You’ve been looking at the lives of incredibly successful people and want to know how you can replicate their success. It’s not their superhuman discipline or overpowering ambition. It’s a matter of devising optimal systems to keep you consistently running at peak performance, helping you slowly inch your way closer to your goals, day after day. This is how to optimize your daily routine.
There is no single perfect daily routine that works for two different people. We each have our own needs and priorities, and our schedules should reflect that. However, there are a set of principles shared amongst top performers. Once you’ve set your daily routine foundational pillars, we’ll then fill in the details based on your needs.
Step 1 | Laying the Foundations
We must first lay the foundations, or fixed elements, of our daily schedule. Consider these the pillars that hold up the rest of the daily practice. They are of the utmost importance and are non-negotiable. These include your wake-up time, exercise regimen, meals, and wind-down time. By doing the work upfront and determining when each element will occur, you reduce the mental energy needed to carry these out in the future. Rather than the mental exercise of asking yourself and planning when you should exercise or eat lunch, you already have it figured out and know exactly when it’s going to happen.
Maybe you’re rolling your eyes right now and looking for a shortcut. If you’re interested in nootropics, or drugs and other substances used to improve cognitive function, you should understand this: there is no nootropic that has ever even approached the cognitive boost you’ll receive from optimizing your sleep and regular exercise. In other words, nootropics have a much lower return compared to dialing in your sleep and exercise.
Start with your calendar or planner of choice, and fill in the fixed elements that you must attend and cannot change – think classes, small group sessions, club meetings, and the like.
Next, determine your sleep and wake times. You should allow yourself adequate sleep, as skimping on sleep results in multiple downstream effects that will compound into diminished effectiveness. If you’re putting in the effort to build a daily routine to be more productive and effective, it will all be for nothing if you sacrifice sleep. It’s best practice to set aside between 7 to 9 hours per night. I actually err on the side of planning for too much sleep – that way, if my body is feeling well-rested I’ll wake up before my scheduled time, and if I need additional recovery, I have the opportunity.
Your sleep and wake times will be largely a function of your other fixed commitments, like school or work. Since I’m no longer doing plastic surgery, I have complete freedom in setting the start and endpoints to my day. Currently, my day ends at 10:30PM and begins at 7:00AM. My recent client, who we’ll call Lawrence, was subject to a more typical medical student schedule. He decided to start at 6:00AM and finish his day by 11:00PM.
Most people can get behind the idea of having a wake-up time and bedtime each day. Many can still agree with set times for meals. But few people treat exercise with the same level of regularity and rigidity. To get those sweet cognitive benefits of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, you’ll need to prioritize regular exercise into your schedule. Remember, those who treat exercise with a high degree of importance have an edge over those who don’t. The type of exercise you do is less important than the question of whether or not you exercise with regularity. I opt for cycling and weight training, but maybe you prefer running or pilates.
Lawrence is one of those people who, as a busy medical student, knew he wasn’t going to exercise unless he did so first thing in the morning, otherwise there was always something else that he felt was more urgent. For that reason, he starts his days early and squeezes his workout in before class starts at 8:00AM. Whether that will be sustainable during his clinical years is yet to be determined, and that’s ok. Your schedule will adapt based on your demands over time.
To ensure that something like exercise actually sticks, it’s best to anchor it to a clear marker in the day. For some, it’s the first thing they do upon waking up. When I was in medical school, it was the first thing I did after class each day – after all, the last thing I wanted to do after several hours of class was hit the books, so going to the gym instead was a productive mental break.
Last, fill in your mealtimes. Again, this will primarily depend on the fixed elements in your schedule, in addition to your personal preferences. I practice time-restricted feeding, so I don’t eat until noon on most days and have dinner before 7 PM. Lawrence follows the more traditional 3 meals per day and eats a light breakfast between his workout and class. Whatever you decide, it’s best practice to not eat too late at night, close to your bedtime, as data suggests this is detrimental to your nighttime restfulness, blood sugar, and various hormones.
