How to Stick to Routines When Life is Trying to Break Them

We've all experienced it. Life throws obstacles our way, motivation eludes us, and when we finally have the time, procrastination seems to be the only path forward. Are you procrastinating right now?

Published on
4 May

You're not alone – around 15-20% of adults regularly procrastinate. This cycle can lead to immense overwhelm, sometimes culminating in complete burnout.

You know those days when nothing goes as planned, leaving you exhausted and ready to start fresh tomorrow? But then tomorrow arrives, and the cycle continues. You may wonder, "Where's my motivation? Why can't I get things done even when I genuinely want to? My goals and to-do list align with my dreams and values, so shouldn't it be easy and automatic?"

The reality is, motivation is not something you can control or rely on consistently. The struggle you're facing stems from burnout, not personal failure.

So, how can we reset and discover pockets of productivity when everything in our minds and in our environment seems determined to make us fail?

Why shouldn't you depend on motivation or willpower?

You can’t rely on motivation to crush your to-do list.

Relying solely on motivation or willpower sets you up for failure. These forces are fleeting, inconsistent, and challenging to control.

Motivation ebbs and flows, influenced by factors such as mood and environmental circumstances, making it an unreliable driver of productivity.

Some social psychologists argue that willpower is a finite resource that can be depleted. When you use willpower to resist temptation or make tough decisions, your self-control for subsequent events dwindles.

Present bias can also undermine motivation and willpower, leading to poor follow-through on intentions. This bias refers to prioritizing immediate rewards over long-term gains, resulting in procrastination. Research in behavioral economics and psychology shows that people often overestimate their future motivation. Our brains are not wired for delayed gratification.

Instead, we need to establish systems that become automatic. We must develop behaviors that require less conscious effort and mental resources. By focusing on creating an environment that helps us overcome our limitations, we can bypass our dependence on motivation and willpower.

So, how can we cultivate the behaviors and an environment that boosts our productivity?

The Productivity Puzzle

Productivity can feel like an elusive puzzle, but it is the result of managing four main aspects of yourself: your routines, your focus, your time, and your self-care.

Mastering these elements can make productivity feel automatic even when life gets challenging.

🔄 Building solid routines is crucial. Establishing structure and direction creates a strong foundation for consistent and automatic productivity.

🎯 Set clear intentions, eliminate distractions, and create sessions of flow and deep work to stay on track and work more efficiently.

⏰ Time is a limited resource, with only 24 hours in a day. The reality is that you don't lack time, but structure and focus. If you have a strong foundation, you can master time management by making informed decisions about your daily priorities.

🧘 Most importantly, prioritize your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Bring the best version of yourself to each day, setting yourself up for optimal results and performance.

Keeping these four key aspects in mind, let’s dive into actionable strategies for each so that productivity becomes second nature.

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Consistency breeds motivation.

🔄 Create routines that will help you achieve your goals

How we spend our days reflects how we spend our lives.

The first step is to decide what are our goals and the direction we want to head in. And direction matters more than speed. It’s better to climb slowly up the RIGHT mountain than to climb fast up the WRONG one!

Create clear, achievable objectives with the SMART framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound). SMART goals create well-defined objectives and set the foundation for effective planning. If your goals are SMART, it should be easy to track your progress, break it down into smaller milestones and trackable tasks, and adjust your plans as needed. SMART goals increase your likelihood of goal attainment by up to 76%!

But it’s not enough to have goals. The secret to executing? Reverse engineer your goals into habits.

Habits are like magic. If you can build them, then they are automatic superpowers.

But it’s extremely hard to build a habit and it’s a time commitment. You have to have a systematic way of building habits and what works based on science is creating habit loops. Research shows that habits consist of 3 key elements: a cue (trigger), a routine (action), and a reward (positive outcome). To create a habit, you have to identify and optimize each part of this loop.

