When my position at ESPN (The Walt Disney Company) was eliminated in late 2015, I thought, “hey, free time! I’m a designer, and here’s a chance to try and finally design a personal routine that works for me.” You know what I’m talking about. That mythical personal routine that we’re all supposed to be able to find in order to be our most effective, productive, successful and happy, right? Your Groove, so to speak? I REALLY wanted to find my groove. Thus far, it had eluded me, the way aliens elude Fox Mulder. So close, and yet, not quite ever… I’d struggled for at least a decade to find a schedule that flowed with my natural biorhythms and allowed me to hit my max.
If you’ve struggled to find your own groove, I hope my own experience will give you some ideas that might help your own quest for a new groove.
THE EARLY MORNING ROUTINE: MY LOSING BATTLE
Morning routines can be incredibly powerful. They hit at a time when your mind is fresh, and before the problems of the day have had a chance to distract you. They can set the tone for your entire day. Because of this, each of the ‘how to be effective’ books, articles and gurus has its own take on the ‘morning routine’. Most include stuff like:
- Wake up.
- Make your bed.
- Drink coffee.
- Don’t drink coffee.
- Listen to music.
- Stare blankly at the wall in silence.
- Morning pages.
- Plan the day ahead.
- Don’t think about the day ahead.
- Daily journal.
- Warm up sketches.
- Sort through your email.
- Don’t touch your email.
- Yada yada.
You’ve probably seen a lot of these schedules. In each, ideally you’re up at 5:30 and you’ve accomplish more than most people by 8am.
In theory, it sounds doable. You might have even tried making your own. I have. Lots of times. I generally start out strong but within weeks I’m stumbling, then tripping, and finally I fall flat on my face. Why?
MY SELF ASSESSMENT
The biggest problem I could identify was a tendency to stay up later and later until I couldn’t get up on time, anymore. Then, there’s no time left for the ritual as I scramble to get out of the house in time to get to work. The whole thing may even backfire! I get up late, don’t finish my ritual, rush out of the house, get to work late. Now I’m going to get out of work late, home late, dinner late, etc. How’s THAT for setting the tone of my day?
Recently, I’ve run across some articles, as well as this awesome infographic, on alternate schedules and the differences between early birds and night owls. My wife calls me a Night Owl, and compared to her, I certainly am, but I don’t see myself as either. I think I fall somewhere in the middle.
I think I’m a late morning person. I tend to stay up too late to be able to get up early enough to be a true Early Bird. 5:30 a.m. has proven to be unsustainable for me. 6:30 or even 7 work much, much better for me, and I can do that almost indefinitely.
But I’m not a true Night Owl, either. In fact, its 8:50 pm right now, and I’m definitely feeling tired and thinking about finishing this tomorrow (update: I did). On the one hand, in the evening I can often keep barreling forward on a single project, even going into early morning if there’s a deadline involved. On the other hand, I don’t change tracks well. I generally derail. “Can we please save this for tomorrow?”
Earlier in the day, I’m highly creative and can bounce from task to task. Ten minutes on this. Thirty on that. Twenty on the next. In fact, for the first couple of hours, I often have a hard time settling into a long task without getting distracted. Starting around lunch time, however, things shift. I can lock into difficult, creative tasks, focusing holistically on the entire project, setting out a plan of engagement, and then executing. For hours on end.
I needed a routine that wasn’t someone else’s routine. Time to stop fitting myself into everyone else’s schedule. Turns out that this was the real battle I’d been losing most of my life.
WHAT WORKED FOR ME
So, as I began my new freelance career (designers are never unemployed, we just go from employed to freelance) I used my freedom to try various schedules. The one that ultimately seems to be working for me goes something like this:
Between 6:30 and 7 am: Wake up. Make the bed. Throw on some workout clothes. Kiss my daughter goodbye as she heads out to the bus.
7 to 7:40 am: Go for a walk with my wife (or without her if she’s unavailable).
7:40 to 8:10 am: Workout. Interestingly, I find that if I skip the walk, I resist the workout. The walk eases me into ‘active’ mode.
8:10 to 9 am: Make a green smoothie for breakfast, do some personal bible study, and pray. Brew a pot of green iced tea for later in the day. A few minutes of creative thinking.
