For all of 2020, I’m trying something different. Every month I’m setting a theme. As part of that theme, I’m also setting goals and habits to help it along the way. These themes aren’t limited to the month either – each theme is for the year but in addition to everything else added before it.
For January my theme was Focus, for February it was Finish. Between just these two themes, I feel like I’ve gained a lot of momentum while also building back some of my ability to work on one thing for a long period of time (part of that was due to cutting out social media in January).
Here’s a recap of the themes for this year, including the new one for March.
For March 2020, my theme for the month is routine.
The word “routine” gets a bad rap. It’s associated with monotony, repetition, and boredom. Routines lack novelty. Routines get old and eventually stop working for what they are trying to accomplish.
But routines are also powerful! You can make amazing progress in areas you want to improve with a solid routine. Routines can even include built-in mechanisms for change and re-evaluation to ensure they stay relevant. Routines can increase or decrease in length as you learn more.
A Successful Routine Study: Todoist
There are very few apps – phone or computer – that I’ve continued to use for years in a row. One of those apps is Todoist, a super-basic todo app. Before settling on this one I tried just about every other task tracker out there (Things and Remember the Milk were my other favorites).
During the 82 days in a row that I did this (which ended around the time we went on a vacation to Yellowstone), I updated Minafi to the site you see today, started training for a half marathon and set myself up for an amazing hiking season by putting in the initial research.
All of those things didn’t happen because I was constantly pushing myself, but because part of my routine at the time was to schedule 3 things to do each day. One of those tasks could be as simple as “make a list of trails that look interesting” or “sketch some ideas for Minafi’s navigation”.
Progress doesn’t happen all at once. Routine (and habits) are what help it happen.
I’ve struggled with building any kind of routine so far this year. Part of that was that I unexpectedly got assigned to be on a jury for a trial that ended up taking 5 weeks (!). Add to that a week of volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival, enjoying the Sundance film festival, traveling to Orlando for a week, Valentine’s day and a 14-year anniversary with Mrs. Minafi.
This series of events has made me appreciate even more than I had before how nice is it to be able to have a routine! By having a changing schedule, I wasn’t able to plan out my days like I usually would. I couldn’t schedule a time to work out or write during the day. I also struggled to adapt and find times that worked best.
Because of that, I ended up exercising less, eating worse, making slow progress on projects and feeling more stressed than usual.
The problem wasn’t that I was busy, it was that I wasn’t able to create a routine around those busy times.
It brought me back to when I worked at a retail store (K-Mart!). Since I didn’t have control over my schedule, I didn’t do much productive around that time (unless you count playing a lot of Dance Dance Revolution).
It’s not that you can’t schedule time around it, it’s just that it’s a lot harder than when you know your hours ahead of time.
My hope this month is to get back to a point where I’m again enjoying the weeks and getting into a routine – although this time also with Mrs. Minafi here at home. She left her job in January. Actually, her first day off of work was my first day of jury duty. Sometimes things just align to make sure you don’t get too comfortable.
What Am I Hoping to Get Out of This?
If I had to put it into a sentence, my hope is to get here:
Sustained, enjoyable progress with well-earned relaxation and recooperation.
I’m not trying to put together a routine that maximizes productivity or focuses only on fun. The relaxation I love the most is when I’ve completed something and I’m able to sit back and enjoy the afterglow of a job well done.
Celebrating successes is something I did extremely poorly at during my career. I’d launch a course, release a new product or get a promotion and then the next day I’d be back to looking at what the next 3 months or 2-year plan would be. Sometimes just taking an hour to do something you really want to do can feel like a victory lap.
Another aim is that by creating this sustained effort, I’ll have more time to relax. That sounds counterintuitive, but it’s been my experience that once you get into a habit of doing something, it comes much easier than when you have to force yourself to do something.
Ryan Holiday mentioned this same idea in his book Stillness is the Key.
When the body is busy with the familiar, the mind can relax.Ryan Holiday, Stillness is the Key
Routines are familiar. My mind knows it can relax because it knows progress is happening. It doesn’t need to constantly ask questions like “am I improving” or “what should I be doing?”. Instead, it focuses on something else. What that something else is could be another problem or another opportunity.