Habits take at least 21 days to feel automatic. The more complex the task, the longer it will take. Habits practiced for over 84 days have an 82% chance of achieving automaticity. Behavior automaticity is when you do something so many times, it becomes super easy and you can do it without even thinking about it. Once you have a habit that feels automatic, your decision-making and the cognitive load it tolls on your mind and body is limited and there’s a freedom in that.

When creating a habit, the main focus should be consistency. You want to start with a habit that is too light. Because you just want to create that automaticity. Focus only on your consistency of the habit. Create a visual representation of your consistency. Tracking your progress will help you not “break the chain” and increase your likelihood of maintaining consistency while also increasing your wins. Track your progress and course correct. Be patient and commit to the process.

Waiting for inspiration or an internal drive to get things done is a losing battle. Stick to the habits established when planning your goal. Focus on consistency and the interplay between your goals, habits, and data to make the most of your productivity journey.

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Navigate mindfully

🎯 Cultivate focus by emphasizing direction over speed and harnessing the flow state

“The mechanic who wishes to perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.” ~ Confucius

Once you have established routines and consistently show up, maximize each habit session through focus. Focus is your most powerful tool.

Hone your focus by learning to create a flow state.

Begin by navigating mindfully. Approach everything with deliberate awareness and intentionality. Plan your actions and emphasize direction over speed. This means having a clear objective for each session, a reasonable workload, and a positive, creative mindset.

Avoid the "Speed Trap". The paradox of speed is that you must slow down to speed up. Each time you engage in a habit, be deliberate with your direction. It’s better to climb slowly up the RIGHT mountain than to climb fast up the WRONG one! Focus on high-leverage opportunities, assess what you missed previously, and track data for course correction. It's disappointing to reach the top of a mountain only to realize it's the wrong one. Avoid this mistake by moving slowly and steadily, as slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

Once you have a clear direction for your habit session, prepare your environment and yourself for success.

For your environment, create a ritual around getting into the zone and single-tasking. Turn off notifications, close unnecessary tabs, and throw your phone across the room (just kidding, please don't do that). Don’t multi-task. Multi-tasking is just constant task-switching, and every time you switch tasks, there's a 💸 "switching cost". Taking just 20 seconds to respond to a chat or email can result in more than 20 minutes of lost productivity! Research shows that the cognitive load or mental energy needed to refocus your attention on a deep work task is typically 23 minutes and 15 seconds. Different habits can have different flow rituals. Do you like total silence, some light background noise, or music? Set the mood and create the perfect ambiance to get your brain in the zone.

For preparing yourself, embrace the concept of 💪 mise-en-place, meaning "put in place". Have everything you need in place for the task organized and ready before beginning. Chefs and cooks are well-versed in mise-en-place, arranging all ingredients and tools before starting to cook. In the high-stakes environment of a restaurant kitchen, seconds matter. So these chefs prepare and know what ingredients need to be added first and which utensil to grab at the right time. In a state of flow, they always know what step they’re working on in the sequence. They’re never confused about what comes next. Adopt a similar approach and treat your projects like recipes by gathering all necessary resources, outlining the entire process, and working through each step sequentially. This method promotes psychological satisfaction, helping you maintain flow and perseverance throughout your habit sessions.

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Plan your days

Plan & prioritize your time

Getting into a flow state could take 15 minutes. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Scheduling your deep work sessions for your peak productivity hours requires an understanding about your relationship with time.

Because time is a fixed commodity. There’s only 24 hours in every day, so you have to decide where you’re going to place your bets daily.

Start treating time like a bank account by tracking your spending and identifying time-wasting activities. Plan to invest your time wisely, allocating it to what truly matters to you, and watch the returns multiply. The Eisenhower Matrix can help with both tracking and investing your time.

The Eisenhower Matrix originates from Dwight Eisenhower's insight: "What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important." This matrix helps you prioritize tasks and say no to anything misaligned with your goals. It reminds you to tackle the most important tasks first.

The bigger takeaway from this productivity framework is that you need to plan your days. You should be living in the Decide quadrant. That's where the productivity 🌟magic 🌟 happens!

