Routines and the Middle Way (Or, Don't Use Routines To Feel Bad)

I was speaking with someone the other day about ways to support a productive day. I mentioned that it's great to come up with a simple routine that helps you get off to a great start.

She gave me a dubious look. She countered, "I don't like routines because then I'm just hard on myself if I don't live up to them."

Ahhhh..... right! This is what often keeps people from adding productive habits to their day: they end up using them as a weapon (on themselves). In fact, often the people who opt into routines are high achievers with a penchant for perfectionism. It's just one more thing to pressure yourself to do. Who needs that?

Literally, no one.

The problem isn’t the routine. It’s the mindset that goes with it. This all-or-nothing, I-must-be-perfect, performance-fixated mindset takes all the fun out of life.

But I think we’ve got the problem wrong. The problem isn't the routine. It’s the mindset that goes with it. This all-or-nothing, I-must-be-perfect, performance-fixated mindset takes all the fun out of life. Not very productive.

What if you could hold your productive routines lightly? What if you saw them not as a harsh standard, but as a generous, easygoing support system? What if, instead of getting rid of the routines, you started to dismantle that intolerant mindset that pushes pressure?

I see this a lot with my clients - they approach the day-to-day as a performance, rather than as play. And as a result, they amp up the pressure and miss the progress. Routines aren't here to remind you that you suck, but instead, that you are freaking awesome. Amirite?

Truly, the all-or-nothing approach (I'll do it if I can do it perfectly or I won't do it at all) is relatively easy. It's like the simple on-off switch I wrote about yesterday. On or off: easy.

What's initially harder (but more effective) is the middle way: working with yourself, finding your rhythm, adjusting, accepting, and productively challenging yourself into your own fulfillment and contribution. The middle way means you must be willing to make mistakes and adjustments. You must be willing to let go of perfectionism and, instead, strive messily for progress.

So back to the idea of productive routines. I like to design simple things that will help my energy, inspiration, mindset. I started small and have added elements to my routine over the years. And I switch it up. Most important: I make everything easy. Coffee, water, stretch, sit quietly for a few minutes, read (for learning or inspiration), get clear on my goals and gratitude. Then, move (run).

What one or two things could start your day off to a productive start? You might consider what derails you. Look back on that day that seemed to start off wrong. What happened? Is there a way to create a routine that protects against that?

Consider the rushing vibe that can derail even the best intentioned. You’re trying to get yourself and everyone else out the door, dressed and fed, but what if something doesn’t go as planned? What if your daughter has a meltdown about her sweater? What if your son can’t find his shoes? What if you have no idea where the homework is? What if your dog takes longer on the walk? What if you have to (heaven forbid) iron something? Or take a call?

So maybe you decide this adrenaline-pumping rushing isn’t setting you up well for your day. You might consider waking up earlier to give yourself more runway in the morning.

You might find that reading something inspiring puts you in a good mood that energizes you.

Or that a walk around the block gives you the perspective and fresh air and energy that sets you up for success.

Little things. Not big things. The little things make all the difference. It’s the small actions that exercise our power.

Experiment. Be easy. See if there is a routine that might fortify your energy, outlook, peace of mind, clarity, and focus. Don’t make it hard by being rigid about it, by burdening yourself with the expectations of perfection, by the all-or-nothing mindset.

No, don’t do that.

Instead, find the middle way with your routines. Tweak, test, try. Play around. Have fun. Find that routine that’s like a supportive friend. Steady, helpful, encouraging. The routine that brings out the best in you.

Push the Edge for Productive Pride


So, I “run.”  

Well, that’s how I’ve described it for the past two decades or so: “run” in quotes. 

Because, who am I kidding? My “run” is slow – much more like jogging (but that sounds so ‘80s, right?). And, it often includes, well, walking. “Run” a little. Walk a little. You get the idea. But I’m moving. And somehow, I get just enough effort in there to sweat and to get the thing I most want – a dose of those feel-good exercise endorphins that upgrade mood, clear the mind, and jumpstart the creative juices. Oh, and it’s good for your health.

I’ve kept up this “running” practice – about 25 minutes, 3 to 4 days a week (sometimes less, sometimes more) – for years. However, this past winter the wheels fell off my “running” game. I’m not sure why. The cold? The dark? The flu? I didn’t power through the weather. I didn’t get on the roads – or the treadmill. 

And, I’m not gonna lie: it was hard to start back up. The weather got better, but I didn’t put on my running shoes. 

Finally, at the end of May, I got back out there. I walked more than I ran. But it felt good to be back at it and to sweat (I’m weird that way).

First day back, my lungs were pushing. Second day, my lungs were better, but my legs were pushing. Each passing day, the time walking decreased as I toggled back and forth between feeling my effort in my lungs or my legs. 

