1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Building routines around what’s essential in our lives makes it easier to achieve what’s most important.

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Build one routine around something essential. Start by making one change in your daily or weekly routine.
  • Keep your routines top of mind. List them on your calendar and check your calendar more than your email.

3 Questions to Ask

  • What are my current routines?
  • Are my current routines built around the things I find essential?
  • What is one essential area of my life that could benefit from routine?

Key Moments from the Show 

  • Unlocking your potential through the power of routine (3:45)
  • One secret of routine: Making the abnormal seem normal (8:20)
  • How routines make what’s difficult seem effortless (9:25)
  • How nonessentialists and essentialists approach routine (11:23)
  • Greg’s struggle with creating the right routines (13:42)
  • Why routines work (17:10)
  • The cognitive advantage of routine (18:08)
  • How routine fosters creativity (19:02)
  • Building your routines (22:59)

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Greg McKeown: 

Come with me on an exploration of self-discovery. On this podcast, we decipher what really matters as we unravel the chaos of day-to-day work to learn how to build an essential life. 

Welcome, welcome to the What’s Essential Podcast. I am your host, Greg McKeown, and I am chuffed to bits to be with you, that you are here, that you are listening to opting to spend this time with me, investing in you, and in designing a life that really matters. 

How are you today? Take a deep breath. I need to do that, too. One of the casualties of the last couple of years has been the dismantling. Of whatever boundaries we had left from before. And with the loss of those boundaries have been many of our routines. 

Am I exaggerating? I mean, who hasn’t felt some of this? You get caught up in a zoom, eat, sleep, repeat lifestyle. You start living out of your inbox. You experience a relentless series of inputs, text notifications, clients tapping on you, and children tapping on you. 

On my worst days, I fall into the trap of trying to make all decisions by text. It’s an exhausting way to live. Can you relate to that experience? Can you relate to what it is that I’ve been struggling with recently, where everything seems to be happening all at once now? There’s this pressure to do everything now. 

Recently, my wife, Anna, said she thought that I would for this year should be. Although actually, before I get to that. Have you chosen a word for the year for you? Like if you could choose one word? That’s your touchstone word, so you keep coming back to it again and again and again all through this journey. Well, if you haven’t, now’s a good time to do it. It’s a it’s a very helpful trick to be able to achieve a greater level of focus, but in an unforced way. You just keep coming back to that word. Of course, you’ll get off track and of course, you shouldn’t spend all of your time on one word. But it’s good to have it in a repetitive way. Now, the word for us, because I’ve adopted it now because I think it’s so right, is routines. 

So you’re going to leave today’s episode knowing why and how to design routines to help you achieve what’s essential without feeling so crazy. And we should start here with a story of extraordinary performance. 

For years before Phelps won the gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he followed the same routine in every race. He arrived two hours early. He stretched, loosened up. But also, according to like this precise pattern, it had an 800 mixer, 50 freestyle, 600 kicking with a kickball at 400, pulling a boy and more, which itself is quite impressive if there’s any swimmers out there. 

From that moment, he and his coach, Bob Bowman, wouldn’t speak a word to each other until after the race was over at 45 minutes before the race. He would put on his race suit. At 30 minutes before he would get into the warm-up pool, do 600 to 800 meters. With 10 minutes to go, he would walk to the ready room. He’d find a seat alone, never next to anyone. He liked to keep the seats on both sides of him clear, so he’d put goggles on one side and his towel on the other. When his race was called, he would walk to the blocks. He would do what he always did: two stretches, first, a straight leg stretch and then a bent knee left leg first every time. Then, the right earbud would come out. When his name was cold, he would take out the left earbud. He would step onto the block, always from the left side. He would drive the block every time. Then, he would stand and flap his arms in that Phelpsian way that we perhaps remember. 

Phelps said it this way. “It’s just a routine, my routine is routine, I’ve gone through my whole life. I’m not going to change it, and that’s that.” 

But his coach, Bob Bowman, designed that physical routine with Phelps, and that’s not all. He also gave Phelps a routine for what to think about as he went to sleep. And first thing when he woke up, he called it watching the videotape. There’s no actual videotape, of course, but the tape was a visualization of the perfect race in exquisite detail. In slow motion, Phelps would visualize every moment from his stop position on the top of the blocks through every stroke until he emerged from the pool victorious with water dripping off his face. And he didn’t just do this mental routine now and then. He did it every day, every day before he goes to bed, every day when he woke up, and for years. So, in fact, when Bob wanted to challenge him in the practices to go that extra, you know, that extra surge. He would he would call out to put in the videotape. And Phelps would push way beyond his limits. 

Eventually, the mental routine was so deeply ingrained. That Bob Bailey had to whisper that phrase; he didn’t didn’t have to yell out; he could just whisper, “Get the videotape ready,” before a race. And Phelps was just always ready to hit play. 

When I asked Bob Bowman about this. He said, “If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before the competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over when the race arrives. He’s more than halfway through his plan, and he’s been victorious at every step. All the stretches went like planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.” 

