Imitation Works: Copy Other People’s Routines to Super-Charge Your Own

I recently heard Sebastian Marshall, a person I admire a lot, describe his morning routine. I got a lot of good ideas from it, and then I realized; a lot of my best ideas and most powerful reassurances have come from hearing the specifics of how someone else does a certain thing. Just off the top of my head I can think of at least three examples.

  • Naomi Dunford reassured me that “faking it til she made it,” was how she got through the first several years of IttyBiz. It’s nice to hear people’s origin stories before they turn into mythology.
  • Catherine Caine outlined her marketing plan for a new product launch, and I thought “Is that all? I can do that.” And that’s when marketing stopped being this big mysterious thing for me.
  • Joel Canfield mentioned that when his wife Sue was in the hospital several years ago, her routines and SOPs for her VA clients were so well outlined that he was able to run the business for her. That was a tremendous encouragement to me and still remains the gold standard of how good my procedures are.

It’s all too easy to look at how the A-listers do things, what Havi Brooks calls “biggified” people. I got scared off marketing seeing people like Maria Forleo have a three ring circus for a launch. How on earth could I ever launch something, if that’s what was required? I was doomed to fail. Then a couple years ago, Catherine shared her plan and now since then, marketing and launching seem like no big thang.

So I thought I’d share a little bit about my life. I’m no Leo Babauta or Tim Ferriss, but I’ve got some things figured out that work for me. I’m going to shut up about context now and just give you the facts, hmm?

My Morning Kata:  Creative and High Value Stuff First

I run three businesses. I have an online retail business, an SEO content service business, and of course Change Catalyst. Which is to say that on any given day I could be running around like a chicken with my head cut off. But I have learned not to.

The first thing I have learned is that if you let urgent stuff take over, you’ll never get the important stuff done.

The second thing I have learned is that my morning hours are worth three times what an afternoon hour is worth (evening hours can go either way).

The third thing I have learned is that I don’t do routine. You might find this shocking since I am known as the systematizer, but the reason I had to write down all those SOPs in the first place is because it took me forever to remember how I’d done it last time, and even longer to recall the best way to do things.

But even more than that, I have found that it’s not good for me to have too strict a routine. It adds stress when I have unexpected circumstances come up, it adds resistance when for whatever reason I feel like I HAVE to do something I don’t WANT to do. And it adds a layer of complexity to a part of the day when I would like to be at my most creative.

Build from The Bottom to Dismantle Pitfalls

A good morning starts with a good night’s sleep, so I try to go to bed at an hour that ensures I’ll be able to wake up without an alarm around seven. (I still set an alarm, but I always wake up a few minutes early to turn it off.)

What I like most about mornings is that they have so much possibility about them. Mornings are magical; on a really good morning you could conquer half the known world before coffee break. But in the morning, my willpower is not fully on line yet, so I have to make sure that I don’t piss it away reading the latest troll-bait on Digg. Consequently, I have locked myself out of most of the internet using StayFocusd for 2.5 hours in the morning. I still allow Google (for docs, calendar and gmail), Pocket, Mint, Contactually, and a few others, but I don’t find them particularly distracting. They’re just there if I need to look something up.

Decide What You Want To Do Instead

Now that I’m locked out of the cookie jar, I need to find something productive to do. However, there’s no better way to make me not want to do something than to say, “Here it is, you have to do it, you can’t do anything else until it’s done.”

So instead I have a list of “preferred tasks”

  • Write morning pages
  • Write content for CC
  • Yoga
  • Eat breakfast (it’s a protein shake. I hate eating in the morning)
  • Shower, dress and put on makeup (while not mandatory, I definitely feel more of a badass on the days I wear my battle-paint)
  • Read something entertaining and thought provoking (usually while it eat my breakfast. That’s why Pocket is allowed. That’s my brain food)
  • Meditate
  • Email people with Contactually
  • Systematize some aspect of my business
  • Plan my day (this literally involves rehearse the plan for the day. There are a lot of moving parts. For instance, I sometimes have to really hustle to get the dogs walked in between calls. Poor things are elderly and have to go out every two hours.)

I don’t do all of the items on the list. Hell, I don’t even do half of them. If I do three or four, I consider it a win. Because I am locked out of all my time-wasters, I am left with the space to fuss, putter unproductively, and finally settle into work. It doesn’t much matter what I do, because all the stuff on this list contributes either directly or indirectly to my productivity and quality of life.

Why It Works For Me

This is particularly important to me to do in the early mornings, because if I get on a roll, I can maintain it until noon or 12:30. After that, I schedule my calls or I do the urgent stuff. The afternoons are very touchy productivity-wise, but the urgent stuff has a tendency to push itself to the front of my attention and that’s when it gets handled. Because I’ve been working more or less since 7 or 8, I usually knock it off around 4pm. That last hour is a loss most of the time anyway, but I have nothing much to do except putter around, tidy my desk, and feed and walk the dogs.

What’s a routine or habit you’ve found to work for you? Share it in the comments!