Meanwhile, for about a year, I’ve been having this nagging sense that I need to push myself more in my workout. My “run” really wasn’t pushing my fitness or even maintaining it given the accelerating physical effects of time ticking by (aka, aging). 

I figured that to push myself – to be able to run farther, faster, longer – to get in better shape, I’d probably have to get a trainer, join a running group, or sign up for a half marathon. But none of that seemed especially enticing. Yet, I couldn’t see how I could push myself out of my running rut on my own. And something in me wanted to level things up in my workout routine and my fitness.

Last month, I heard Rachel Hollis interview Robin Arzon on her podcast, Rise. Robin is a lead instructor and VP of Fitness Programming at Peloton. I loved her story and perspective. And bonus: I learned that Peloton had an app that doesn’t require purchasing the bike or treadmill. And double bonus: there are outdoor running sessions on it. Say, what?!

About 5 weeks ago, after my regular, no-push “run,” I remembered I had downloaded the Peloton app. So, I decided to listen to the beginning of one of the outdoor running sessions – just to see what it was like. A few minutes. That’s all.

I pressed start.  And a few steps in, I was hooked. Before I knew it, I had run an additional 45 minutes – another 4+ miles! Holy. Freaking. Cow. 

Let me be clear: running 4+ miles was absolutely, positively inconceivable to me (much less the 6+ I did that day). The last time I did that I’m sure I was in my 20s - you know, decades ago. My mind was blown. And I felt so good. Pretty sure I could have kept running… 

Since that day, I’ve run with the Peloton app (and Robin) 4+ miles most every day. And, did you notice?.... I’ve dropped the quotes. As Robin says in the one of the sessions, “If you’re running with me right now, you’re a runner. Claim it.”

During these few weeks, I’ve watched my legs and lungs become stronger. I’m making progress far beyond what I thought possible, and that is downright thrilling and motivating. I’m pushing myself. I’m “flirting with the edge,” as Robin calls it. I’m proud of myself. I feel strong.

During the running sessions, Robin has you reaching for your pride with each step — the pride of accomplishment, of making the effort. This sense of pride is so visceral and invigorating as I take each step and keep going. In one of the running sessions, she said something like “With each mile, you pick up accomplishments like souvenirs.” She inspires you to run proud – “Shoulders down, chest open, head up, gaze forward, crown on….” 

Why am I telling you all this? No, this is not an ad for Peloton (though get that app!). This is not a post to promote working out (well, maybe a little). 

I’m telling you this because my running story got me thinking about … productivity.

Let’s face it, pride gets a bad rap. The pride I’m talking about here is not of the arrogant variety — you know, the kind of pride that is obnoxious and often just a poor cover for insecurity or low self-esteem. I’m not talking about the pride that has its roots in fear. Nope. 

I’m talking about the pride that naturally bubbles up when you recognize and acknowledge your own power to take action, make a change, and create something with your own two hands… or feet. You know how when a kid makes something and comes to you so proud: “I did this!” That kind of pride.

This kind of pride feels like delight, exuberance, amazement, power, strength. This pride sings “yes!” It’s tastes like motivation. It stirs self-respect. It is rooted in responsibility – the responsibility to take action, to do your best, to try, to make an effort, to get up and do it again and again. It’s watered by true humility – to be brave, to try something, to expose yourself, to show the world (or the people around you) that you care, to play full out no matter what happens. Win. Or. Lose. This pride is alive with appreciation, determination, grit, aspiration, hope, vitality. 

So how does this relate to productivity? Here are two transferrable lessons from this running story.

First, it’s important to push the edges of your skill, comfort, experience. 

I often work with clients who are demotivated. They’re dialing it in. They’re just trying to get by. There’s nothing positively challenging them, inspiring them, making them work hard to achieve, pushing them to put anything on the line. 

Now, when I say “work hard,” I know: Everyone is working hard. But there’s a difference between working hard because you’re busy, overstretched, overcommitted, overwhelmed, overwrought – and working hard because you’re trying to achieve something new, you’re pushing your capacity and skill, you’re after a goal.

When you work hard because you’ve decided to improve a skill, expand your capability, achieve something you’ve never done before, that’s when hard work is rewarding. That’s the hard work I’m talking about here. Choosing to stay with a goal or commitment and pushing yourself a bit beyond the known edges of where you are comfortable, or where it’s easy. 

I’m not saying to push the edge in everything – just one thing. That will wake up your effort, motivation, and confidence – which will spill over into other areas.

Pushing the edge in one thing stirs this productive pride, which puts you in contact with your power. And that changes everything.

This connection to your power has compounding effects that pays big dividends in your overall performance and productivity.

So the question is: Where can you push the edge? What goal, project, skill, dream, habit - calls out to you? What are you willing to go for? Once you find it, start where you are. And build.


Second, Keep a steady focus on your accomplishments, your progress. 

