July 17, 2019

Building Efficiency: Establishing a Routine

Small guide on how I efficiently build a routine that lasts.

Building Efficiency: Establishing a Routine

Many people struggle to find the motivation to achieve their goals in life.  Whether those goals are to learn a new language, learn to code, exercise, or going to sleep at the same time every night, people often lose sight of their goals.  To be efficient in completing goals, a routine is necessary for most people to stay on track.  In this post I hope to share my methods for planning, maintaining, and executing routines which allow me pursue new interests efficiently.  

Of course, my method may not work for everybody.  The method may also be sub-optimal compared to others, but these ideas are the driving force behind my success in school and in my hobbies.  While some of these tips may apply generally, there is likely to be a heavy bias towards the life of a student.  With that being said let's dive into my method for increasing efficiency through building a routine!

1. Understand Your Habits

Perhaps the most important skill in establishing a routine is to recognize current habits in your daily schedule.  When do you wake up?  When do you go to bed?  Do you eat breakfast every morning?  How often do you deviate from your typical day?  These questions are all crucial in understanding how you should structure a schedule.  A common statement I have heard is around 50% of daily behaviors are the result of habits.  Your goal in constructing a routine should be to create high-performance habits which achieve some goal.  Recognizing habits within your normal day will allow you to create these high-performance habits and be more efficient.

For example, I always take around 30 minutes to an hour to make and eat breakfast. Recognizing this habit allows me to effectively block my time in the morning.  I know not to schedule tasks 45 minutes after I wake up, because that would likely lead to me rushing or going off-schedule.  For someone who appreciates structure, these effects can cause resistance to following the routine.

Another example of a tendency which allows me to block time is understanding the time it takes for me to transition between tasks.  Usually it takes up to 10 minutes for me to refocus my brain on another task.  Knowing this, I can set 10 minute buffers in the schedule between tasks.  These buffers ensure that the time you block for a task is time spent doing the task efficiently.

Recognizing habits can be a difficult problem to solve.  If you are just starting to build schedules, it may take multiple iterations to understand your habits and their effects.

TLDR: Make note of your habits which may help or inhibit your schedule.  This will allow you to create a specific and efficient schedule.

2. Determine the Task Type

When establishing a personal routine, it is important that you understand the reasons behind completing a task.  Unless you already have strong discipline, it can be hard to find motivation to do tasks which are not interesting or significant.  When creating a personal schedule ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I interested in this task?
  • Am I doing this task to please or impress others?
    • If yes: Is the praise of others worth the effort?
  • Do I see myself having a good time completing this task?
    • If no: Why?
  • What part of this task will be enjoyable?

By answering these questions you will determine if the given task is for enjoyment, personal development, career development, etc.  This insight may give you the extra motivation to push through difficult times and stay on track.

TLDR: Be honest with yourself about why you are doing a task. Make sure you feel the task is worth the effort before beginning the work.

3. Set Goals

This part of the blog is likely to sound the most cliché, as goal setting is a tried-and-true method for maintaining motivation.  The basic idea is that a goal should be "SMART."  Features of a SMART goal include:

  • Specific: The goal is hyper-specific, focusing on one task at a time.
  • Measurable: The goal can be evaluated through quantitative measurement.
  • Attainable: The goal is realistic given your personal and environmental attributes.
  • Relevant: The goal serves a purpose which you deem to be important
  • Time-Based: The goal includes a deadline for completion.

Examples of SMART goals:

  1. I want to practice jiu jitsu more by going to at least 3 classes a week within the next half year.
  2. I want to gain 5 lbs in the next half year by going to the gym at least every other day.
  3. I want to learn cryptography by completing Set One of cryptopals in the next 3 weeks.
  4. I want to establish a more consistent sleep schedule by being in bed by 10:00

Goals should be separated into three categories for short, medium, and long term goals.  I define my short-term goals as limited to under one month.  Medium-term goals span up to a year.  Long-term goals are anything which requires more than a year to complete.

TLDR: Defining strong goals will help to enforce a routine and maintain your motivation when doing tasks.

4. Create a Schedule

Example summer schedule, featuring a light workload.

Once you have understood your habits, motivation, and goals relating to a set of tasks, it is time to create a schedule which accomplishes each goal.  The main things to think about here are strictness of the schedule and optimal working hours.  For example, I do well with a very strict schedule with things tightly clumped together.  The only breaks within my schedule are for meals, which I use as pure leisure time to browse reddit, watch videos, or read interesting articles.  

By making my schedule strictly timed and clumped, I am able to work efficiently for longer hours.  Other types of schedules could be strict and non-clumped, which would have specific times for tasks spread throughout the day with breaks between tasks.  Personally, I would avoid non-strict schedules as they can be compromised by procrastination or laziness.  For example, if one plans to do an hour of reading between 15:00 - 19:00, they may find themselves saying something like "I have 4 hours to do this, I will do it later."  This will lead to missing opportunities to work due to time mismanagement.