Schedule your days! Plan out your habits and optimize your focus sessions for your peak productivity hours. That’s how the magic happens. Your habits are about building long-term value in your life. Spend more time on planning your dedicated sessions for deep work.

Investing your energy here is crucial for understanding your unique relationship with time.

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From a tiny seed, great dreams can grow

🧘 Practice self-care and avoid burnout

Burnout is like quicksand – difficult to escape, but easy to avoid.

Counterintuitively, burnout stems from the belief that breaks are counterproductive. The key to sustainable success is balancing work and rest, maintaining energy, focus, and well-being.

For short breaks, engage in mental and physical resets. Intention-setting and positive affirmations can help boost your mental energy. Stretch, listen to music, or dance like no one is watching and boost your physical energy.

For longer breaks, embrace free time. If free time for you is an afterthought, or maybe even a luxury, then you need a mindset shift.

Free time is a call option.

Simply, a call option is an investment that gives you the option to buy something later, but you don't have to if you change your mind. Your unstructured time is a powerful investment in yourself. It presents opportunities to explore new ideas, sharpen your skills, and tap into your creativity. Leverage free time for yourself to unlock potential and discover new possibilities.

So schedule rest deliberately. Intentionally plan downtime in your daily routine, making time for hobbies, relaxation, and self-care.

The Pomodoro technique can help experiment with different routines of short and long breaks, enabling you to better understand your relationship with time.

Dedicate free time to enjoying hobbies, relaxation, and socializing without guilt. Embrace breaks and free time as opportunities for personal growth and rejuvenation.

Overcome setbacks and procrastination while being kind to yourself

Even with the best-laid plans, things can still go wrong. Procrastination or disruptions to our routine can derail even the most diligent individuals. To overcome these obstacles, it's important to understand why they occur and develop strategies to combat them.

Recognize that disruptions are a natural part of life, and it’s important to maintain a flexible mindset. Disruptions due to unforeseen circumstances, such as emergencies, last-minute changes, or external factors, are beyond your control, so don’t be hard on yourself when they happen. Instead, try to predict potential disruptions, create buffers, and have systems to easily reschedule and replan your days. This will lighten the stress when faced with unexpected events, and help you proactively manage your time and resources.

One strategy for practicing resilience in the face of setbacks is the 'four quarters' method. Divide your day into four distinct parts, dedicating specific goals and activities to each period. This approach creates a sense of control and accomplishment, allowing for flexibility, buffers, and adaptability.

If things don't go according to plan in one quarter, there are still three more opportunities to refocus, stay positive, and charge ahead.

Procrastination is more in our control: it often stems from feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite number of tasks ahead. To combat this mindset, keep showing up, even when it gets tough. Slow down, but don't give up. Remember the "why" behind the "what".

Or try channeling the physics of productivity. Procrastination is the same as how objects at rest stay at rest. You want to start and keep moving forward.

Techniques like the “two-minute rule” are great for combating procrastination and getting back on track. Instead of waiting for motivation, start on anything tangentially related to your primary task. Staring at a blank screen? Try writing random sentences for two minutes and watch how your thoughts begin to flow. The power of motion will give you traction.

Micro-tasking is another useful tool. Keep a list of tasks that take only a few minutes. When you want to stop procrastinating, look at that list and start knocking out those quick tasks. Reply to that email. Schedule that meeting. Creating momentum and taking action will help you overcome doubt and get started.

Motivation comes through action.

Start small and let the law of motion work its magic. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion - and so will your productivity.

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Assemble all the pieces to solve your productivity puzzle

Sticking to routines when life tries to break them can be challenging. By mastering solid routines, establishing focus, maintaining time management, and practicing self-care, you can overcome obstacles and stay on track towards achieving your goals. Remember that setbacks are a natural part of life, and the key to success is perseverance, resilience, and adaptability.

Embrace the challenge and continue building your most productive and fulfilling life.

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