We all know what self-discipline means: you set a schedule and stick to it. You determine your goals and tasks and finish them accordingly. End of story… right?
In theory, yes. But you know as well as I do, reality is much different.
We are prone to making grandiose plans while hyped up on motivation, but when it’s time to actually go through with them, day in and day out, we’re likely to simply give up after a while.
A big factor in this is something known as decision fatigue. It’s an idea introduced by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister that explains how the more choices you make, the worse their quality becomes.
If you’re constantly focused on making a decision, weighing the pros and cons of every single choice — what you’re going to have for breakfast, whether to take the bus or the subway, whether to take the stairs or the elevator — by the end of the day, you will be mentally tired. Your brain will develop an attitude like: “I don’t care man, just pick whatever”.
This has been shown to affect everybody, from judges who are less lenient in the afternoon to shoppers making impulsive buys at the register. At some point, your brain clocks out and you just do stuff without thinking too much about the consequences.
This creates a big problem: If you spend most of your mental energy focusing on mundane, unimportant elements of your life, you have no juice left when it’s time to tackle bigger decisions.
By using this knowledge, you can remove the decision process from these small tasks to preserve mental energy. And the way to do it, used by almost all successful people in the history of the world, is by implementing morning and evening routines.
Creating Morning and Evening Routines
I’m the type of person who enjoys working on projects, learning new things, and being productive.
But no matter how hard I tried, I could never stick to a schedule. I would rely either on random bursts of motivation to get the bulk of my work done and I would hate every moment in between. I’d know I should be doing something else, but I would choose not to because I don’t feel like it.
Hence, I would regularly fall into a rut and have a hard time implementing any form of stability in my work.
I would start going to the gym, then fall off and eventually quit after a few months. I would make a schedule for completing a project, only to go off the rails after a few weeks and destroy all deadlines I had previously set.
The groundbreaking idea that helped me finally get on the right track was that discipline is not about forcing yourself into doing hard work, but setting up your environment so that doing hard work becomes “normal”.
As James Clear explained in his amazing book Atomic Habits: “You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” (Side note, Atomic Habits is the best book on building and breaking habits in a realistic, no-nonsense way. Get it here.)
It wasn’t until I created and enforced strict morning and evening routines that I was able to finally organize my life. After a while, I realized that to maintain stability, I needed to actually have stable elements in my life in the first place.
The problem: At first, I tried to do too many things at once.
My initial morning routines consisted of keeping a journal, meditating, studying a new language, learning about science, reading a book, and some form of physical exercise. That’s a lot of things to go through at the start of each day and this routine would take a minimum of 2 hours to complete.
To do all of this and finish my actual work for the day, I would have to get up early, go to sleep late, and take little to no breaks. It was exhausting. So after a week or two of this regime, I’d regularly give up.
Ultimately, I decided to simplify things.
Your routine needs to consist of tasks that not only seem cool but serve a purpose in the morning and in the evening respectively. In the morning, they should wake you up and get you in the right mindset for the day. In the evening, they should help you reflect on your schedule and turn off your mind.
Have no more than 5 tasks in each routine. It’s up to you to pick and choose what big or small tasks you want to add to your routine, but the fewer elements you have, the faster you can complete them, so the fewer chances you have of avoiding them.
If in doubt, ask yourself: “What would this look like if it were easy?”
Choosing tasks for your routine
Now, as already stated, the tasks in your routine should be personal and based on things you want to improve in your own life. But there are a few common tasks that are widely implemented in people’s routines, and for a good reason — they work.
So I would like to highlight two things I believe everybody should have as part of their routines (both of which are very adaptable to your own needs):
1. Wake up at the same time
Whether you work from home or go to the office, chances are that you don’t wake up at the same time every day. You sleep in on the weekends, hug the sheets on your days off, or sleep until noon while you’re hungover and came home at 5 am.
Setting a time schedule and sticking to it for a period of time has been the single most effective method of discipline I have ever come across. If you search the web for habits that most successful people have, 9/10 times you will find that they wake up somewhere between 4 am and 6 am most days of the week. That’s no coincidence.
