Are routines useful? How can I establish good ones, if so? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Ryan Holiday, bestselling author of The Daily Stoic, Quora:

There is a reason that most successful people have routines. It's not because they're OCD or eccentric. Successful people develop routines for a simple reason: they want to reduce friction in their lives so they can focus on what they do best.

As you become successful, whether it's financially or in mastering a craft, you realize that time is your most precious commodity. There is simply never enough time. There is always too much to think about. So you come up with routines, rituals, and habits that simplify your life and save you time.

I'll give you an example: President Barack Obama only wears blue or grey suits. As he told Michael Lewis in a Vanity Fair interview:

"You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."

I'm the same way. Every day I eat at the same taco place down the street from my house. I order the same salad. I phone in the order before I hop in my car. 10 minutes later, I'm home with the salad, reading while I eat it.

Here's the funny truth though: I'm sick to death of this salad. Every time I tell myself, "Hey, let's go find something new," I end up driving around town frustrated, and end up with something that costs more, is less healthy, and takes more time.

To go back to Obama for a second: do you remember that one time he wore a tan suit? The world freaked out. When I search for "Obama tan suit," this is an actual headline that I found: "Rep. Peter King Is Angry President Obama Wore a Tan Suit." Obviously Peter King is nuts and most people weren't upset, but the choice got tons of media coverage and he had to answer a million questions about it. In other words, it wasted a huge amount of Obama's very valuable time.

Some more from Michael Lewis about this:

In a funny way, the president's day actually starts the night before. When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things. He arrives at the gym on the third floor of the residence, above his bedroom, at 7:30. He works out until 8:30 (cardio one day, weights the next), then showers and dresses in either a blue or gray suit. "My wife makes fun of how routinized I've become," he says. He'd moved a long way in this direction before he became president, but the office has moved him even further. "It's not my natural state," he says. "Naturally, I'm just a kid from Hawaii. But at some point in my life I overcompensated."

But I actually think the what of a routine is the least important part. You want to do what makes your life easier and better, and it has to fit with your personal situation (finances, personality, needs, etc.). I have a friend who is the very wealthy founder of a nutrition company. He recently moved from a drive of a few minutes to the office to a 45-minutes commute. His routine changed, and he now has a driver waiting for him in the morning to take him to the office. Not many people can afford that, just like not many people have a gym above their bedroom like Obama does. What worked for Hemingway probably won't work for you, just like what works for me wouldn't work for Hemingway. I know that Cal Newport schedules out his entire day in Google Calendar, whereas I deliberately shape my day around not having to schedule anything. So it's all relative.

What is universal, I think, is the need to reduce friction and extraneous interference as much as possible. You want to get into a rhythm so you are focusing as much of your energy as humanely possibly on your work--not only deciding what to wear or what to eat. The less you are fighting the world, the more you can fight against the difficulty of making amazing work (whatever that happens to be for you).

I'll leave you with a couple questions that might help you shape your own routine:

  • What does my ideal day look like?
  • What interrupts me and causes me the most stress?
  • Is there anything that is needlessly sucking energy away from my work ?
  • What, if anything, is conducive to me performing at a high level?
  • What can be automated or repeated every single day with little in the way of diminishing returns?
  • What helps reduce uncertainty in my day?
  • Is there anything that smart people I admire (and am similar to) are doing well that I can copy?

And then, of course, you have to take this information and experiment and adapt until you have the perfect routine for you.

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Published on: Nov 3, 2016