The secrets of extreme success are hard to nail down. Even those that have interviewed hundreds of business people populating the 1% – our Top Performers – find it hard to condense and synthesize a formula. Why? There isn’t a set formula.
The “secrets” are as unique as the people that practice them, and can’t be plugged into an equation. However, it is evident from a large body of writing that top performers share one thing in common: they organize their day around routines. They have a system.
Ask any of the world’s top performers how they got where they are, and I guarantee you, not a single one will say, “I have no idea; I was just going with the flow when I stumbled into this thing and it grew organically without my effort.” No, top performers know where they want to go, and they set up systems to help them get there. Those systems are routines that help minimize variability, by controlling what can be controlled.
Your days flow into weeks, months, and years to complete your journey through life. It makes sense that controlling your day as much as possible will result in an intentional journey. The most successful people among us have learned and applied this lesson by practicing routines and systems that help them stay on track. And here’s the thing: you can tap these practices to help you reach your own goals.
While top perfomers in every field – including yours – are ensuring that they control the tone of their day with a set personal system, even when events roll unpredictably, the rest of the world finds itself rolling out of control along with the happenings of the day.
This article looks at 6 of the routines used by top performers to organize their day, and how you can adopt them for yourself. This is the first of a two-part article; once you finish it, you’ll want to check out part two.
Part one: mornings
1. Have a Morning Ritual.
Top performers have a morning ritual. No matter what the day is, they start it in the same basic way as they started the previous day, generally before the rest of the world wakes and starts demanding their attention and energy.
You already have a morning routine, whether or not you consider it a ritual. We all have habits, even if we are not consciously aware of them. When we’re not aware of how we spend our time, we are in a habit that doesn’t benefit. Instead, top performers intentionally take control of those habits by creating routines that serve them.
Instead of scrolling Instagram or hitting snooze for the first 30 minutes after your alarm, allow yourself 30 minutes of personal time before the day’s responsibilities come calling. This habit will give you time to take charge of your day, and may even grow to allow time to work on passion projects before you clock in for your day job.
Waking as late as possible to get to work or school on time causes you to raise your head off your pillow and right into the chaos of everyone else’s demands. Tim Ferriss sets the first 80-90 minutes of his day in stone, with little variation in the way they play out, to feel “in control and non-reactive” the rest of the day. This means he wakes early enough to have quiet time before the phone starts ringing. The next time you reach to turn off your alarm, consider what you’ll be giving up the rest of the day for those extra minutes of sleep.
The morning ritual generally includes activities that energize spirit, soul, and body.
Include time to reflect quietly, without trying to solve problems or fulfill requests.
Reflection and meditation allow your thoughts to settle into a pattern of calm and clarity of focus, allowing for more mental space for the tasks of the day. Many, like Warren Buffett and Richard Branson have found journaling, or writing in a notebook, to be an excellent meditation tool. Top performers use their notebook or journal to help flesh out ideas instead of letting them run around without form in their heads.
Another good journaling practice is gratitude; recording a few things you have now for which you are thankful allows you to function from a positive mental place for the rest of the day. As a result, your activities flow from positive energy and take you toward your goals.
Make time for quiet reflection during your morning routine, before the rest of the world wakes and sets your agenda for the day.
Fuel your body with water, exercise, and healthy breakfast.
Top performers optimize their physical energy by adding self-care to their morning routine. They drink water to hydrate after a good night’s sleep. They perform at least light exercise (or more if your schedule and biorhythm have room for it), and they eat a healthy breakfast. These things get the blood flowing and set your physical energy to high.
Where applicable, these activities flow into family time when the rest of the house begins to rouse. Imagine how much more relaxing the carpool line would be if all you had to focus on was the precious moments spent in conversation with your children at the beginning of their day. Or your morning commute if there was nothing on your mind distracting you from your friends’ or loved one’s voice.
Eating the same basic breakfast on the daily allows you to save your valuable decision-making power for the things that really count. Will power and mental energy are exhaustible resources, and should be reserved for bigger decisions, so relegating regular activities (such as breakfast) to habit frees up mental energy for the important stuff.