An important aspect of creating a schedule is making it something you can see yourself doing.  Since I am a morning person, my schedule would never include studying or working past 22:00.  Similarly, if you are a night owl you should not try to wake up at 6:00 - it just won't happen.  Making a routine which is personalized to your lifestyle is crucial to maintaining the routine.  It is tempting to look to highly-efficient people and attempt to mimic their styles.  Resist that urge and only mimic routine styles which resonate with you.

A final practice which helps me to maintain my schedule is to record the times in an easily-accessible format.  Personally, I use an Excel spreadsheet with color coding to create the routine, then export the times to my phone with notifications 15 minutes before the allotted time.  Another tactic I have seen are printing the schedule and hanging it in a visible space.  One of my peers created a sharpie-drawn template on an erasable surface to have a reusable "To-Do" list.  As with all previous advice, find a style which works for you through experimentation and implement that style.

TLDR: Create a schedule using the knowledge thought about in the previous sections.  Try to make your schedule something which you can see yourself doing.  Make a visual of your schedule which allows you to see the allotted time blocks.

5. Start Strict & Execute

When you first begin your routine, you should not have any deviations from your schedule unless absolutely necessary.  This will force you to build the habits which you seek to build.  Of course, a routine which stays strict can be demotivating.  My personal preference is to maintain the schedule strictly for one month.  After a month, I notice the routine becomes very natural and I do not think about completing the tasks in a rigid manner.

Finding the correct time period is a result of experimentation.  If you are new to creating a routine, you should keep a strict routine for as long as possible.  During the routine, if you find yourself not thinking about the specific times to complete a task, and are still completing the tasks every day, you have found the time period needed to build a habit.

TLDR: Experiment with different time periods of strictness for a new routine.  Find the time required for you to build a habit and adhere your other schedules to that time period.

6. Reward Yourself & Document Progress

Reward systems are, by far, the easiest way to maintain motivation and build a habit.  When you are beginning a new routine, think of the ways you can reward yourself for staying committed.  Rewards will act as a way to gain pleasure from a task and will give an incentive to continue progress.  Associating the task with a positive reward will drive you to keep completing the task daily.

Reward types will vary depending on the task.  When I began training Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, my reward was to buy a rash guard after around half a year of training.  This was a helpful reward because it prevented me from wasting money on something I may not use (if I quit) and acted as a reward for maintaining the routine.  Another common reward is a cheat meal when maintaining a diet and exercise routine.  While buying a rash guard was a cosmetic reward, cheat meals act as a mental reward for hard work.  These types of rewards ease the stress of a rigorous routine which is likely to feel draining.  Creating a mental reward system is crucial to any task which can be physically or mentally exhausting.  Without rewards, motivation will slowly wean and abandonment of the task is likely.

A final reward type comes in the form of documentation.  By documenting progress through a particular goal you will gain a sense of progression and growth.  These feelings can become addictive and make continuing a routine feel natural.  One way I like to document my progress in BJJ is to create audio logs after each class.  In these audio logs I describe the technique covered, my improvement on the technique (if I have learned it previously), feelings regarding my performance in live rolls, and my goals for the next class.  By ending the recording with goals for the next class, I have a clear idea of what to work on the next day.  This documentation allows me to verbally express my growth, feelings, and understanding of the sport.  Since I began creating the audio logs my progress is more evident, encouraging me to keep participating in classes.

Other forms of documentation can be written, video recorded, or photographed.  A common documentation style in weight lifting is to take pictures weekly/monthly to visibly see progress.  For each task, you should have some form of documentation to accompany the task.  Having a physical representation of progress is crucial in maintaining the idea that your routine is worthwhile and effective.  An added benefit of documentation is the opportunity to share progress with others.  This can be particularly useful when completing tasks which are relevant to your career field, because the pictures can be shown to recruiters.

TLDR: Reward yourself and document your progress.  This will show progress and give you an incentive to continue with a routine.

7. Find a Group (optional)

My last tip for building an effective routine is to find a group which shares similar interests.  One of the largest reasons I have continued to do cryptography research is because I am part of a student group at the University of Florida.  The members of this group are constantly pushing each other to improve.  Encouragement takes the forms of periodic messages asking about progress, providing advice for solving problems, and team competition in CTF events.  Finding a group can be an excellent way to push through periods of laziness.

TLDR: Find a group to help you stay on track.

Closing Thoughts

Creating and maintaining an efficient routine can be a daunting task for many people.  As with many other things, it is a skill which must be mastered through continued trial and error.  However, building an effective routine can produce amazing results.  Building the habit of creating routines can allow you to easily adapt to different situations and maintain efficiency.

Happy routine building,

Joshua Haddad