Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
June 28, 2019 · 18 min read

The 21 Daily Routines and Habits of Highly Productive Founders and Creatives

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There are few things that impact your productivity, creativity, happiness, and career trajectory like building solid routines and habits.

According to studies, up to 40% of our daily actions are powered by habits. Meaning your subconscious mind can either work for you or against you. But you don’t need studies to tell you how powerful the right habits can be. Whole books have been filled with the daily routines of successful entrepreneurs, innovators, and creatives. While Aristotle is famously miscredited for saying: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

So if you’re ready to become the best version of you and put your productivity on "autopilot", this post will debunk some of the common misconceptions around creating habits and routines and then guide you through a simple process for designing your perfect day.

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Why follow a daily routine?

You might be familiar with the saying "good is the enemy of great." And in a lot of cases, it might seem like following a daily routine and schedule is simply defaulting to “good enough.” When you follow a routine, you’re losing the excitement and spontaneity you need to be truly creative, right?

Not really. In fact, our world is already too full of spontaneity and excitement for our own good.

The only way you can do your best work is by putting in the time. Writers have to write. Coders need to code. Designers need to design. Unfortunately, that’s getting harder to do. Social media, entertainment, and the news (not to mention "productive" distractions like spending all day on chat or email!) suck away at our attention like vampires.

On the other hand, success comes from hard work, commitment, and a dedication to put in the work even when you don’t want to. As Stanford behavioral scientist B. J. Fogg explains:

If you pick the right small behavior and sequence it right, then you won’t have to motivate yourself to have it grow. It will just happen naturally, like a good seed planted in a good spot.

More specifically, a routine helps you in a number of ways:

Or, as Atomic Habits author, James Clear, sums up:

Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. How in shape or out of shape you are? A result of your habits. How happy or unhappy you are? A result of your habits. How successful or unsuccessful you are? A result of your habits.

Why you can’t just follow the productive daily routine of famous founders and creators

If our lives and our success depends on our routines and habits, then why not just follow the paths laid out by other people?

Successful founders and creatives love to talk about how they spend their days and share the "secrets" of their productivity. But there’s a problem with simply trying to retrace their steps: Just because a routine works for someone else, doesn’t mean it will work for you (just take a look at Mark Wahlberg's ridiculous routine).

More than just following other people’s daily routines and habits, the best way to become your best self is to question, experiment, and learn what works for you.

As Mason Currey writes in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work:

In the right hands, [a routine] can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.
A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

The big caveat here is that the routine has to match the person performing it. We all have different triggers for habits, levels of willpower, and autonomy over how we spend our time. And assuming you’re exactly the same as someone like Elon Musk and can following his routine is a recipe for disaster.

Instead, you need to experiment for yourself to optimize your own day. More specifically, there are a few areas of your life you should look to build solid habits and develop productive daily routines:

21 daily routines and habits to become highly productive

How to set yourself up for success with a better morning routine

You’ve undoubtedly heard that the most productive people wake up early. Whether it’s author Haruki Murakami getting up at 4:00 AM to write or Apple CEO Tim Cook starting his day at 3:45 AM to get through his email. But that’s not all it takes to build a productive morning routine.

Here are a few habits you can test for yourself to make more of the early hours.

1. Give yourself more time by waking up earlier

English academic Richard Whately once observed, "Lose an hour in the morning, and you will spend all day looking for it."

There’s a reason you keep seeing early wake-up times for highly successful people. Most of them realize that by the time 9 AM rolls around and the rest of the world has woken up, their time isn’t just theirs anymore. Early mornings are a chance to prepare for the day, spend time on meaningful projects, or even get in some more family time—all things that will help you stay focused and motivated for the rest of the day.

But more than just set an early alarm, building a habit of getting up early requires a few considerations.

First, you can’t sacrifice your sleep. Getting up earlier means going to bed earlier. And a lack of sleep (less than 7-9 hours) will do far more harm than the good of getting up early.

Next, you need to be consistent with your wake-up time. Our bodies crave consistency and so does our habits. The more you’re able to stick to specific wake-up times, the more likely you’ll be able to turn this into a solid habit.

Lastly, never, ever hit snooze. As Benjamin Spall, co-author of My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired, writes:

"Highly productive people don’t hit the snooze button. They just don’t. This has been the most consistent theme that’s come up in my over five years of interviewing people about their mornings. They do, however, set an alarm to hedge against oversleeping, even if they end up waking up and turning it off before it has a chance to sound."

