I haven't been exactly on time with my latest blog posts. I didn't skip any, there was one every week, but I haven't managed to write a blog every Monday (or more recently Tuesday). Today is Friday. I've been asking myself how this happens and what is missing to be more consistent again and feel the drive to deliver on time.
As I might get into a little bit more detail while writing along, I will split this article on building, having and maintaining a routine into two parts. Part I will be about my morning routine and why it's the most important part of the day. In the second part I will write about the "getting sh*t done" phase of the day between 0900 and 1200, how I spend my afternoons and evenings and why it is more and more important these days to have as much time off as possible...
On building a routine...
One thing I have realized a couple of months ago is how important it is to have a proper layout for each and every day (even if it's just a rough sketch, it doesn't need to cover each and every minute). Not that I haven't had one before. I've had a plan for how my days should unfold and I fiddled about with it for the better part of a year now. In parts it became more or less a subconscious thing that got disarranged and interrupted whenever I wasn't at home in my familiar surroundings or something interfered with how a "normal" day would unfold.
For me, it's difficult to admit that there needs to be a certain way of order in my life - not just for parts of it but for all of it - particularly to make the most out of my days and to feel "in balance". Balance is probably one of the key aspects that make me feel good. If I'm out of balance, may it be due to a lack of sleep, lack of food, lack of workout or lack of tasks that I managed to finish during the day, I don't feel good about myself. I even tend to create an uncomfortable aura around myself that influences the people I am surrounded with.
The other reason to have a good routine is to prevent procrastination. I am a master of procrastination. I get distracted easily and for extensive periods of time. Sometimes I just get so distracted that only by the end of the day I remember what I set out to do earlier. It hasn't been like that before when I've had my regular job since I was living through my calendar and had to do-lists in addition.
But here we are, a totally new situation and 100% responsibility for what I am doing with my time. So, it's even more important to get focused from time to time and think about what that routine might need to look like to get most out of the day, be balanced and in a positive mood and don't lose myself in thoughts, actions and daydreaming that won't get me anywhere.
To give you a better idea of what my routine looks like and why it has significance way beyond providing structure for the day, I want to share it with you.
The morning (non-)routine...
I wrote about this in a couple of different articles but here I go again - hoping that it doesn't feel too repetitive: for me it is crucial to start the day with 3-5 small tasks that set the stage for the rest of the day. These tasks can hardly be called a routine by themselves, but a string of habits can well be called a routine, can't it?
I usually wake up between 0550 and 0610 am. We got used to this since the alarm has been set for 0615 am for most of the time we've lived here and my brain somehow prevents me from being woken up by an alarm. Therefore, I wake up 5-15 minutes prior to that. It's a good feeling and it's important (for me but also scientifically proven) to wake up around the same time every day, no matter how long you've slept before. Of course, it would be healthier to have 7-8 hours of sleep prior to waking up but waking up at the same time makes the rest of the morning and the day more predictable and you won't find yourself in the awkward position that "half of the day" is gone and you haven't actually achieved anything. By the way, I even wake up around the same time on weekends, no exceptions here.
After waking up I check my phone. I shouldn't do that but I still do and I think it will be one of the toughest bad habits to lay off. I used to make the mistake to check on emails and other can-be-time-consuming things like social media feeds and WhatsApp. I managed to reduce this to only reading my notifications so I know what awaits me after breakfast. However, I've switched off a lot of the notifications that carry the risk of stressing me out first thing in the morning. I don't need that. Nobody does. While reaching for my phone one of the first things I usually hear from the other side of the bed is: "Honey, do you make me breakfast?" - it's funny because I've been doing it for quite a while now. However, this more or less rhetorical question does give getting up this early a sense of purpose. I can do something good and useful for someone else first thing in the morning. That's a nice thing!
I have never been a tidy person but since moving to Helsinki in 2016 and having a really nice apartment for the first time, I felt that it got more and more necessary to leave every room in a clean and tidy state. So making the bed is an important habit that I've developed. This kind of "overarching" order and tidiness - details can always be improved - helped to overcome a subconscious feeling of being unwell and unsettled.
After making the bed I set up water for tea and brew some coffee. While my eyes feel tired for quite some time after waking up, my nose is already pretty sensitive. The smell of freshly brewed coffee is strongly associated with with feeling comfortable, energized and ready to go, so it's an important part of my morning routine. While it is brewing I do a couple of stretches. It takes 6-10 minutes and includes a couple of lunges, planks and shoulder exercises. My resting pulse is around 55 so it's good for me to get the blood flowing and it provides an energy boost that lasts all morning.
Here's an example of an 9-minute warm-up that I like doing (in some variations):
30s - shoulder gators
60s - shoulder rotations with extended arms, 30s forwards, 30s backwards
30s - dynamic chest stretch
30s - bird dogs
90s - (high) plank/plank walk/plank saws/plank with shoulder taps or leg/arm raises
90s - downward facing dog
90s - side plank, change sides after 45s
30s - alternating dynamic hamstring stretch
30s - alternating dynamic quadriceps stretch
30s - figure-4 or lower back stretch
30s - quad rockers
I leave the apartment usually 10 minutes after my wife leaves it, that would be around 0750 to 0800 am. She goes to work, I go to the gym (I know, I'm writing a lot about exercising, but bare with me, please). This part of the routine is probably one of the most stable and important ones. I am pretty sure that my brain works best between 0900 and 1200 so I'm trying to make sure that I'm back from the gym by 0900. That's a solid 60-70 minutes to go for a run or do a proper workout. Luckily, the gym is usually empty around that time so I have the freedom to do whatever I like (and sometimes I forget that there are cameras...).
For me, it's very important to have a good breakfast before that - around 0645 am. I'm preparing a rich muesli which usually contains unsweetened Greek yogurt as a basis, rolled oats, banana, blueberries, passion fruit, several different seeds (flax, sunflower, pumpkin), almonds or other nuts (walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts), topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon. This plus 2 cups of black coffee - and a thirty minute break before leaving the house.
Sometimes during the workout thoughts creep into my mind that cause anxiety and make me want to stop my workout and handle issues immediately. This is what happened to me a lot throughout my professional career and it never ended well. It made me associate workouts with "wasting time". Not good! If you set out to do something for your body or your mind, do it right. Focus on it. I've decided not to let these thoughts interfere with my work out - and since you can't and shouldn't suppress negative thoughts but rather acknowledge them, I've practiced and learned to let them come and go...
To close out Part I, here's a short summary of what helps me get through the morning and feel positive and energized for the day:
Prepare your clothes for the next day the night before and check the weather forecast
Recognize all your thoughts after waking up, let them come and go to sort out your mind and give your body time to wake up, sit up and take 3 deep breaths before standing up
Get 3-5 small (and ideally positive) things done before starting any bigger activities (e.g. make your bed, cook breakfast for a loved one, place a book on your pillow as a preparation for the evening, do some stretches, etc.)
Have a good, protein rich breakfast latest 30-45 minutes after waking up, it will provide you with energy for at least 4-6 hours
Don't look at your smartphone before breakfast, ideally put it in a different room to charge overnight
Read 5 articles of your favorite newspaper(s) during breakfast to be up to date instead of browsing social media, discuss these and share your thoughts with your family or roommate - social exchanges get your brain activity going and you'll feel more awake
Leave the house at the same time every day of the work week, no matter the occasion - set yourself this goal and stick with it to avoid stress and/or procrastination