success.

Baker recommends slight changes to your routine to keep your day novel and to spark creativity.

I’ve taken Baker’s advice and made some small changes to the routine I shared with you in the past. I still wake up early, at 4am, and go immediately to work on my number one writing project (after petting the dog to ease his anxiety). After an hour, there is a quick standing break where I get more water and write my daily Thank You note to a team member, business partner, or reader, and then it’s back to writing for another hour.

My early morning routine finishes with fifteen minutes of writing in my Big Idea journal (James Altucher explains the Big Idea exercise here) and I review my daily documents (tips gathered from mentors over the years).

At this point I could stop working for the day and grow old comfortably with the wealth that these three hours have built. I could take the rest of the day off and live a life of leisure. This structure has given me incredible freedom. But I don’t stop.

Similar to American author, Toni Morrison, I hold the morning’s first light as a special, almost religious experience. But unlike Toni, who uses sunrise as her ritual signal to start work, I prefer to meditate as the sun rises. Then,rain, shine, sleet or snow, I head outside with the dog for a 20-minute walk around before the neighbors are up.

After the dog walk, my exercise, and breakfast, I start my second short shift of writing, working on easier to create projects, like new workouts and articles for my fitness business, Turbulence Training. Many authors throughout the course of history, from Charles Darwin to Stephen King, did the hardest writing first thing in the morning, and then moved to easier work, such as answering letters or dealing with their publishers in the afternoon. My workday concludes with a light lunch after which I might check my work email or do phone interviews.

Doggy duty (and doody) calls again at 4pm. We retrace the morning route, but this time we share the sidewalk with schoolchildren and their parents. When we return, ol’ Bally the Dog eats his dinner in the garage while I read the local paper, and then we head inside to get cleaned up. A few nights per week I’ll head out to meet friends while on other nights I’ll enjoy a home-cooked meal and sit by the fireplace reading (currently Taleb’s Antifragile).

Great results come from an effective routine, no matter if you are on Team 4:30am with Baker and Ballantyne or Team Late Night with Beatty, Beckett, Picasso, Proust, and Kafka.

Either way, you must be structured, for that is the best daily routine.

And if you are, you will be free.

“We’re far more likely to accomplish what we schedule,” writes Tony Schwartz, co-author of The Power of Full Engagement, “Rituals are behaviors that become automatic so that we no longer have to think about doing them. Doing the most important thing first in the morning is one of mine.”

And mine.

I encourage you to add more structure to your day. Randomness works poorly. The world’s greatest authors, thinkers, composers, and painters have recognized this for centuries.

“Discipline and freedom are not mutually exclusive but mutually dependent because otherwise, you’d sink into chaos,” said Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, “Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me.”

Know what is right for you. Identify your magic time. Ruthlessly protect it. Set up the routines that bring forth your best.

B.F. Skinner followed his morning magic time routine seven days a week, holidays included, for decades, all the way up until only a few days before his death, at the age of 86, in 1990. His work lives on.

Will the time you spend, the work you do, the legacy you build, the family values you nurture, live on?

Take 30 minutes this weekend and analyze your day. Plot a routine. Spend a day on this scheme. Be productive and leave your enduring legacy.

[Ed Note: Craig Ballantyne is the editor of Early to Rise (Join him on Facebook here) and the author of Financial Independence Monthly, a complete blueprint to helping you take control of your financial future with research of proven methods in your career, in your business and in your personal life. He has created a unique system to show gratitude and appreciation to stay on track for these goals each and every day. Click here to follow the exact 5-minute system you can use to improve your life.]

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  • Kristi

    So, here is my problem…I can stick to a routine like this just fine until there is an interruption in my schedule. For instance – I told a 4 day trip that included several business events that lasted way past my normal bedtime, which lead to sleeping way past my normal wake up time, which messed up my eating schedule and work out schedule. I have been back almost a week and still haven’t gotten back to my routine! Any advice or thoughts from others that maybe have this issue or have learned to master this?

  • Marion Lynn Connell

    I’ve tried the early mornning routine. It started when I had to be to work at 7 and was a half hour drive. I have a yoga routine (for back stretching) that I do upon arising.and then a short meditation. The proolem lies in the getting up at that ungodly hourmof 0430. I had to drag myself up, and the yoga gave me a chance to fully wake up, well almost fully. I hated getting up. Itried to continue getting up at that time after I stopped working, but to no avail. Writing for me seems to be best done in the late afternoon or evening.I’m sure I’ll figure it out once I get out of this house with a million people (I exaggerate a liitle) and into my own place. I do set my alarm for 0400 so that I can hit the snooze a few times and still do my yoga and meditation before I hit the shower before the rest of the world needs to get in there. There are times when I don’t make it up til 0600 which makes meditation time noisy , but by 0700 everyone’s gone and the house/shower is all mine.
    I don’t write directly on the laptop I have. I tend to write it out in a notebook and after I’ve read it over and made correction and/or clarifications I’ll then put it on the internet. I’ll write it one day while I’m travelling on the bus, or sitting ing the comfy chair in my room and then read it over the next day in about the same place. I don’t have a desk to sit at. That will come when I get my own place. I doo have an ideal routine planned out on paper, but it won’t work in this house due to everyone trying for the bathroom, needing something that’s in the room I’m in, needing the light or asking about something in the middle of my meditation. So I’ll hold on to it ’til Im in my own place. It doesn’t have me gettig up before the crack of dawn, but it’s definitely earlier than my old 0900 or 1000. Hopefully I will be able to make myself go to bed early enough to get 8 hoours sleep. Here I’m lucky if I get 4.

  • Curtis Penner

    I have no problem with the idea of getting up at 4:00 am. The issue I keep bumping up against is the idea of going to bed at 8:00 to get my usual amount of sleep. With a family that includes creatures other than the four-legged kind, how does one resolve this conflict when the rest of the world runs on a schedule of being up until 10 or 11 pm?

    • ttcert

      The point is not to get up at 4am. The point is to have a routine that allows you to get your work done. The key is routine, not the specific hour. Just get up and work on your priority.

      • Curtis Penner

        Thanks Craig for the clarification. That makes sense to me.

  • The link to the ‘big idea’ from James was broken when I clicked on it.

  • Thanks for this insight.
    I thought that getting up early (4:30) was crazy, but I like it.
    Maybe I am not “crazy” after all.
    Or at least not alone in the “insanity” of early productivity.

    PS. Looking forward to Info Blueprint next week