Never hit Snooze

2. Make your bed

Not all habits need to be major changes and sometimes it’s the small acts that have the biggest returns. At least that’s what Four Hour Workweek author and investor Tim Ferriss believes.

Tim swears by the simple act of making your bed in the morning. Not only does this start your day out on a positive note, but it can create a chain of accomplishment that motivates you to keep working throughout the day.

Plus, as Tim writes, even though building a habit of making your bed might seem easy, it gives you a sense of control you can take with you:

"No matter how bad your day is, no matter how catastrophic it might become, you can make your bed."

3. Set your Most Important Tasks for the Day

A major goal of any productive morning routine is to set your intention and tone for the day. Do you want to feel focused or scattered? Are you attacking the day with a purpose or just reacting to other people?

Controlling the narrative for your day is the best way to be more productive throughout. And one of the easiest ways to do this is to start your day by defining your Most Important Tasks (MITs).

Here’s how Zen Habits founder Leo Babauta explains the idea of MITs:

"Your MIT is the task you most want or need to get done today. In my case, I’ve tweaked it a bit so that I have three MITs — the three things I must accomplish today. Do I get a lot more done than three things? Of course. But the idea is that no matter what else I do today, these are the things I want to be sure of doing."

Writing these at the start of your day means you’re thinking about them with a clear head and not being influenced by distractions or interruptions. Your MITs give you a map of what a successful day will look like.

4. Connect with your bigger goals by journaling

Journaling isn’t just for angsty high-schoolers. In fact, the act of writing and reflecting on your goals, dreams, and even feelings has been found to improve our mood and even help us perform better at work.

According to Harvard Business School psychologist Francesca Gino, this is because reflecting on our work reminds us we’re good at it.

When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy. They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing.

How you choose to reflect can come in many different forms. For some people, it’s all about re-writing your goals to home in on what’s most important. While others opt for writing and reciting positive affirmations to boost self-confidence. If those feel a bit too "self help-y" for you, there are a few other options:

First, there’s the Five Minute Journal, a simple notebook that asks you to set your intentions and reflect on things you’re grateful for. Or, you can use something like 750words or the Morning Pages process—a system for writing 3 pages first thing in the morning to get rid of lingering thoughts and set you out with a clear head.

5. Meditate to prepare for whatever the day brings

You don’t always know what the day is going to throw at you. But adding a habit of meditation to your morning routine helps train you to deal with things in a better and calmer way.

If you’re new to meditation, it’s important to start small. Like any new habit, consistency is more important than intensity at the start. Even simply sitting in a quiet room with your eyes closed for a few minutes and focusing on your breath can be enough to get you started.

The essential workday habits that keep you focused and productive

While your morning routine sets you up for a productive day, you can also optimize your daily routines and how you spend your time during the workday.

Rather than just reacting to what’s being thrown at you, productive workday habits and routines make sure you know and focus on your priorities, can block out distractions, and have a plan for getting back on track when things go awry.

Here are a few habits to experiment with when developing your workday routine:

6. Skip email first thing in the morning

Skip Emails

Our brains hate the unknown. And so whether you glance at your phone and see a bunch of red dots beside your email and chat apps or have your inbox open in the background (like 84% of people!) you probably feel compelled to check your messages first thing.

However, all this does is cause you to spend your day reacting to other people’s needs instead of working on your own. As Farnham Street founder, Shane Parrish, says:

If I got up in the morning and the first thing I did was check email, I’d be allowing others to dictate my priorities for the day.

Try to build a habit of setting aside the first hour or more of your day without email or chat. Don’t accept morning meetings and leave your inbox closed and instead work on one of your MITs that you wrote before work. This way, you can make progress on meaningful work and build a habit of committing to your priorities.

7. Eat the frog (tackle something difficult when your energy is highest)

We all go through regular ebbs and flows of energy, focus, and productivity throughout the day. And while this cycle is different for everyone, most of us have a spike first thing in the morning (and not just due to coffee!) This is a perfect time to build the habit of eating the frog.

Wait, what? No, you’re not going to eat an actual live animal. Instead, this simply means crossing off one of those nagging tasks that has been hanging over you. As Mark Twain famously wrote:

"Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day."

Maybe this means getting back to an awkward email from a stakeholder, tackling an especially annoying bug, or writing a scope of work for an outside contractor. The goal is simply to get it done so you’re not distracted by it during the rest of your day.

8. Schedule (and take) more breaks

Sticking with this idea of working with your body’s natural energy curves, we can’t all be productive all the time.

