In my previous post, I wrote about meditation and I concluded that focus is a very important factor in a productive life.

Meditation is one way of helping you find focus. Other things that can help are routines and habits.

How habits can help preserve mental energy

In life, every small thing can be a distraction.

When I was trying to optimize my morning routines this week, I noticed I lost at least 5 minutes deciding which pants I would wear to work because my go-to pants were in the laundry.

This is me, without any concern about fashion style or whatsoever and still, I’m wasting not only time but also mental energy on a pair of pants. This is the reason why I prefer to wear a ‘uniform’. Like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg already discovered a long time ago, it is just easier to have a predefined outfit ready to put on in the morning. By the way, you don’t have to wear the same thing every day, have a look at Project 333 for creating a fashionable uniform.

But the idea behind this all is that you have a bucket of mental energy for a day.  Each decision you need to make or each distraction that you get (phone notification, funny email, disturbing news broadcast, …) just takes a little of that energy out of your bucket. And when the bucket is empty there is simply no energy left for new ideas or insights or for doing focused work.

By creating daily habits, you are actually building some neural shortcuts in your brain that will take less mental energy because you can do these tasks without thinking. Thus you preserve some energy from your mental bucket to use for more important things in your life.

Using routines to boost productivity

Routines are a good way to building habits. But they can also help to focus your time and energy on the things that are most important to you. And on top of that, you can use them to boost your (mental) energy levels too!

Think of routines as a set of actions you do every day.

For example, your morning routine could look like this:

  • wake up
  • take shower
  • brush teeth
  • get dressed
  • make bed
  • eat breakfast
  • drive to work

All of these become habits after a while, so they don’t use a lot of mental energy. Or should not use a lot of energy.

However, if you wake up, then need to fight with family members on who can use the shower first, next you can’t decide what clothes to wear and at breakfast, you are overwhelmed with too many options so you don’t know what to eat, and so on…  In that case, you are spending a lot of your energy on trivial things that could have been easily solved by making some decisions in advance.

Tweak your routines to get more energy out of them

By making some decisions in advance (shower schedule, uniform for each day, breakfast meal schedule, …) you are already saving some mental energy from your bucket for later use.

But there are more advanced tricks to boost your energy levels.

The first thing you want to do in the morning is to prime your state of mind.

When we wake up in the morning, we might feel good or bad depending on our quality of sleep. But if we feel bad in the morning and don’t do anything about it, we might start our day with a bucket of mental energy that is already half empty.

Wake up your brain

There are some things you can do to boost your energy level in the morning. Sometimes you just need to shock the system to get out of that sleepy mode. For some people, a cold shower might do the trick. Others find that doing a quick exercise helps. This is not a full workout, but something small, like doing 10 push-ups when you get out of bed.

Focus on positive energy

If you force yourself to focus on positive thoughts in the morning, you will carry some of this with you throughout the day.

Write down 3 things you are grateful for every morning. Don’t just write them down but make sure you let yourself be aware of this gratitude. You can use The 5 Minute Journal to do this or just use a notebook or simple piece of paper.

It may seem silly but this actually works and there has been plenty of research behind this concept.

Do this every day. Don’t break the chain. And you will notice how this routine alone can make you a happier and more focused person.

Calm your mind

A restless and anxious mind can often distract our thoughts and undermine our ability to focus.

Before you start your busy day, take some time to do some reading in the morning. This will allow your mind to be focused on one thing only, the book. Do this before you open your phone, check emails, look on Facebook, switch on the radio or anything else that will flush your mind with all kinds of distracting thought.

I recommend reading a book and staying away from newspapers and magazines.

Don’t make excuses that you don’t have time to read. If you only take 10 minutes each morning, you will still have read more than when you read one hour a week.

Another way to calm the mind is to use meditation. But I’ve written another post about this, so I won’t go into more details here.

Clean your mind

Sometimes we have so much on our minds that we can’t seem to focus on that book or on the breathing during meditation.

If that is the case for you, take a piece of paper and write down whatever you have in your mind. You can bitch and moan as much as you want, just get this stuff out of your system. Then, go back to the other routines.

Do one good thing

However hard we do our best, there will be days that just suck. We can’t control everything in our life, only the way we respond to it.

Try to do one good thing in the morning, every morning. Something you will notice in the evening.

This could be something simple as making the bed.

The idea behind this is that, however bad your day was, you did at least one thing right at the start of the day. And when you go to bed in the evening, you are reminded of this one positive thing.

I started doing this, but because of my allergies, I make the bed in a special way so that the blanket doesn’t cover the mattress entirely. Instead, I fold it and the foot of the bed to give the mattress some air during the day.

Create your own

These are just a few suggestions for your daily routines. You can do them all in the morning or spread them throughout the day.

You don’t have to follow them by the letter. Find what works best for you.

I think the most important once are the daily gratitude and the meditation, but I do need to shock my body some mornings just to get in the right state before I do anything else.

Some people might say: ‘if I do all these things, it will actually take more of my mental energy than my current morning ritual’.

This might be true in the beginning, when this is all new to you, but that is why you need to make habits out of these things. Once you have created a habit, most of these things can be done without too much thinking or using your mental energy.