That's the dream, isn't it? Guaranteed success. Waking up every morning to do work that you love. It sounds like this is an exclusive right held by people who came out of the womb with a trophy case pre-stocked with shiny plaques and medals. But what if I told you that it's not? What if I told you that if you do this one thing, you could be successful at anything and make a living doing work you love? It's true. And it has nothing to do with going back to school and getting another degree. You don't have to start a blog, take up meditation or even work out. No, you don't have to do any of those things. So what's the secret, then? Let's take a look at a case study to answer that question…

How One Thing Turned Goodness into Greatness

Every morning, a man named Michael wakes up at precisely 6:30 AM. He eats breakfast at exactly 7:00 AM, and begins to stretch at 8:00 AM. He doesn't just mindlessly stretch, though. He does the exact same stretches in the exact same sequence. Day in and day out. Arms, back, ankles… He gets into the pool at 8:30 AM exactly, and begins warm up laps, doing the same sequence of warmups every day. 9:15 AM, he climbs out of the pool, gets into his racing outfit, and puts on some music. He doesn't just play any music, though. He plays the exact same songs in the exact same sequence. Day in and day out. That man is Michael Phelps, Olympic gold medalist eighteen times over. This is his morning routine. The morning routine that sets his day up for success. Which primes him for excellence. That one thing you need to do every single day to guarantee success and do work you love? Is nothing new. It's routine.

The Power of Routine and Why It Works

Routine is boring. We use the word “routine” as a indicator of dullness. Of the opposite of excellence. And that's a shame. Because routine works. Routine sets apart successful people from the unwashed masses. And why does it work so well? Well…

  • Routine removes decision fatigue: Studies show that the more decisions we have to make, the worse they get as they day wears on. Think of your mind like a gas tank. With each decision you make, you use more fuel. So if you use all of that decision power deciding what to do when you wake up, what to eat, and how to structure your day, the decision-making fuel you have left for the important decisions you must make is nil.
  • Routine ignites creativity: Have you ever wondered why you have the best ideas when you're showering, driving, or just before you fall asleep? What do those things have in common that spark creativity? Well, you don't have to think about them. They're routine. They allow your mind to wander. They allow you to daydream.You don't have to think about pushing your foot down on the gas pedal just so – you've done it so often that it's now just a normal routine. Routines remove the thought behind things, so your mind can wander and come to creative solutions.
  • Routine makes you more successful in everything you do: Part of my routine is to wake up every morning and write 1,000 words before breakfast.Writing is an important part of my online career – in fact, it hinges on writing. So every morning that I write 1,000 words before breakfast, that's a small win. I've made progress. And humans are far more motivated by progress than by anything else.When I've made progress through my routine in the form of a small win, I'm going to be more successful in everything that I do throughout a day. I'll be more inspired to carry that through to other aspects of my work and my life.
  • Routine helps you move forward: If you build productive work into your routine, your routine will help you achieve your objectives – even if you don't feel like doing the work. If my routine is to wake up every morning and write 1,000 words before breakfast, then I do it. Because it's my routine. Even when I don't feel like writing, it's my routine to write, so it gets done.Think about it – you probably have a routine to brush your teeth before bed. Even if you don't feel like doing it, you brush your teeth before bed. It's just part of your routine.

The benefits of having a morning routine are clear. And it wasn't just Michael Phelps who had a killer routine that led him into the kingdom of excellence. Maya Angelou woke up at 5:30 every morning. She would drink coffee with her husband at around 6:00 AM, and at 6:30 AM when her husband went to work, she would, too. Her routine would be to go to a hotel room that she kept just for writing. She would arrive at 7:00 AM, and work until 12:30 or later depending on her creative flow. Her routine continues on into the evening. In case you think that routines should be saved for creatives and athletes, not so fast. In The Surprising History of To-Do Lists and How to Design One that Actually Works, the folks at Buffer share this image of Benjamin Franklin's routine (and to-do list):

successful morning routines

There are reports of everybody from Steve Jobs to Richard Branson having rock solid morning routines. And if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me – and should be for you, too.

