For a long time, I’ve been writing and tweaking an algorithm for my life. This doesn’t work for everyone, but for some of us eliminating decisions and ambiguities frees us to focus on what matters most to us. This is why I wear the same thing almost everyday, and why most days I eat basically the same breakfast and lunch.
I’m not slavish to the patterns I’ve developed, so there’s plenty of room for spontaneity. More importantly, what I give up in variety is returned manyfold in serenity and time. The most important piece of my algorithm is my daily routine, which yields what I think is a perfect balance of family, work, and personal pursuits.
Every morning I get up at 5 a.m. I’ve set an alarm, but at this point I’m usually awake before it goes off. I make coffee and then I settle down to read until 7 a.m. I use this time mainly to read books and that allows me to average about a book a week. It’s easy to read that many books and more if you dedicate 14 hours a week to the practice. Sometimes I use this time to write.
At about 7 a.m. my daughter Penny tends to wake up. My wife Kathleen and I feed her breakfast and get her ready for the day. I take a shower, get dressed, and eat a quick breakfast of single-serving egg soufflés I’ve made on Saturday for the week. I also pack my lunch of two hard boiled eggs, an avocado, salami, and anything else high fat and low carb I can find. We leave the house around 8 a.m.
We drop off Penny at day care and then drive to Kathleen’s office. From there I take the Metro into Washington. My commute is a great time to do some more reading. Sometimes it’s a book, but typically it’s a political magazine to which I subscribe. If it’s too crowded, I might listen to an audiobook or podcast. I tend to get to the office by 9 a.m. Sometimes a bit earlier, sometime a little later.
From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. I answer email, trying to get to “inbox zero,” and I plan my day employing the GTD method. From 10 a.m. to noon, I try to engage in deep work like research and writing. At noon I will have lunch, usually with my team, but sometimes it’s a lunch meeting outside the office.
Let me say at this point that this is not as rigid as it sounds. Sticking to this routine, which I do as described almost every day, only works if I’m flexible when things have to change. Sometimes Penny wakes up early, sometimes the Metro is late, sometimes I have to schedule an important meeting at 10. I simply don’t sweat it. I expect that on average, in the long term, my days will conform to this routine, but I don’t have any expectations about each day. Without such expectations, it doesn’t throw me off when my plan has to change. I simply “reschedule” my planned activities within the day if I can and move on.
From 1 to 4 p.m. I engage in shallow work, like more email. This is the time I set aside for meetings and phone calls, and my robot assistant Amy knows this is the only time to schedule them. If I need more than 12 to 15 hours a week for meetings and calls, I’m doing something wrong.
At 4 p.m. I commute in reverse, beating a bit of rush hour. (Yes, I’m very lucky that my job is very flexible.) We pick up Penny and are usually home a little bit after 5. From 5 to 7 p.m. it’s family time and we lock up our phones. I make dinner while Kathleen watches Penny, then after we eat we switch and I watch Penny while Kathleen does the dishes. Bath time for Penny is 7 p.m. and she’s in bed between 7:30 and 8. After that I’ll read a bit more or work on a project until 9 p.m.
For me, the trick to waking up at 5 a.m. wide-eyed and bushy-tailed is to go to bed unfailingly at 9 p.m. When friends hear what time I go to bed, they often sneer at the idea, saying it sounds too limiting. But to the contrary, it’s empowering. All I’m doing is trading a couple hours at night for a couple of hours in the morning (assuming eight hours in bed, or about 7 hours of actual sleep). The hours at night that I’m trading are ones in which I’m tired, if not exhausted, with little capacity to do more than watch TV or scroll aimlessly through social media. In return I’m getting two productive, focused hours in the morning. It’s my favorite time of the day.
The morning and evening routines are the same on the weekends as during the week. In between there are more unstructured activities, though there’s still a pattern. Saturdays happen to be errand days on which I grocery shop, fill up the gas tank, and meal prep for the week. Sundays are for more intentional family activities and we try to see friends and entertain.
This routine, part of the larger algorithm that runs my life, contributes greatly to my peace and serenity. I always know what I’m doing next, even if that activity is unstructured. Its efficiency gives me time that I otherwise would not have, yet there’s no lack of spontaneity because every day life throws a curveball at you (especially in my line of work). Every week I know for certain I’m going to give my total focus to my family for 40 hours, to work for 35 hours, and to personal pursuits 35. Those are many more focused hours than if I didn’t have a plan.
The key is to treat the routine as a guide, and not a schedule. Expecting life and the people that make it up to conform to the lines on your calendar is a recipe for disappointment. No plan survives contact with the enemy, or a toddler. Keeping that in mind, you can start to shape a routine that works for you.