9 to 9:30 am: Shower, shave, dress, etc.
9:30 to 11 am: Easing in to work. I generally start with email to knock small stuff out of the way and check for any priority items that need to be added to my ToDoist list. Then I jump to my list, prioritize the day’s tasks, and start knocking the quick and easy out of the way. If I have any tutorials that need going through, now is generally the time to hit those.
11 am: Lunch. If Lou is around, she and I will eat together and talk a bit. Otherwise, I often work while eating.
11:30 am: Lunch is over, and I start on the big tasks. I settle in and start digging through the heavy stuff. When I finish one big task, I’ll move to the next, and keep going this way until 5:30 or 6, unless I break for dinner.
4 pm: Break to have dinner with the family.
4:40-ish pm: Back to work.
5:30 or 6 pm: Quit working.
At this point, not only am I done working for the day, but I’m also done with everything else. I can watch a movie with the family, or play games, or go out. Whatever I want. Even work on a personal project. Its a beautiful routine that works best when I’m working from home.
I then shoot for a bedtime of around 10:30 pm.
WHAT BLOWS UP
While I finally nailed down a schedule that seems to be working really well for me, along the way I’ve logged a number of things that don’t.
Reversing this order, starting work early and doing the personal enrichment stuff later, NEVER works. I spend the first few work hours distracted, not really getting much done on my tasks. Finally, after lunch (noon if things go well) I start to settle into a good routine, only to have the work day end just as I’m really starting to make great progress. And the personal stuff? I’m generally able to exercise, but anything else is a chore. Even when I accomplish them, they take longer I simply don’t have the mental energy to get the most out of it at this time of the day.
Commuting (w/ standard work day)
My winning schedule is actually a variation on one I’d tried while at ESPN (and now with a couple of my recent gigs), but it flops constantly. Why? Traditional work hours and the commute! Figure starting at 9am preceded by 30 minutes of drive time, and I’m either running late to morning stand ups, or I’m killing part of the morning routine in order to be on time.
My workout gets bumped to after work. If there’s a gym at work, then I’m leaving for home at 6:30, arriving sometime after 7pm. Skipping the workout, I’m home sometime after 6 and trying to justify ignoring my family as I work out at home. Either way, I’ve missed dinner with the family, and my wife (a true early bird) is heading to bed by 8. It just feels like everything is out of sync.
If I shift the morning routine to an hour earlier to compensate for a commute and early start, it eventually falls apart. Oversleeping, which happens often (remember, not an early bird!) puts the rest of the day into a race against the clock. Either I do the entire routine but remain stressed out the rest of the day because I’m behind, or I skip steps in order to catch up. Neither is a winning answer.
East Coast Work Day (Remote)
This one isn’t TOO bad, but still not perfect since I still have to kill part of my routine to allow me to start at a reasonable east coast time, especially if there are meetings to call into. There also isn’t much wiggle room for delays. Still, it works better than the commuting routine.
MY GAME PLAN
OK. I know what works and I’ve identified several things that derail me. I like the schedule. Its amazing for me. I want to keep it. But how?
1. Kill the commute. If I don’t, it will kill my groove. Keep looking for remote opportunities. Which is probably the best option for me right now, anyway, seeing as how I live about an hour from any major metro area and a new commute would likely be 45 minutes or more.
2. Kill the 9am start time. If I don’t, it will kill my groove. So, I can look for remote work in a later time zone. My 9:30 to 10 am start time is just too late for most companies in my own time zone; Eastern. However, for the Central time zone, its just about perfect. And I’m a bonafide early bird in Mountain and Pacific!
3. Look for flexible options locally. Alternately, I will also continue to keep an eye open for local positions that are OK with a later start and end time.
What I, and a reasonably large number of smart people, have concluded is this: find your own routine. Maybe its a ‘morning’ routine. Maybe its not. Lots of night owls are smart and successful, too!
Yes, routines are helpful and, likely, important, but what works for you will ultimately be different than what works for others. Figure out what’s important to you, and start trying things. See what works, what breaks (and what’s breaking them!) and rework. When you finally get your schedule purring, your days will just flow, and you’ll know that you’ve found your new groove.