How to Structure Your Routine To Guarantee Success and Do Work You Love

Some routines aren't going to guarantee success at anything, let alone move you closer to making a living doing what you love. If your routine is to hit the snooze button three times before crawling out of bed, brushing your teeth and grabbing a donut on the way to work, you'll be caught in the cycle of mediocrity forever. To cash in on the power of a routine, you need to build MIMs into your routine. In case you haven't been around here for long, a MIM is a Most Important Mission. You may be familiar with Most Important Tasks, but I choose not to call them Tasks. You don't get ahead by doing task-based work, so we call them Missions here. Once you've figured out what you need to be doing every day to bring you closer to doing work you love, build that into your routine:

  • If you're a blogger, make a writing routine. Every morning, sit down in your chair and write. Warm up with some free writing, and write
  • If you're a photographer, get up every morning and practice. Spend an hour free shooting
  • If you're a graphic designer, design for fun. Spend an hour every morning playing around in your favorite design program.

This MIM should be the first thing that you do above all else. It's important, and your routine needs to reflect this. It's not a priority, it's the priority. After you've done your MIM you can build other elements into your routine. Consider meditation, exercise, and journalling. Think about it. If you're a photographer and you shoot or edit 20 photos every day, you'll have 7,300 photos under your belt by the end of one year. And that's not even counting the photos you shoot or edit during photo shoots and photo walks. If you're a writer and write 1,000 words every day, you'll have written 365,000 words over the course of a year. And that's not counting any words you write aside from your morning routine. And there's not a single person on this planet that wouldn't improve after that much volume.

So Start Falling in Love With Routine.

I know it sounds too simple. Like if this were the answer, everybody would be doing it, right? But everybody is doing it. Everybody who has mastered their craft and makes a boatload of money doing what they love, anyway. You know why more ordinary people aren't doing this? People like you and me, who don't win olympic medals or make a billion dollars each year? Why they aren't following a routine, getting up every morning, doing the exact same set of actions, rinse repeat? Because it's really freaking hard. Because sometimes when the house is cool and the bed is warm and the world is still asleep, the last thing you want to do is get up and do the same thing as you did yesterday, and the day before, and every day before that. Because we get bored or try to take shortcuts or think we have it down pat and we can be released from the drab monotony of routine. That's why most people don't do it. But you're not “most people”, Unsettler. You're different. You know you have what it takes to fall in love with routine. Because you know that routine means you're getting somewhere.

27 thoughts on “Do This One Thing Every Day to Guarantee Success and Do Work You Love

  1. Jaco Alberts says:

    Thank you for this wake up call Sarah. If we really want to rise above mediocrity, we first need to make that decision, then develop the discipline to do what it takes (routines). It is not only about doing what we enjoy to do……the enjoyment will show up in the results.

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Jaco – SO true about enjoyment showing up in results. Also, I think that we can’t truly enjoy something until we’re comfortable with it – or even GOOD at it. So incorporating these things into your routine is key.

  2. Bhaskar Jha says:

    Every time I read your post, it never fails to amaze me. It wakes me up from slumber, reminds me of what I’ve decided to do, and pulls me out from my little comfort zone. Thanks a ton for sharing this.
    However, somewhere I read, the routine gives a rhythm to life. In Indian spirituality, living a rhythmic life helps in aligning the body, mind and soul to a perfect state. In this state, one can be more creative and productive.

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Bhaskar, that is so nice of you to say! I love knowing that my articles have an impact 🙂 I love that.. thanks for adding this 🙂

  3. Barbara Stubbs says:

    Sarah, a very refreshing discussion …..really enjoyed that perspective. There have been times where “routine” has been written off by some as none creative, unstimulating and done by the lower intelligent souls…..appreciate another example of not “reinventing the wheel”

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Barb,
      Thanks for popping by and commenting 🙂 I think the tables are being turned now as more people realize that routine is actually a fast-track to greatness.

  4. Susannah says:

    My favorite time of day is first thing in the morning, I feel so energized and empowered. This article will help me harness those feelings and turn them into greater productivity and creativity. Thank you!

    • Sarah says:

      I love the word “empowered” here, Susannah. That’s how I feel first thing in the morning, too.

