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.

Are You Gritty?

In the perpetual search for what leads to success, to achievement, Angela Duckworth has given us something to chew on.

As Angela describes, she left a demanding job as a management consultant to take on an even more demanding one – as a math teacher in the public school system. As a teacher, she wondered why some students were successful and others were not. What made the difference? Was it talent? IQ? Socio-economic status? Family life? Opportunity? 

Eventually Angela’s curiosity got the best of her and she left her teaching job to study and research this topic. And what did she discover? Angela found that a key predictor of achievement is not talent, not natural ability, not IQ…  but grit.

She shares her findings in a TED Talk and details it in her recent book, Grit. She writes in her book:

“[N]o matter what the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction. It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit.”

While no one is saying natural ability or talent doesn’t matter, Angela has found that it matters much less than we think. As she says it, “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”

Angela provides a way of thinking about talent, skill, effort, and achievement that goes like this:

Talent X Effort = Skill

Skill X Effort = Achievement


Effort counts twice.

What Angela has done is taken talent off the pedestal. She has taken away its mystique. 

When athletes do those superhuman feats in the Olympics, we chalk it up to being exceptionally gifted. We don't see the unfancy, dogged day-in, day-out determination that kept them in the pool, on the bars, or at the track.

Grit is a power. Grit brings our gifts to life and grows them. Grit is the bridge between potential and impact. It is the force that nourishes the proverbial seed and allows it to become the tree. Without grit, gifts go dormant; talents go to sleep. With grit, even lesser ability can become mighty, can make a difference. 

Angela's work shows us that success isn't stacked by genetic luck. The playing field is more equal than we realize. 

So the question is: what does it take to tap into grit? If we can figure this out, then success is no longer a mere wish. Success is within reach.

Angela concludes her book like this:

"We all face limits - not just in talent, but in opportunity. But more often than we think, our limits are self-imposed... To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight." 

Think about your own life. When have you been gritty? When have you persevered? When have you kept with a worthy goal even when it was tough? When have you made a mistake, learned from it, and continued on? When have you met an obstacle and found a way around it, or through it? 

What in your life is calling for some grit? 

So yes, discover your genius, your talent - but power it with grit. Find what you care about and commit. This is not blind trust. This is the hard, humble work of engaging in the business of life. Learning, practicing, perfecting. Gritty step, by gritty step. Sooner or later, success will be yours. 



Gratitude, the Super Power for All Seasons

As I write this, it is the day before Thanksgiving in the US. People are busy wrapping up work; traveling distances to be with loved ones; making last-minute runs to the grocery store; making pies (if you're lucky); rehearsing the timeline for the turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes; and coming up with a strategy to avoid heated conversation about politics or those pesky buttons that, when pushed, derail many a family gathering. 

Today, on the busy eve of Thanksgiving, it’s a good time to talk about gratitude.  

Do a quick survey of the habits of successful people, and you will find many who swear by their gratitude practice. It could seem like new-age  fluff – this gratitude thing. But truth be told, this habit has teeth. Gratitude is a potent force that can change your brain, your body, and your behavior.

It could seem like new-age fluff – this gratitude thing. But truth be told, this habit has teeth. Gratitude is a potent force that can change your brain, your body, and your behavior.

The practice of gratitude – the deliberate act of recounting the positive things in one’s life – nourishes the brain with the happy hormones of dopamine and serotonin. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that a happy brain changes how you experience your life and the world you live in. It's true: when I am in a good mood, anything seems possible.

But it’s not just the feel-good aspect of gratitude that gives it a super-power status.  Studies show a link between gratitude and altruistic action. Gratitude wires us to act generously in the world – for the benefit of others. To make the equation even more powerful, acting generously increases the experience of fulfillment. Gratitude is a productive, reinforcing loop of perspective, connection, and contentment.

And it doesn’t stop there. Gratitude is linked to decreases in stress and increases in the body’s immune function. In fact, gratitude supports the limbic system – the system that makes our bodies function well. And to add to this happy cascade of effects, the more you practice gratitude, the more it becomes your MO, your default position. Your brain gets wired for gratitude.

Gratitude fuels the human drive for social connection – of experiencing ourselves as connected to one another and to the world we live in. And so, this year, I’d say that Thanksgiving isn’t coming a day too soon.

Amidst the wreckage of a brutal and prolonged Presidential election season, and the ensuing angry political climate that is broadcast through news and social media 24/7, we need the healing balm of gratitude. Now, more than ever, we need to pull ourselves out the unproductive mindset of isolation and disconnection. We need the elevating, high-leverage mindset of gratitude to inspire our efforts to contribute productively and give our best each day.

Thanksgiving is a harvest festival. It is a time to gather, assess, and acknowledge the fruits, the gifts, that have come from our own labor and from the labor of others. It is a time to acknowledge the value, blessings, and hidden gems of here and now; and to remember we are part of something bigger.

Certainly, you can check out the studies on gratitude to be convinced of its productive impact. Or, better yet, you can conduct your own experiment. See for yourself. 

Try taking one minute at the close of each day to recall three to five things – major or miniscule, tangible or intangible, that you are grateful for that day.  There is no limit to the things in our world to be grateful for. Perhaps it is a new project, a great idea, an inspired thought, the perfect cup of coffee, the comforting presence of your cat, the support of a friend, the ability to listen to someone’s pain, the laughter of a child, the hopeful feeling that you are making progress in your work, the smile of a stranger, the impulse to smile back, the beauty in your home, a good cup of tea, the joy you feel when you make something or give a gift, the talent of another.... 

I recommend that you write down your gratitude list. It helps to add a physical habit (writing) to support a mental one. I use the app Day One to capture what I am grateful for - in a quick list, sometimes with an added photo. A journal or notepad will also do the trick. Do this practice at the same time every day and link it to other habits so that you remember. Maybe you do it before you turn off the light before sleep. Or before you exercise. 

This gratitude training will help you count rather than discount the beautiful details of your daily life. This is the secret recipe those successful people have discovered: When you make the effort of gratitude, you color your world into one of opportunity, clarity, optimism, and inspiration.  

Try it out, and see if it doesn’t uplift and transform the way you feel and how you see. Build the muscle of gratitude to shed light on your life, appreciate your bounty, and share your gifts with the world. Use the gratitude super power to live an epic, everyday, productive life of purpose, perspective, and contribution. Gratitude saves the day and works wonders. And it's as easy as pie. 

On my gratitude list today? All of you – those who seek to do great work. You inspire me and give me hope. And without hope, nothing gets done. With hope, anything is possible.

Happy Thanksgiving!