In fact, studies into our changing energy levels uncovered something researchers call Ultradian Rhythms. These are 90-120 minute sessions of alertness that our mind cycles through before needing a break.

According to sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, our minds naturally crave breaks after every 90 minutes of intense work. Even worse, when you work when your body wants to rest, it uses our reserve stores of energy to keep up. This means releasing stress hormones to give us an extra kick of energy.

A better answer is to actually take breaks when you need them. Listen to your body and schedule regular breaks away from your screen at least every 90 minutes.

If you want to make the most out of these breaks make sure you get out of your chair, take a brisk walk, and try to spend a bit of time around nature as these have all been found to quickly help us rejuvenate and recharge our energy.

9. "Batch" similar work together

Like most people, you probably wear a lot of hats at work. Your title might be a project manager or designer or developer, but your day is full of all sorts of different work. In fact, as one study from researchers at Wharton found:

"At many companies the proportion hovers around 80%, leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own."

This kind of constant context switching kills your ability to focus and be productive. Every time your brain switches to a different task it can take up to 15 minutes for it to get back into the previous task. Jump around 4 times and you’ve lost an entire hour of work.

That’s where building a habit of "batching" becomes so important. As entrepreneur and author Paul Jarvis explains:

‘Batching’ builds off the idea of only working on one kind of task at a time. Rather than jumping from one project to another, you do all related tasks in a set amount of time.

Look at your schedule. Are there spaces where you can set aside some heads-down time to batch important work? Try to find at least one 90-minute chunk where you can push distractions aside and power through your MITs.

10. Set hard limits on certain activities

No matter how well you’ve built habits and routines around focused work, you’ll undoubtedly fall off the ladder from time to time. The issue is that many of us have bad habits we’ve built over the years that creep in when we’re most vulnerable.

Maybe it’s getting sucked into social media first thing in the morning. Or watching a few too many YouTube videos after lunch. Or maybe even staying up late to watch movies and missing out on sleep. Whatever it is, you need to break those habits if you want to be truly productive.

For artist and writer Alex Mathers, the solution was to create a list of rules and hard limits around his time on ‘distracting’ activities. Rather than a set routine, his rules act as guardrails for his motivation each day.

By reading through your own rules first thing in the morning, you become aware of what your priorities are and can catch yourself when you go off them. As an added bonus, use a time-tracking tool to see exactly how much time you’re spending on certain activities and get alerts when you go over.

11. Schedule your email and IM time (or create "office hours")

Email can take over your life if you let it. And one of the worst workplace habits you need to break is constantly checking it. Even if you built a habit of skipping email first thing in the morning, you need to control when you let it into the rest of your day.

In fact, according to one study of over 50,000 knowledge workers, most can’t go 6 minutes without checking their email or IM tool!

There’s no perfect answer to the question of how often you should check your email. But most productivity experts agree that the best habit to build is to be active with your email and not just react to it.

Time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders only checks her email once a day (to make her daily schedule). While New York Times best-selling author, Mark Murphy, says you should take at least a 2-hour break from email once a day. Think of this as your personal "office hours." These are the times where you’re available to communicate and collaborate. But the rest of the time is pure, email-free bliss. No desktop notifications. No checks on your phone. Just time for focused work.

12. Use GTD to build a habit of staying organized

As we said at the top of this post, you can’t be distracted if you don’t know what you’re distracted from. And having a system for staying organized is one of the most foundational workplace habits and routines you can build.

While it takes a bit of effort to start up and stick with, you can’t go wrong with the Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system from David Allen.

As we wrote in our How to Use GTD in 2019 guide, GTD is made up of 3 stages:

  1. The intake stage is where you collect and clarify tasks, projects, and ideas
  2. Next, there’s an *organization and prioritization *stage where you decide what to work on, when, and set deadlines and reminders to keep you on track
  3. Finally, you move onto an action stage where you work through your priorities and, as the name says, get things done.

When built into your daily routine, GTD can be a life-changing habit. If you want to learn more about how to use it, check out our in-depth guide.

Disconnecting from work

Long days are inevitable. But if you want to be truly productive, your habits and routines can’t end when the workday does. Instead, research has consistently found that people who follow an end-of-day routine are less fatigued and stressed, show lower rates of procrastination, and even become more focused during the workday.

Here are a few habits you can try to build your own productive end-of-day routines.

