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.

How Will You Make the Most of This Year?


The confetti is cleaned up, the holiday decorations are put away, the resolutions are made. The celebrations are over, and now it’s getting real. The festive pause and optimism of the holiday season gives way to the cold truth that time waits for no one.  

So the existential question we face once again as we look toward a new year is: how will I make the most of my time?

The answer is simple: Get a plan. Without a plan, you may meander your way to achievement. But it will be unintentional, and most likely, not nearly as satisfying or impactful.

Creating a plan is the first step to harnessing the clarity, focus, and aspiration you need to create something out of nothing, to make your own "dent in the universe" as that dreamer and doer Steve Jobs called it.

Creating a plan is the first step to harnessing the clarity, focus, and aspiration you need to create something out of nothing, to make your own “dent in the universe” as that dreamer and doer Steve Jobs called it.


A plan is power. It is fuel. A true plan is not a perfunctory, bureaucratic exercise.  Rather, it is a living map for progress and accomplishment. What do you want to achieve by end of of the year? Your plan sets this vital, creative conversation in motion.

A plan in your mind is just a nice idea. Write it down. Give it form. Writing down your goals increases the likelihood of achieving them by 42%, according to a 2015 study conducted at the University of Dominican in California. It seems foolish not to take advantage of that kind of leverage.  We all know that the days can easily fill up with a million things to do. It stands to reason that having a written plan increases your focus day to day to stay on your course.

I recommend that you build a plan in the following time blocks:

YEAR: What do you want to achieve by December 31st?

SEASON: What do you want to accomplish in 90 days?

SPRINT: What do you want to accomplish in 2 weeks?


The Year: The Blueprint

The year timeframe establishes the destination and a rough blueprint to get there. Below is a sequence of steps to identify your blueprint for the year. You can brainstorm answers and then refine.


Step 1- Vision: See it

  • It is December 31 of this year.  Write (without censoring) what you have achieved in:
    • Your professional work.
    • Your personal life.


STEP 2 - Focus: Structure it

  •  List the areas in your professional work that you will focus on this year.
  • List the areas in your personal life that you will focus on this year.


STEP 3 - Goals: Define it

  • For each area, come up with 1 to 3 goals/results for the year. Be specific. Use numbers as applicable.
  • For each goal, identify why the goal is important. This will help validate whether the goal is worth your effort and connect to it’s purpose in the larger scheme of things.


Step 4 - Projects/Deliverables: Map it

  • For each goal, identify the key project(s) you will initiate to achieve it.
  • Assign each project to a 90-day season(s). When will you work on this project? (e.g., January through March; April through June; July through September; October through December) This is a guestimate so that you begin to see the sequencing of activity throughout the year.


Step 5 - Verify: Refine it

  • Review your plan and refine it. Consider:
    • Is it ambitious enough? If not, up the ante.
    • Is it too ambitious? If yes, simplify.
    • Are you missing something? If yes, add.
    • Are you satisfied with how it addresses the parameters and expectations of your stakeholders (e.g. organization, bosses, team, clients, family, friends, etc.). If not, adjust.
    • Is the general timing right? If not, adjust.


Remember, your plan does not need to be perfect. It needs to be the right mix of aspirational and reasonable. Throughout the year, you will make adjustments or perhaps completely revamp it as new information and circumstances come your way. Your plan sets a broad framework for an ongoing “conversation” about your direction, progress, and tactics.

Have fun with the planning process and make it work for you. Are you a digital type? Then use Evernote, Trello, Asana or other online tools to help you create your plan. Or create a document, spreadsheet, or slides. Are you an analogue type? Then get out the stickies and markers and white board and have at it. Are you ambidextrous? Then create with stickies and white boards and document with your digital tools. 


The Season: 90-Day Focus

When it comes to day-to-day activity, yearly plans and goals can begin to feel abstract and irrelevant. This is why many espouse the value of 90-day goals and plans. Achievement in a 90-day window suddenly gets real. It’s imaginable. It’s in your face.

The 90-day timeframe supports you to zero in on achieving the key the results that help you progress to your goals for the year. The 90-day segments, or seasons, provide a timeframe that is long enough for tangible achievement, while short enough to generate focus and momentum.

You can divide your year into four 90-day seasons. For example:

Season 1: January through March

Season 2: April through June

Season 3: July through September

Season 4: October through December


Step 1 -  90-Day Goals

  • Keeping in mind the goals and projects you identified for the year, identify the key results or goals you want to achieve by the end of 90 days (the end of the season). Be specific and use numbers (quantify) when possible.


Step 2 - 90-Day Projects+Key Tasks

  • Identify the projects that are part of achieving those goals.
  • Identify the key tasks for each project.


Consider using the 90-day season to narrow your focus to make significant progress on one or a few of your goals for the year, rather than trying to make incremental progress on all of your goals. 

Your plan for the upcoming season may result in your adjusting your annual plan – as the timeframe will help you get real about what is possible and what is important. As a result, you may adjust, expand, or simplify your overall plan for the year as you work within seasons.

In your yearly plan, you approximated the season for your projects. However, you do not need to create the plan for each season at the start of the year – just the upcoming one (or the one you are in!).  What happens and what you learn in this season will impact how you plan for the next. Keep the focus on the next 90 days.


The Sprint: 2-Week Focus

When it gets down to day-to-day work, consider focusing in 2-week sprints. This timeframe intensifies the focus of the 90-days even further. With this immediate timeframe, you translate your goals/projects for the 90-days into concrete, day-to-day action.


Step 1 - 2-Week Goals + Steps

  • At the start of each sprint, identify what you want to achieve within the next two weeks to advance you toward your 90-day goal(s).
  • Identify the steps you will take and, press go! 



A plan is art and science.

The art part happens in the creative, intuitive thought that goes into projecting into the future, seeing what does not yet exist, and mixing the ingredients of time, energy, resources, skills, and environment.

The science part happens as you see each project, sprint, and season as an ongoing experiment and apply the lessons you learn from the data of day-to-day action. As you progress through the sprints, seasons, and year, you will fine-tune your plan for meaningful achievement in a real world. 

But mostly, a plan is conversation. It is an ongoing dialogue with the future. And the only reason to talk to the future is to change the present. Happy planning!

But mostly, a plan is conversation. It is an ongoing dialogue with the future. And the only reason to talk to the future is to change the present.