16 thoughts on “Imitation Works: Copy Other People’s Routines to Super-Charge Your Own”

  1. I’ve basically designated Fridays as consolidation days. In the morning, I clean my house. I never thought I’d be one to revel in clear surfaces and clean floors, but I feel so good when I’m done. In the afternoon, I do my weekly review, which includes updating finances, digitizing and organizing notes from the week, clearing out my inboxes and the like, looking back at the previous week’s plan, and sketching out what I want to see happen in the upcoming week. It feels somehow frivolous or silly to squander a whole day resetting every week, but the benefits have been enormous. On weeks when I don’t have my full day for whatever reason, I feel grumpy and scattered.

  2. I must be the only one with no noticeable change in productivity depending on if I put on my “battle gear and paint” or not. Although the “paint” part doesn’t apply to a minimalist bald dude.

    I’m trying to pick between the 86 recurring business tasks that I do somewhere between daily to annually. Hmmmm … let’s see … Do I comment on the weekly 3:30 p.m. peer development ritual? Maybe the end of the week gratitude habit? How about something that takes me away from work during the day, which I need to do every 45 minutes or so.

    I’ve been doing 20 minutes of body weight exercises in my basement starting at 1:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the past year(ish). At first I only made it downstairs about once a week and for 10-15 minutes. But as the push-ups went from 20 to 50 (not consecutively, of course), the squats from 25 to 40, and the planks from 30 seconds to 60 seconds, I started to celebrate. My friend Brooke of talks about celebration rituals for even the smallest of things. So after I finish my last set of squat reps, I hold my hands up over head like Rocky after climbing some stairs, do a little dancing around for a few seconds, and then settle back into some business work.

    The big mindset shift was realizing that it was a gift to do the body weight workouts. I didn’t have to work-out. I got to work-out. You’re in good shape – sometimes literally – when you can convert a dreaded chore into a cherished ritual. And this can be done with just about anything.

  3. joeyjoejoe You just roll out of bed looking perfect, don’t you? 😉 I’d like to hear more about how scheduling all this stuff like it’s a school period works for you. I imagine I would always stress myself out by worrying if I was going to finish what I was doing in time for my next meeting with myself!

  4. erinkurup I find it interesting how quickly your expectations change after you do something radical like that. “What do you mean, people don’t review their weeks? How can they possibly survive?”

  5. Thanks for the mention Shanna! Something Joel and I have recently put into place, since we run our business together, is a daily planning session. This coming year we are going to add a weekly, monthly and quarterly wrap up as well. It helps us focus on what’s important for the day – especially since Joel is one of those creative types who has BSO syndrome (Bright Shiny Object).

  6. I preach and practice and preach: Plan every week. I do this routine 45-50 times a year. It’s the best habit I have besides sleeping, and it takes just 20 minutes and gives me my best shot at having a great week, every week. Plan, plan, plan. Then everything else can be spontaneous.

  7. I wish I had a great routine to share, but… My routines change so frequently, so it’s hard to answer that. You would think that someone like me, a single mom, would need a solid routine in order to function, but the most important habit I have is to remain flexible. No matter what routine I plan, I make it a habit to not be too attached to it. I think I’ve developed this habit over the last few years out of necessity because things were so unstable and a lot of unexpected things happened in my life, so it was either learn to be flexible or lose my mind. I chose flexibility. 

    However, I’ve learned that the downside to flexibility is that sometimes there’s a thin line between flexibility and flakiness and I need to do a better job with honoring my commitments. Hopefully, this year I’ll find the right balance.

  8. I am so on board with doing the hard stuff first thing in the morning. That is the only time my brain seems able to tackle the bigger problems.  I would say if I was going to take something from this list, it would be to cultivate a daily writing practice– For me, thinking about writing and just sitting down to do it is much harder than the process itself. So, having a routine could really help me.

  9. ethanwaldman I love my writing routine for giving me space to tackle the stuff that’s been niggling at the back of my brain. Like “Well, I have to put down 750 words; might as well talk about that thing.” The hard part for me was getting rid of all of the more attractive options for my time other than writing. Also, I’ve found using IFTTT to autocreate a new post has been surprisingly useful. I had not realized that that was even a friction point.

  10. deniseurena I know what you mean. With so much stuff going on in my life, flexibility is definitely an important attribute. But that flakiness is the bane of my existence. Nailing down deliverables is the only way I get anything done!

  11. David Delp Wow! That looks great. I find that a week is a weird length of time for me. Probably because I can’t strictly be said to have a weekend. I do best in 1-3 day chunks. Getting too far into the future forces me to make assumptions about what will definitely happen, and like Denise said, staying flexible works a lot better for me.

  12. Shanna Mann I feel like I hear a really brilliant use for ifttt every day! I feel a blog post coming on… Do you get any kind of notification that the note has been created? Like: Hey Shanna, Your daily writing note is ready!

  13. ethanwaldman Nope, no email. But I have the notebook shortcutted and evernote is nearly always open, so it’s pretty top of mind for me. You could also tag it something like #dailywriting, then set up another ifttt  recipe to email you when a post with that tag is created.

  14. Pingback: How To Create A Daily/Weekly/Monthly Schedule | Sharise Mershon

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