I love that, from Bob to explain what’s going on. Well, as we all know, Phelps went on to win that record. Unbelievable eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. And just as an aside here. Post writing Essentialism I have got to know Bob Bowman better. And he’s told me quite a few things about what that experience was like and what he was trying to do for Phelps was to make an abnormal situation feel normal. For example, what I didn’t understand is that when swimmers. And in this case from the United States go to the Olympics, they’re often going into conditions that are actually not ideal. You don’t have a sense of that from the outside, but the food may not be ideal. The changing rooms might not be ideal, like it’s chaotic and, strange and unfamiliar. And so his job as the coach was to make things as routine as possible. As normal as possible in a very abnormal surroundings so that Phelps could perform at his very, very best when visiting Beijing. 

Years after Phelps achieved this breathtaking accomplishment with Bob’s help and others, I couldn’t help but think about how effortless it had all seemed to the rest of us. Now, of course, you know, Olympic athletes are arguably practicing longer and in more focus than perhaps any other athletes in the world. But but when they get in that pool, you know, they made it, especially even those eight gold medals looked almost effortless. Bob said that in fact, he thought it almost impossible. In fact, he was talking a good game, but deep down, he wondered whether it could even be done. And then he’s healthy, he told me not only was it done, it seemed to happen, you know, just it just flowed, it just worked. It was without without great problems along the way. In fact, he had a moment; he said it was a moment like in the movie Miracle; if you’ve seen that movie with a coach after the US team beats the Russian team in ice hockey, takes a moment, goes into a little side corridor. And just suddenly let the reality sink in and just has a moment of just almost sort of freak out celebration, but also shock. And Bob Bowman had just that moment alone by himself moments after this had been achieved. 

And so that was his observation too; it just happened and almost effortlessly. It’s just unbelievable. It’s also a testament to the genius of routines, right? I mean, how else can you think about it? And we can connect this to the idea of operating as a non-essential straight, a nonessentialist tends to think that the essentials only get done when they’re forced. Through pressure. That execution is a matter of a really raw effort alone. You, Labor, to make it happen, you push through. It’s sheer will. And it’s not that there is no place for that; of course, there is a place for exertion. Nevertheless, my observation is that the way of the essentialist is different. The essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position. 

With the right routine in place, each effort yields great results, even sometimes exponentially better results. So, let’s not miss this point. When you get just one right routine in place, that routine serves you again and again and again without you having to think about it.

But to be frank, recently, for me, and let’s say over the last couple of years, I have underinvested in developing the right routines. It’s just been it’s just sometimes become the default to focus on the right things, but just to do them, not exactly as they come. You are still designing your day. You’re still making a list and prioritizing it and working, you know, more often than not on even the right things. But the problem with doing in the way that I’ve slipped into is that you have to keep remaking the decisions again and again and again every day you’re remaking them. 

As you may remember, for those long-time listeners, we still have more than one of our children homeschooling. Now, the whole world had to do home education for a while, so you sort of, you know, and maybe some people are even while listening to this, that’s an additional problem because it’s not just developing routines for yourself, it’s for other people too. And the cost of not doing it is that everything is happening all at once. And prioritization becomes harder and just everything becomes harder than it needs to be. 

So let’s just summarize this for a second: nonessentialists try to execute the essentials by force, you know, trying to do it all now. And they allow the nonessentials to become the default and essentialist designs, a routine that enshrines what’s essential. 

You know, it makes execution more effortless. It makes the day easier, if you know what time it begins. We’ve just reestablished this in our home, I mean, I’m talking like 24 hours ago and when I went on a walk. And we’ve already identified recently routines that need to be the focus. And we say, OK, well, what time are we going to get up in the morning? And we identified that time when we talked to the whole family, we said it’s earlier. For us, what we chose was 6:30. I mean, it’s a long time since we’ve had a set time that all of us were getting up at that same time and, you know, we’ll see how it goes. We’ve got to be patient in the process for how you know how consistent we’re going to be over time. I don’t want to over promise now to you as I share this example. But it did feel good and and the awareness that if we keep to that one-time decision. How often that’s going to yeah, you make the decision once. But then you don’t have to make it day after day after day; it’s just done. Everyone’s doing it. That’s when the family gets together. That makes everything else smoother. 

Now, that’s not enough, but you can see if you add one routine and then you layer on another routine and another. Not overdoing it, but small one time decisions on routine. Free up your mental capacities in amazing ways. I mean, there’s a huge body of scientific research to support what we’re talking about here. One simplified explanation is that as we repeatedly do certain tasks, follow certain routines, neurons, nerve cells make new connections through a sort of communication gateways, synapses with repetition. The connection strengthens. It becomes easier for the brain to activate them. Yeah, a similar process is taking place when we drive from point A to point B every day, so we can eventually make the journey without consciously thinking about it. It’s also why, you know, once we cook the same meal a few times, we no longer have to consult the recipe and so on, right? Of course, the repetition of a routine leads to sort of a mastering of it, and the activity becomes second nature. We know this. 