Acknowledge your efforts and your achievements. And, by the way, effort, in itself, is an achievement.

It’s easy to zero in on what’s not working, what you haven’t done, what you’re procrastinating on, what you haven’t achieved, where you’ve fallen short, and so on. This is basic brain science at work, specifically, a thing called Negativity Bias. Negativity Bias is the handy-dandy feature that keeps you on the alert for potential threat. It’s a kind of early warning system. Eons ago, the threat showed up as a tiger. Today, it more often shows up as a worry about what people think of us, a mistake we made, or who’s winning on Instagram.

And the culture at large only mirrors and amplifies this mind game with a focus on deficiency, weakness, not-enough-ness, lack. 

Add to that, the fact that we’re subtly trained (especially women) that’s its impolite to celebrate one’s accomplishments. Just look at how people were losing their minds about the on-field celebrations of the US Women’s Soccer Team in the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup. We’ve made it unbecoming to unapologetically celebrate an effort, a victory, a success, an achievement. Better to dismiss or downplay it – and put your eyes on where you need to improve, get better, or where you’re lacking. 

This negative, deficient obsession dramatically weakens performance. In fact, I believe it’s the root of unproductive or, at the extreme, toxic, work environments. When everyone is dialed into what’s missing and what’s wrong, it becomes unnecessarily hard to perform at the top of one’s game. What if everyone focused far more on their victories, progress, and accomplishments than on their deficiencies? What kind of self-propelling, motivating, productive power would that unleash? You might just find that you – and your team – are unstoppable. 

Consider keeping a running list of accomplishments big and small. Look at it and add to it every day. Pat yourself on the back. Give yourself a high five. Delight in your effort and your accomplishments. Notice when you do things that are hard or a challenge. Every day, practice being proud of the effort you make. This kind of focus builds mental discipline and strength and will fuel your efforts. And remember: you’re competing with yourself. You’re besting yourself. This is about practical progress, not abstract perfection.

Push the edge. Acknowledge your effort. This is a surefire way to tap into this natural, productive pride that will keep you playing a bigger, better game. 

And as a side note: my running experience reminds me of the transferrable benefits of building physical fitness.

We often treat fitness as an optional side gig – unrelated to our productivity and overall performance in our professional and personal life. And nice, if you have the time.

My starting line

My starting line

But that beautiful brain you drive all day lives in the body. 

As you get stronger physically, you tap into strength, stamina, and steadiness, which bolster other areas of life. You build confidence. You build mental strength. It’s all one ecosystem that works together. 

So, move! It doesn’t matter what it looks like – a walk around the block or training for a marathon. Commit to moving your body every day.. The physical body is so responsive. It shows you your progress quickly - no matter where you start. And that will get the motivational juices flowing into the rest of your life. You’ll stand a little taller. You’ll step out more. And you’ll have a little more swagger in your walk.

And your efforts on the field, the track, the roads, the mat will give you lessons on how to be productive, how to perform well in work and life.

Are you game?

Running is teaching me to push the edge and acknowledge my effort. It’s showing me the value of productive pride. 

So, I run. 


Want to level up your productivity game? Consider the self-paced, online course Workflow Mastery: The Disciplines of Accomplishment. It will show you how to set up the game board of work and life - and play to win.

Power of the Pack

We celebrate independence and autonomy. 

We promote self-determination. 

We honor individuality.

And yet, there’s a pesky little fact you just can’t get around: we humans are herd animals. We thrive in packs. There is an inborn drive to affiliate, to connect, to join in. Even if you tell me you’re a loner: you affiliate, identify, fit in with others who identify as loners. Ironically, they’re your pack.

The people we hang out with influence our behavior and create a culture – the unspoken rules of engagement, the messages about what is permissible and expected start to operate. 

Studies continue to confirm that there is a significant likelihood that our weight, health, finances, relationships, fears, success, mindset will look similar to (be in the range of) the people we hang out with. Why? Because we unconsciously mimic, copy, align. It’s what herd animals do. 

This alignment in the group has served an important survival function. We’re stronger together against the _____ [Fill in the blank: tiger, monsoon, drought, encroaching tribe, government, political party, etc.] – against the “other.” We’re safe here in our community, our group. 

So we seek to fit in – somewhere. Culture is incredibly powerful and contagious. The behavior spurred by cultural norms bypasses the prefrontal cortex (that beautiful reasoning, rational part of your brain) and goes straight to the more primitive, instinctive regions. The power of culture is aptly expressed by the often-quoted sentiment of Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

Culture is incredibly powerful and contagious. The behavior spurred by cultural norms bypasses the prefrontal cortex (that beautiful reasoning, rational part of your brain) and goes straight to the more primitive, instinctive regions.

All this is to say, who you hang out with matters. If you are looking to create certain results or qualities in your life – you might want to affiliate with people with those results or qualities. Why? Because the power of culture, of groups, to boost your behavior in the direction you want to go. 