Step 2 | Adjusting the Details
After setting the foundations, it’s time to adjust the details of your schedule. Your foundations from step 1 will largely be fixed, but it’s ok to move things around as needed to dial in your perfect daily routine.
The main element we want to optimize for is your focused work and study time. This is the most mentally taxing time of the day, and should be when you get the bulk of your work done. Top performers have dedicated blocks of deep work, as coined by Cal Newport, whereby they study or work with high intensity and zero distraction. In contrast, most frustrated students practice extended periods of low to medium intensity studying. This is an insidious feedback loop – it’s less efficient and disheartening because they always feel behind, causing them to spend more time on suboptimal studying, and ultimately leads to subpar results.
In designing your daily schedule, look at your fixed elements and consider at what points would you be most readily able to tap into a focused state? If you’re not a morning person, then expecting yourself to get your best work done at 7AM is not setting yourself up for success. Similarly, waiting until 9PM when you’re exhausted at the end of the day is also less likely to be fruitful.
Again, everyone is different, and this should primarily be a function of your mental states over the course of the day. I begin my deep work block at 8:00AM, but for Lawrence, we decided that his first focused study block should be at 1:00PM. In my case, I am fresh and thinking clearly in the mornings, so I am able to do my best-focused work at this time. In the afternoons, I find myself less motivated or willing to put up with difficult work. On the other hand, Lawrence isn’t drained from his morning lectures, and after a lunch break, is ready to hit the books hard first thing in the afternoon.
Your focused study block should be at least a couple of hours in duration – my recommendation is between 2 and 4. Anything less, and you’re leaving high-quality study time on the table, and anything longer, you’re devolving into lower intensity and less fruitful efforts.
Don’t get ahead of yourself in this process – remember this daily schedule needs to be sustainable over the long term, not just for a few days. If you feel that you’re pushing yourself 10/10ths every day, you’ll burn out fast.
That means breaks are essential. When taking breaks, I like to focus on productive breaks, meaning breaks that ultimately serve a purpose, even if it isn’t directly related to traditional productivity or studying. For example, after a high-intensity block of focused studying, take a break and run errands, like picking up groceries, doing laundry, or even taking a shower. You’re taking care of items that must be done, and optimizing their timing by inserting them at a point where you wouldn’t be able to study anyway. As they are not mentally taxing, you’re able to get an essential task out of the way while still giving yourself space for mental recovery. Alternatively, go outside for a walk to more quickly rejuvenate.
Incorporating forms of stress relief and release from work is key. Exercise serves this function in a large capacity, but most of us need something additional to maintain our sanity. Some people have a favorite show they want to watch, others enjoy reading, or maybe you enjoy playing board games with your housemates. It’s best practice to save this for later in the day, as it’s generally more difficult to get into work mode at 9PM after hanging out with friends.
There are a few other details that most top performers share – namely mindfulness or some form of reflection. I’ve covered this in the Anatomy of a Perfect Morning Routine, but you can perform these habits any time of the day. Lawrence opts for either a run or walking meditation at 5 PM after his study block.
Step 3 | Putting it in Action
The fun part was planning your daily routine. The hard part is putting it into action and actually sticking to it for the long term.
Rather than relying on brute force and self-discipline, ask yourself how you can make it easier on future you to follow the plan. For me, that includes using my calendar and saving a screenshot of my schedule on my computer desktop and phone for quick reference. You may decide to layout your gym clothes and bag by the door to reduce the friction of starting your morning with a workout. To really make it stick, set your morning alarm across the room so you’re forced to get out of bed rather than go on a snooze-a-thon. For others, that includes having an accountability buddy, or in the case with Lawrence, finding a mentor or coach to help craft the routine and hold him to it.
Allocate time in your calendar to also review the results of your new routine. Otherwise, you’re likely to get derailed and just give up on it. Rather, preemptively set a time in 1 or 2 weeks to review what went well about the routine, what was perhaps too ambitious and not realistic to sustain long term, and make adjustments as needed.