So, what it means, though, is that there’s a cognitive advantage to routine. Once the mental work shifts to the basal ganglia, it frees up the mental space in our brains to concentrate on something new. So this allows us to auto-pilot the execution of one essential activity. While simultaneously actively engaging in another without sacrificing our level of focus, our contribution. 

Think about how Charles Duhigg said this. He said, “In fact, the brain starts working less and less. The brain,” he continues, “can almost completely shut down, and this is a real advantage because it means you have all this mental activity you can devote to something else.” 

I mean, that’s the point. That’s the idea. Now, I get it that, for many people, the idea of routine can sound. Like, that’s where creativity and innovation go to die. You know, it’s the ultimate exercise in boredom. We even use the word as a synonym for sort of pallid and bland, as in, “Well, it’s all just become routine to me.” And there’s no doubt the routines can indeed become that the wrong routines. But the right routines can actually enhance innovation and creativity by giving us the equivalent of an energy rebate. So the idea is to spend our limited supply of discipline on making the same decisions again and again, embedding our decisions into our routine to allow us to channel that limited discipline toward some other essential activity. That’s the idea. I mean, the work Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done on creativity explains almost the opposite idea about routines. 

Rather than routines being the key to boredom, it’s actually exactly the way that highly creative people free up their minds. This is him. I’m quoting him directly now. “Most creative individuals find out early what their best rhythms are for sleeping, eating, and working and abide by them even when it’s tempting to do otherwise. They wear clothes that are comfortable. They interact only with people they find congenial. They do only things they think are important. He says, “Of course, such idiosyncrasies are not endearing to those they have to deal with. But personalizing patterns of action helps to free the mind from the expectations that make demands on attention and allows intense concentration on matters that count.” 

I know from personal experience that one of the companies frequently voted in the very most innovative companies in the world holds a meeting at 9:00 a.m. Monday morning for the executive team every week. Three hours. I know that doesn’t sound like much when you just hear that, you’re like, “Wow, OK, that’s that’s just a Monday morning meeting.” However, they hold that no matter what. It’s a global company. The ease with which that team could be disparate and all across the world in different time zones. They are highly capable. One of the most capable executive teams of any Silicon Valley company. And so you could easily make a case for “Oh, we will miss this week; we’ll get together next week.” They have it like religiously from nine till twelve. What it allows is by freeing up the question of, “Well, who’s going to be here, and how long are they going to be here? And who’s going to have to jump off for a conference call, and who’s going to?” By removing all of that it’s allowed this team to be able to be more creative, focused, inventive and making solutions look, relatively speaking anyway, natural and easy. 

All of this is supported. There’s some great research by Duke University that identified that nearly 40 percent of our choices are deeply unconscious. We don’t even really think about them. 

One caution with all of this as you reexamine your life, as you think about how to build in more routines, and change the routines you have. Is to tackle your routines one by one. It would be unfortunate to become so taken with the genius of routine that we feel tempted to try to overhaul all of the routines at the same time. In fact, my wife Anna just said that to me this morning as a reminder like, let’s let’s take this slow. Let’s do one by one by one. 

So start with one change in your daily or weekly routine and then build on your progress from there. I don’t want to imply that any of this can be done with no thought at all. Many of our nonessential routines are deep, and they’re emotional. And some of them have been formed in the furnace of some pretty virulent emotions. The idea that we can just snap our fingers and replace them with new ones is naive. And many of our routines are not just an individual decision. It’s an interdependent reality. Other people who are expecting us to be at certain places. 

Nevertheless. Once we master a single new routine that reinforces something we already value that we already think is essential. It’s worth the sort of extra investment because it returns like a residual result again and again and again. Once they’re in place, they’re gifts that keep on giving. 

So that’s it, that’s what’s essential right now. That’s what I want to emphasize to you. That’s what I want to encourage you to do is to select one routine that you want to rebuild and put in place. 

I can share a few that I have developed, used at different times, an end of the day time having a routine. That’s the end. That’s the end of the workday, choosing a select time for that. There may be exceptions, but to have as few exceptions as possible. Otherwise, if you don’t have an end of the day time, there’ll be no end of the day. Four or five o’clock six seven eight nine 10 11. It just goes on and on until eventually. Is this exhausted, and you continue? Another one that I think is worth considering is a bed and a time that you end eating. You just say, “OK, this is the set time. I’m not going to eat after this time.” Can’t imagine where that idea came from in my life. Wherever you can, take your essential tasks and projects and turn them into routines. Check your calendar more than you check your email. Take control of that calendar in any way that you can. Shift passt living your life by text, by Zoom, meeting, by reaction, and build routines that represent what is most essential to you. 

Well, we’ve come to that time again. It’s the end of the show. If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive a signed copy of Effortless. Just send a photo of your review to info@gregmckeown.com. That’s gregmckeown.com. And remember, as Mike Murdock put it, “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily.” 

Well, enjoy today. Enjoy this week, and I’ll see you next week here for the What’s Essential Podcast.