This is one of the reasons that I’m excited about the Power Start program that I’ll be offering for the first three months of 2019: The leveraging power of the group. 

When you affiliate with others 

who are up to something, 

who are focused on accomplishing a goal, 

who are taking productive action, 

you absorb that mindset, that focus, that behavior. 

It’s not magic. (You still have to show up and make an effort.) But it is magical. The leveraging power of the group. 

So if you would like start 2019 strong and benefit from the being part of a group of go-getters, doers, makers and shakers – like you, I hope you’ll join us. 

Beginning the week of January 14 through the week of March 25, I’ll be providing a weekly focus to help participants design the conditions of accomplishment as they pursue their goals. The result? By March 31, you’ll have made real-life progress toward goals that matter; and you’ll have the know-how to continue the momentum through the rest of the year and beyond.

If this sounds interesting, you can find more info here:

PS And as a corollary: Our actions matter: not only to us, but to those around us. We have the power to impact the culture of the groups we’re in. Behavior is contagious. So, for example, when you do great work, it can elevate everyone’s game.

PPS And, all this talk about culture is NOT to say that valuing diversity doesn’t matter, or worse, isn’t possible. Au contraire. Instead, the culture, the unspoken rules of the group can be about valuing diversity, difference, innovation, quirkiness, etc. As the teacher, thinker, marketer Seth Godin describes the sentiment at the heart of culture : “People like us do things like this.” So, in a culture it could be: People like us value different cultures, etc. People like us value equality for all. People like us have compassion. You get the idea.

Size Matters: The Big and Small of Goal-Getting

Size matters in many things, including goals. 

It’s the new year and everyone is chatting up goals. And I’ve noticed a range of opinions about size. 

Should goals be manageable, doable, “realistic” (i.e., smArt) on the one hand or big, hairy, and audacious (BHAG) on the other? 

Should you go micro or macro? 

Should you think big or stay small?

Should you even create goals for the year or instead set your sights on 30 or 90 days?  

Should you go big or go home? 

Or should you bypass the whole thing and go goal-free. You know, see what happens. 

Here’s how I like to think about these size matters: Go big on goals and go small on actions.

Research by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham on goal setting reveals that goals that are challenging have a greater likelihood of being accomplished over those considered “realistic” or doable – called “Low Goals.” In addition, Jessica Tracy found that these “low goals” do not build self-esteem or confidence the way challenging goals do. Big goals tap into meaning, and meaning triggers the biochemistry of motivation. It’s a win-win situation. 

So when it comes to your goals – go big. Go for the stretch. Go for the thing that you’re not 100% positive you can accomplish, that challenges your current reality, and dares you out of the comfort zone. But make sure that in addition to being “big” that it’s specific – not big and vague. Vague has no inspired staying power. It will allow you wriggle out of it – and you won’t be able to cash in on the big-goal confidence boost.

So when it comes to your goals – go big. Go for the stretch. Go for the thing that you’re not 100% positive you can accomplish, that challenges your current reality, and dares you out of the comfort zone. 

This idea of big goals is why setting goals for the year works. 12 months is far enough away that you can suspend your current, immediate conditions and allow your imagination and aspiration to have at it. You aren’t constrained by the gravity of today’s reality. Who knows, maybe in 12 months you can create that product, or triple your income, or run that marathon, or write that book, or change your career, or switch up your health. And a year is still close enough to take seriously. 

Now when it comes to taking actions toward your goals: go small. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you want doable – because you have to, well, do it. There’s significant evidence that micro-habits work: Identifying the smallest possible action so that you defeat any resistance… and doing it consistently so that it eventually becomes patterned in the brain and, therefore, much easier (and automatic) over time.

Now when it comes to taking actions toward your goals: go small. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you want doable – because you have to, well, do it. 

This idea of small action is why planning action in smaller time periods works. Yes, you have your annual goal – that you want to accomplish by December 31 – but you plan in smaller timeframes. I like to organize my efforts to achieve my goals in 90-day periods – seasons. You stay focused on the season you’re in and the milestone goals or efforts you’re making to progress toward your goals. And then break it down more into a 2-week sprint. Each of these timeframes have mini-goals that you are taking action toward. 

So that’s the size of it. Big goals, small actions. Big, challenging goals; small, doable actions. 

Holding these two perspectives – the inspired destination and the real-life next step will take you far. It will build your competence and confidence. It will stir up motivation. It will bring the boldness of your vision into the beauty of your day. 

Big goal, small action. Always wins.

Want to make progress on some big goals? Want 2019 to be the year that you did the big things? Then join us for the online Power Start program. We start the week of January 14 through the week of March 25. What will happen? You will make real-life, bankable progress on your goals and you’ll have the real-life, science-backed tools to help you build on that momentum. Get the deets here and join us alright already…