Some good choices:
- Greek yogurt with fruit and almonds
- Smoothie balanced with protein, greens, healthy fats, and fruit
- Oatmeal with berries and walnuts
- Boiled eggs and sprouted grain toast spread with almond butter
Find a simple breakfast that is simple to prepare that you enjoy enough to eat most days of the week, and set that activity to auto-pilot.
Your mind is sharpest 2.5-4 hours after you wake. Optimize this “golden hour” by scheduling solitary projects during the first two hours of your day. That way, you can dig deep without interruption.
2. Have a Start-Up Routine.
Whether you work from home or commute to an office, what you do when you arrive at the beginning of your work day determines the course of your day’s events. If you are following the same practice as wildly successful professionals and entrepreneurs (from Fritz Van Paaschen to Pat Flynn) your first tasks of the day will be determined the day before; more on that later.
Top performers start their work day by reviewing their goals.
The more concrete your attachment is to your goals, the more likely you will be to achieve them. Top performers use their goals and to guide all of their activity. If it is not important to achieving their mission, they will either delegate the activity or delete it from their agenda. Writing your goals in a notebook and reviewing them regularly allows you to develop a solid connection to them, which will direct your daily actions and intentions on your goals. Making sure you only spend time doing what’s important will bring your goals closer into reach.
Begin with the most difficult or creative tasks.
Science writer Jennifer Ackerman writes of neuroscience and productivity research that indicates most of us are sharpest mentally 2.5 – 4 hours after waking. This “golden hour” for creative productivity typically lands just as most of us are arriving at the office for the day. What should you do with it?
Many dive straight into email, allowing it to dictate the direction of their daily tasks, but the most successful, including Tim Ferriss, advise you to avoid getting stuck in email first thing in the morning. (see this article for more on how the wildly successful handle the email conundrum)
In fact, Eric Barker of The Week writes, it may be wise to sequester yourself when you first arrive at the office. Instead of wasting that mental energy on email or sidebar conversations, close your door (even if figuratively) and allow yourself to focus on your most mentally-demanding tasks for the first 2 to 4 hours of your day.
Mini-Rituals are necessary to recharge your focus when your mental energy slows. A helpful strategy here may be to schedule your workout for mid-day, when your flow wanes.
3. Use a Mini-Ritual to Refocus.
Just as it’s impossible to sprint a marathon, you can’t maintain the same level of work intensity for the entire day. The most successful honor their energy levels by not bulling through their slumps; they don’t neglect breaks, meals, and necessary diversions. What they do is allow for resets when energy and focus wanes. Enter the mid-day mini-ritual.
Create a lighter version of your morning ritual for when your energy flow slows.
When you feel your focus slip or your energy for a task lag, it may be time to stand up and walk away. Focus on something other than a screen, particularly on something in the middle-distance, to protect from eyestrain headaches.
Incorporate some physical activity, hydration, and reflection. Stretch. Do a brief yoga practice, or take a walk around the block. Maybe make time for the gym mid-day, as Evan Williams, founder of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium, does. Drink some water; research indicates that adequate hydration supports mental energy. Take a light snack or healthy lunch.
When the body is refreshed, refresh your mind and focus by reviewing your goals again. Read motivational quotes and review the things you’ve already accomplished for the day. According to David Niven, nothing motivates more than your own productivity and accomplishments. Listen to inspiring music. Take steps to renewing your mental energy.
Apply the 80/20 rule.
Recognize, as top performers do, that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort. If you focused deeply and the work flowed from your energy for two hours of an 8-hour day, then you have already maximized your day’s work with this principle. If, when you return to your creative tasks, the flow fizzles, you can confidently take this as your cue to turn your attention to email and the lighter tasks on your daily list. If this comes at a predictable time in your day, begin scheduling interactive time to coincide with your energy levels.
Here is the rundown of the 6 routines used by top performers of our age.
- Have a Morning Ritual, and guard it fiercely.
- Have a Start-up Routine when you arrive for the day’s work.
- Practice a mini-ritual when your energy flow begins to slow.
- Schedule Interactive Time for the afternoon.
- Have a Shut-Down Routine to act as a hard stop to work and a signal to relax and recharge.
- Have an Evening Routine, including a bedtime ritual.