However, I am not going to tell you to start waking up early. The key point here is to wake up AT THE SAME TIME.
Depending on your own lifestyle, this can vary. For people who run businesses and set their own schedule, 4 am – 6 am may be the optimal time for getting their work done. But if you work night shifts on the weekends, their structure will simply not work for you.
For example, as of writing this, I aim to wake up around 8 am.
It’s early enough to seize most of the morning but late enough that I can get enough sleep. Most of my social activities are scheduled after 8 pm, which means I hardly ever get home before midnight. By the time I get things in order, it’s usually closer to 1 pm when I go to sleep, so waking up at 4 am simply isn’t plausible for my current life situation.
Set a schedule that works for you, but stick to it without fail.
Of course, if you were clubbing all night, you can switch it up, but make sure that most of the time you stick to the set wake up time — at least for a month or two in a row.
2. Keep a journal
When I say “journal”, your first thought was probably of a diary kept by schoolgirls where they write about their crushes and friends. But that’s not what I am talking about.
A personal journal is a method of capturing your thoughts on paper and it has been a powerful tool used by everybody from ancient philosophers to famous inventors, presidents, movie directors, and writers.
To emphasize how powerful of a tool this can be, note that in 1994, Bill Gates paid over $30 million for parts of Leonardo da Vinci’s journal. This might seem like a crazy thing to do, but it allowed him a sneak peek into one of history’s most brilliant minds.
So why keep a journal? And what to write in it?
Your personal journal should be exactly that — personal. Every person uses it for different purposes and with different benefits in mind. Popular use cases are: writing down ideas and thoughts, listing things you are grateful, and reflecting on what happened each day.
Personally, I had a problem with never recognizing the things I’ve accomplished, which left me constantly unsatisfied. When I first started out, I wanted to use journaling to address this problem.
I created five questions I needed to answer in the morning and in the evening. They went along the lines of:
- What were you doing this time 5 years ago?
- What worries you the most at the moment? Should it (YES/NO)?
- What advice would you give to someone in your exact same situation?
Answering these questions took about a minute or two, but put my entire life into perspective and allowed me to start (and end) each day with a clear head.
Eventually, my journaling evolved into freeform scribbling of my current thoughts as soon as I woke up and right before I went to bed. Even though I’m a big fan of digital everything, my journal is a physical notebook.
I don’t pay attention to grammar, structure, or anything really. I never plan on re-reading anything I write. I consider it a brain dump of my thoughts, feelings, goals, tasks, or anything else that’s going on inside my head.
Tim Ferris referred to this as “caging the monkey mind”; putting your thoughts down so you can clear your head and differentiate important things from the noise.
Skeptical? Don’t be. Any journaling form you decide to try is going to be worth it. It does wonders for your psyche.
Creating the complete routine
When it comes to creating the complete routine, it is important to keep things as simple as possible.
Implement tasks that are beneficial, but don’t take long to do. Your routine should last no more than 30 minutes. The longer it takes, the more likely you will find reasons to avoid it or skip certain tasks.
The key to actually sticking to your routines is, once again, consistency. Do not do them once in a while or when you “feel like it”. For at least one to two full months, you need to religiously follow the schedule.
Here are some popular ideas to choose from:
- Wake up at X am
- Drink a glass of water
- Take a shower
- Simple breathing exercise
- Light cardio
- Clean up house mess
- Schedule tasks for tomorrow
- Put out your clothes for the morning
- Read a few pages of book
- Light stretching
Reading this, you may be thinking: “Well shit, I could’ve thought of these myself. They’re nothing special.” And you’re completely right.
They shouldn’t be particularly special or unique. I mean, sure, your morning routine may involve you practicing your handstand by walking to the bathroom on your hands, but this will only make you more likely to give up after some time.
Keep it simple: 3-5 tasks, 10-30 minutes tops, 30-60 days minimum.
Over time, you will see which methods work best for you so you can adapt and tie your routines into each other. For example, setting your gym clothes out in the evening will make it easier to pick them up and go running in the morning.
Lastly, have fun and experiment. It’s your life and your time. Routines simply help you make the most of both.
P.S. Here is an example of a completely developed routine, explained in detail.