For a long time, I couldn’t figure out how to design my “perfect routine.” I came to Medium when the productivity hype was up in 2017 and, right at the doorstep, I was greeted with a colourful plate full of advice.
I could pick all the appetizers I wanted.
So I tasted the “Waking up at 5 am” one. The “daily exercise routine.” For a while, I fiddled with journaling, meditation, breathing practices, scheduling my breaks and so on. It was fun to experiment. I learned a lot.
But, in the end, all of these were just appetizers.
The main dish came when I started listening to my own voice to design my perfect day — and not that of productivity gurus.
Productivity advice is not universal
Personal development advice can be great, but it can also be useless — or even downright harmful. That depends on whether you are able to filter it through the lens of your own standards and individual conditioning.
I was missing that last point for quite a while.
I took most of the productivity and self-management advice quite literally in the beginning. If a guru said: “wake up early and kick yourself out of bed immediately” — then so I did. I didn’t see the necessity of taking my unique wiring into consideration.
And that usually meant that I was either misusing even the most insightful hints and prompts — or taking to heart those that were useless for me.
For example, I came across a lot of content that talked about discipline. How important it is to keep yourself accountable, not get distracted, work hard, push yourself outside your comfort zone, etc. The baseline was not to be too permissive on myself.
Getting hung up on chasing my goals (e.g. writing), I somehow overlooked that my default relationship with myself already demanded a lot from me in the area of self-improvement. I was already employing quite a lot of discipline (that’s how I was raised, I suppose) and being hard on myself if I failed to meet the mark.
By pushing myself even more, in line with the productivity gurus’ advice, I was actually doing myself a disservice. My particular conditioning dictated that, in my case, to achieve “optimal performance,” I was better off working on forgiveness — instead of pushing myself even harder.
The trick here was to see what was happening. And that required the kind of work that had nothing to do with productivity or optimal performance.
“Knowing thyself” should be the entry-level productivity class
All too often, we put too much trust in other people with regard to our own well-being. We assume that a guy who published a book or two on personal development will know better than us what we need. As a result, we end up running to various mentors and gurus for advice before we can even recognize our own basic needs.
And let me tell you — if there is one thing I learned about personal growth, it is that each one of us is on their unique, non-replicable path. This means that your path will always be, to some extent, different than that of even the wisest guru or teacher. This applies to productivity, personal and professional growth alike.
Nobody who comes to give you advice knows how it feels to be in your skin. Nobody other than you is familiar with all the nuances of your life story and the way they shaped you. Nobody, therefore, is able to give you fool-proof advice on anything. All advice, no matter how great, needs to be filtered through your own apparatus of healthy critique.
This healthy critique can only be wielded once you have accumulated sufficient self-awareness. By “self-awareness,” I mean the knowledge of your moment-to-moment feelings and thoughts, emotional intelligence and the awareness of your recurring patterns — but also, the proficiency of your own life story.
It’s quite useful to have a birds-eye-view perspective of the events that shaped your personality and behaviours over the course of your life. The way you were raised and the tendencies that prevailed in the interactions with your caretakers. The fears and aspirations that have accompanied you for years. The groundbreaking events from your childhood and the milestones in your adult life.
All these things give you precious clues as to where in your current life there is space for “optimization” — and which areas demand nothing more than loving maintenance.
To be able to see the clues, it requires you to do a certain amount of intentional inner work. This can happen in various forms.
Some people simply call it “self-reflection” and are able to perform it casually throughout their days. Others seek more structured practices, like journaling or meditation. Finally, certain individuals enter therapy — not only as a means to cure serious mental health conditions, but simply as a technique to unpack their hidden psychological patterns.
I am a big advocate of doing this kind of work before — or alongside — testing different productivity and self-management hacks. From my experience, unless you have accumulated a sufficient amount of self-knowledge, you are just too prone to following blindly even the advice that doesn’t serve you.
How I do things differently these days
The way I look at my growth today can be summed up as: “inner first, outer later.”
This means that I prioritize getting to know myself through recognizing what is already present — without trying to change it. Only when I clearly see what’s happening — for example: I’m struggling with focus because of resistance to writing and I am procrastinating work by checking social media– I can embark on the search for ways to improve the situation.
This means that, in some cases, I can apply productivity advice exactly as it was served to me. Other times, however, I may do exactly the opposite of what I was told — because I recognize that this serves me better.
My current morning routine is a great example of that.
1. I usually wake up somewhere between 6 and 6:30 am.
No matter the time, I make it a point not to stress that I got up “too late.” The priority is to get enough sleep anyway, so if I went to bed later the previous day, I would sleep until 7, or even 8. I also don’t jump out of bed immediately after opening my eyes. While still lying down, I take a few minutes to stretch, take a few deep breaths, smile and consciously feel gratitude for the good night’s sleep and the day ahead.
2. After getting out of bed and washing my face, I take 5–7 minutes to do a short yoga practice.
The point is not to get a full workout before I do anything else. My main intention is to be gentle with myself, but also help my body awaken fully. A few energetic asanas make my blood circulate a bit faster, which also boosts mental clarity before my meditation.
3. After the yoga practice I dress and I sit to meditate for 40 minutes.
This is the priority activity during my morning, and I make some real effort to make the practice as focused and deliberate as possible on the given day. I refuse, however, to stress out if the meditation isn’t going perfectly. For example, sometimes it happens that I absolutely must go to the toilet during the practice — and I do. I try not to be a perfectionist about that but relax into the meditation instead.
4. When my meditation session is over, I jot a few sentences down in my journal.
I also keep it as free as I can. If I feel like writing a lot that day — I do. If I don’t have anything to say, I may leave it at literally two lines — and that’s also fine.
5. Then I proceed to prepare my breakfast and coffee — the biggest indulgence of the morning.
I take my time. When the food is ready, I sit in a quiet place where no one will bother me — recently, it’s often been the garden. I know the benefits of mindful eating, but I absolutely love and find a lot of comfort in reading as I eat my breakfast. So that’s what I do. My morning reads are usually light ones — for example, articles on Medium — so they can provide a maximum amount of pleasure. I give myself ample time to indulge in this morning ritual. My breakfast, coffee, and morning reading may take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
After that, I usually can’t wait to get to writing. So I do.
As you probably noticed, my morning routine is a balance between structure and freedom. On one hand, I put in place a few activities that do not change — and this gives me the necessary sense of stability. But on the other, I don’t want to feel like a robot doing them. So when going through my routine, I prioritize taking my time and getting the most pleasure I can out of it.
This means that if I am 10, 20 or even 30 minutes “behind the schedule,” I won’t freak out that I am not being “productive enough.” This applies to my morning routine — but also extends to the attitude towards the work I do later on.
That’s because my priority is to enjoy every minute of my day. To me, this is a much more important goal than meeting arbitrary deadlines, word count, or any other preconceived plan. Productivity advice aside, I know better than ever what serves me.
So, I make it a point to pursue it — regardless of how other people’s standards may be different from mine.