Thinking back, some of my most successful routines didn’t start from a point of knowing they would succeed. They just kind of happened and I went with it:
- Going to the gym every morning at 8 am with the same group of friends. We’d all go to the same CrossFit class 3-5x a week (3 for me). That little bit of social pressure and enjoyment made me stick with it for multiple years.
- Writing from 5:45 am – 7 am every weekday morning. I can hardly believe I used to do this, but I did – for over a year. Most Minafi articles from 2017 to 2019 were written during these early morning hours. I focused on creating a morning routine that was an irresistible staircase and it worked! I wrote a bunch and didn’t break this habit until I left my job.
- Last year I loved hiking once a week. This would usually be a 2-6 hour hike somewhere new. I have a huge Google Sheet with hikes I want to do, research on distance from my apartment and times of year to hike. It makes selecting a trail so much easier. I reward myself with audiobooks along the way, a protein bar (and perhaps beer) at the top, and a burger to celebrate when I got back to the city.
- The 3-things todo list approach I mentioned above was a hugely successful habit. I didn’t have a reward for it back then, but nowadays I don’t let myself open social media or Reddit until those are done for the day (although this has the downside of making those feel like a reward).
- Reading in the morning with coffee is something I’ve started doing and absolutely love. It started as checking Twitter and reading feeds, then changed to reading the New York Times and most recently has been reading graphic novels on my iPad (Monstress, Saga and now Watchmen if you’re wondering which). Sometimes I’ll eat a meal-prepped breakfast burrito or a bulk-bought protein bar for breakfast while there too. It’s hard to beat waking up, staying in bed with my dog & wife and just easing into the day like this.
- Going a weekly date night with Mrs. Minafi – either to a restaurant, a movie or even just on a hike or to a museum is routine that’s its own reward!
What routines have you had that have felt effective? I’m always on the lookout for new ideas! Let me know in the comments.
How Will I Do This?
Creating a routine is a lot like building a structure. You start with a solid foundation and add more to it. If you build too fast, or shoddily, everything will collapse and you’ll need to start over.
I don’t have an architectural plan for what my entire routine will look like. Instead, I know what purpose the routine (building) should provide. If it looks like it’s not doing its job, it’s time to tear it down and rebuild.
My plan isn’t to schedule every day, or feel the need to have habits that I accomplish every single day. It’d be easy to pencil in an entire day of activities, or set times of the day when I should do certain things, but after so many failures trying similar things, I’m trying out something different this time around.
I don’t plan to track my habits (although it works well for some people!). My “home” for creating this routine will start with Todoist and one guideline: “schedule 3 things to do each day”. Ideally, these should be scheduled at least the day before, if not sooner, but in a pinch can be scheduled the morning of.
Ok, that’s not everything. I want to develop routines for a number of things, even if I’m not sure yet what the routines will shape up to be. For each I want them to be sustainable, which means they may need to have some kind of reward mechanism depending on the subject.
Quiet morning routine. This one doesn’t take much effort to accomplish – wake up, have coffee, read some and enjoy the morning. For the most part, this means not scheduling other routines over this one. Occasionally going on a morning hike, or meeting up for brunch is another story.
Weekly date night with Mrs. Minafi. Another easy but important one. It’s nice for us to just get out of the house and do something together alone – not a group outing with friends or an evening at home. This is a good opportunity to explore new places too!
Exercise. I actually have a routine for this, but it’s been on and off due to travel, volunteering, and jury duty. It’s pretty simple though: go to CrossFit MWF @ 12 pm, run (or hike) TR @ 11 am. It’s mostly at the same time each weekday, which feels very routine-y (in a good way). I signed up to run my first marathon in July, so I’m trying to get in shape for that. My hope is to increase the length of the runs from my current 10k average and add a weekend run as the marathon gets closer. Since I’ve been running up hills, a “reward” could mean running on a flat trail. ?