  5. Beth says:

    Great post, Sarah – thank you! I may need to print it out and put it up on the wall somewhere as a constant reminder 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Beth – thank you for the idea! Maybe I’ll create a printable so ya’ll don’t have to print off a 2,000 word article 🙂 Cheers!

  6. Tracy says:

    Insightful post – thank you Sarah! And so so true!! My life has become so chaotic lately with too much work and being a work at home Mum – I need to take control and you’ve given me the inspiration. Thank you!

    • Sarah says:

      That’s tough, Tracy – it must be exhausting to juggle all of that. But routine does certainly help 🙂

  7. Andrew M. Warner says:

    Hey Sarah,
    Great post here. First, I commend you with your ability to write 1,000 words … every day … before breakfast. That’s serious. I may need to start something similar myself … even though I write everyday, I don’t push myself to follow a strict routine. And maybe that’s what I need.
    Second, your point about people taking routine as a negative … or the opposite to excellence, is true. In society, we see routine as a bad thing .. and constantly want to change it. But as you described with Michael and Maya, routine helps.
    Thanks for this excellent post here.
    – Andrew

  8. Revanche says:

    As I commented on Twitter, this just reminds me of another article with a similar message that has been settling in the back of my mind. It’s finally had enough time to percolate and I think I know where to start applying this!

  9. Matt says:

    Hey, Sarah,
    I love this post.
    The idea of routine is especially hard, maybe, for the Creatives who start swinging at the first signs of structure. Like Bukowski said, “I became a writer so I could sleep til noon.”
    Routine is mundane and that just doesn’t work for us …
    But we have a tendency to throw the baby out w/ the bath water, don’t we?
    We think of structure and routine as being, de facto, imposed on us by some external force … because it often is; and some people need (even want) that.
    It’s harder to self-govern — to create, and then stick to, a routine. But how much sweeter (and necessary) it is …
    Anecdotally (and often overlooked): Bukowski did like to sleep til noon — but when he woke up (somewhat sober) he’d edit what he’d written the night before. Then he’d start drinking again. And write. (He wrote Post Office, his first novel, in less than three weeks.)
    By the time he died he’d published dozens of books, over 10,000 poems, and was named “The Poet Laureate of American Lowlife” by TIME magazine — not bad for an introverted alcoholic … but then, he had a routine that he stuck to.

  10. a touch of domesticity / katie sparrow says:

    I found that really useful, thanks Sarah. I’ve just been listening to a podcast with Hal Elrod on the morning routine, so reading your well-researched post was very timely! I find it so hard to get up in the morning, because despite being a morning person, I do need a lot of sleep and with three kids and a part-time job I’m always exhausted! But now I’m thinking that I have so many plans and dreams, so many times when I think I have untapped potential, and the only way to make all that real is to wake up and attack the day.

    • Sarah says:

      Boring, maybe. Effective, yes. Routine is a bit of boredom every day to avoid a lot of boredom for your whole life 🙂

  11. Robyn Williams says:

    Oh boy,
    The snooze button. My kryptonite.
    I am committing to making a routine. As of now, routine will be my middle name. NO, wait; Routine will now be my FIRST name.
    Thanks Sarah.
    Love your work,
    Routine Robyn Williams.

  12. Fiona says:

    Hi Sarah
    You have made routine & getting up early sound so energizing!
    For someone who loves to snooze & has avoided routine (my brother has autism so I’ve always fought against routine) that’s saying something. Finding more creative time & relaxing breakfast would be great.
    But… I have one question… to get at least 8 hours sleep (including 30mins to get into bed & get to sleep)… what time do you go to bed??
    Thanks for your blog & podcasts – I have newly discovered & look forward to the new podcast each Friday morning (EDST)! 🙂

  13. Eli says:

    Love this article! I definitely believe in routine.
    I’ve been trying to recreate mine lately.
    It’s been tough because I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2009, and this last year has been really hard on my health.
    It’s changed things a lot, but I’m constantly learning. Routine is definitely one of the things that has helped.
    My health has been my main priority for a long time. As I get better, my mission changes slightly. The hardest part is finding balance.
    But I’m confident that I’ll find a good routine for my current goals soon.
    Thanks for this post!

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