Minafi. There are three areas of Minafi that I’m working on right now. New blog posts every other week, developing content for The Minafi Investor Bootcamp and everything else. In an attempt to finish the Bootcamp, that’s where most of my effort is going to go. I’ve struggled to create focused time to sit down and do the work lately. I’ve been chipping away at things in one-off periods of time, but I’d like to get to the point this month where it feels like I have a solid routine for writing again – something I’ve been without for a while.
Focused learning. I’ve been loving learning Japanese with Wanikani. It’s made understanding kanji more fun than I ever thought. It’s amazing for what it is – spaced repetition with mnemonics to help remember. What it isn’t though is deep-focused learning – the kind you get from putting your head down to study. For this, I’ll need to work some focused learning time into my routine to read through things like Genki or Learn Japanese the Manga Way. I have a feeling this will be splitting my mornings some do some deep learning then, but we’ll see.
Not everything in life needs a routine. I don’t need to add a “clean the apartment” routine, or a “relax after dinner” routine. Those are just things that happen when they happen.
I’m excited to see what impact putting the idea of “routine” at the forefront of my mind for a few weeks will have. Check back in a month to see the results of this month’s theme!
What about you? Do you feel like your most impactful routines have been? Do you have any advice for others (including me) that might be having trouble getting into one? Let me know in the comments.
How Did It Go?
This is an update as of April 6, 2020, with my takeaways on the month.
March 2020 may well go down in history as one of the most eventful months of our lives. Stock market crashes, a pandemic, social distancing – it was a month of constant change and shifting schedules.
Marilyn, Lily (our pup) and I have been social distancing in our apartment since our last Costco run on March 16th. Here in Utah, there’s still no official stay-at-home rule, but our county finally issued one on April 1st. I’d like to think since we’ve been home for 3 weeks that we can confirm we didn’t have COVID-19 when we started our distancing. Now we’ll just continue to isolate ourselves, wash our hands and do our best not to chance to come into contact with anyone. We’ll do this by getting food & groceries delivered and limiting our outdoor time to dog walks, hikes far away from other people and the occasional run.
So far we’ve been ordering groceries, cooking most meals and having food delivered for dinner once a week. As a result of this, we did see our March spending go down by 28%! Our go-to dishes have been making carbonara (this recipe from Binging with Babish is easy) and Japanese curry using a box of Golden Curry mix and whatever we have in our fridge.
I tried to pile on as many “routines” (or habits) as I could that built on things I was already doing. Creating a routine from scratch is a recipe for disaster, but recognizing a routine and codifying it can help boost its importance.
I’ve been adding each of these routines to my Todoist list, which has helped keep them organized. Here are a few of the routines that I’ve successfully added this month:
Weekly Planning. On Saturday afternoons I do a “weekly planning session”. This is a chance to do some planning for the week ahead, fill in my calendar with some time blocks, and add items to my todo list I want to get done or research throughout the week. This helps set the stage for a strong week – even if I don’t hit everything on it.
Monday Reset. Mondays are my reset day. I make sure our apartment is clean, and everything is organized, and make a large meal with leftovers. Having this set means I don’t need to think about it throughout the week.
Weekend Morning Learning. I’ve been slowly chipping away at learning Japanese. Mostly one-off lessons with spaced repetition at varying times throughout the day. I added dedicated time on Saturday and Sunday mornings to learn Japanese.
Workout 5x a Week. This used to be CrossFit and running before the quarantine. Now it’s running 3x a week and doing bodyweight exercises in our apartment 2-3x a week.
Rest on Saturdays and Wednesdays. I’m not scheduling anything for Saturdays or Wednesdays (other than a weekly scheduling session on Saturdays). I’ve loved having two days when I can do whatever I want and not feel like I’m behind. As a result, I’ve found new creative projects and other new things to do these days.
There was one area I struggled with though: creating dedicated creative time. It’s been hard to set out a time when I need to be 100% focused. Often those times will hit and I just don’t want to write or work on what I planned out. I could muscle through it and just do it anyway, or take the easy road and do something more fun.
This month I took the easy road quite a lot. With everything else going on in the world being productive wasn’t exactly a top priority for me. And that’s OK!