13. Reflect on your accomplishments and write down 3 good things that happened

It’s all too easy to finish your day and kick your feet back with Netflix to try and ‘relax’. Unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t just switch gears like that. Instead, when left undealt with, thoughts and emotions linger and pop up at the worst times (like when you’re trying to go to sleep!)

One way to help de-stress from the workday is with a personal debrief. Especially one that focuses on your accomplishments and the positive things that happened to you. Build this routine for long enough and it can even change the way you perceive your days and help you not get sucked into the negative.

As Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, explains:

"When you write down a list of ‘three good things’ that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positive — things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future. In just five minutes a day, this trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth and seizing opportunities to act on them."

14. Make space for mental solitude

We’re naturally social creatures. However, all that time with people takes its toll.

Space for mental solitude

A bit of solitude—as everyone from Thoreau to Proust have written about—is one of our most powerful tools for disconnecting and recharging. This doesn’t mean you need to lock yourself away in a room at the end of the day. But rather just find a bit of ‘mental solitude’ in your evening routine.

As Deep Work author, Cal Newport writes:

"The key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation.

Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions. It’s the only time you can refine the principles on which you can build a life of character. It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive."

Take a few minutes after work to separate yourself from other thoughts and ideas and dig into your own. If you want, write down ideas, thoughts, and feelings that won’t leave you alone. This way, you know everything is ready to be dealt with tomorrow and can be free to truly relax and recover.

15. Spend time on a hobby

One of the more counter-intuitive habits that can actually help you recover and be more productive is to do more work at home. Rather than just relaxing, engaging in what’s called a mastery task helps you to disconnect from the workday and be more energized and focused the following day.

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, explains:

Mastery experiences are engaging, interesting things that you do well. They’re often challenging, but this makes them mentally absorbing and all the more rewarding when they’re proficiently executed.

To get even more from your mastery activities, look for hobbies that include other people (to fulfill our social needs), are healthy (like sports or exercise), or give you space to think and be alone (to bring even more mental solitude).

16. Prepare for tomorrow with a ‘shutdown ritual’

Not everyone has total control over how they spend their time during the workday, which can often mean we get stuck being upset with how things didn’t go as planned. However, creating a sense of control is an important part of calming your brain and staying positive and productive.

In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us, Daniel Pink suggests creating a ‘shutdown ritual’ that gives you back that sense of control, no matter what else happened during the day:

Establish a closing ritual. Know when to stop working. Try to end each work day the same way, too. Straighten up your desk. Backup your computer. Make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.

You get to choose your own ritual. But a few elements that have been shown to help include:

17. Turn off your devices at least 30 minutes before bed

A lack of sleep ruins everything. It doesn’t matter how productive you’re being in other aspects of your life if you don’t get a solid night’s sleep all those efforts are wasted. Unfortunately, getting proper sleep isn’t just about the time you give yourself.

The blue light that is emitted from the screens of our devices can mess with your internal clock and make it more difficult to fall asleep. According to Dr. Adrian Williams, professor of sleep medicine:

"The influence of light on hormonal responses is minimal in the day, but maximal in the evening when it may suppress melatonin secretion and delay sleep."

While stopping your screen time a few hours before bed is preferable, most experts agree that you stop at least 30-minutes before you go to bed.

If you want to make building this habit even easier (and give yourself some added benefits), simply leave your phone outside of the bedroom. This way, you won’t be tempted to check it and you’ll have a better morning by not waking up to a screen full of notifications.

Habits that optimize for energy and health

Not all great productive habits fit into specific parts of our day. And not every routine has to do with how you spend your time at work. How our bodies feel affects our ability to focus and be productive, and ignoring your health isn’t an option when you want to build a productive routine.

As much as possible, you should try and work these few habits into your daily routine.

19. Give your eyes a break

You probably spend a terrifying amount of your day staring at a screen. So much so that there’s actually a condition called computer vision syndrome that occurs in 50-90% of knowledge workers.

When your eyes become fatigued it can have a far-reaching impact, from physical fatigue, decreased productivity, and increased errors, to minor irritations like eye twitching.

There are lots of ways you can protect your eyes during the day like using proper lighting, reducing screen glare, and taking more breaks. However, one of the easiest habits to build is to follow the "20-20-20 rule".

Every 20 minutes of time spent staring at a screen, look away at an option that is at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

Another exercise is to look far away at an object for 10-15 seconds, then gaze at something up close for 10-15 seconds. Then look back at the distant object. Do this 10 times to stop your eyes from "locking up" during the day.

20. Drink more water during the day

Water is a miracle productivity tool. Yet most of us skip the water cooler and head for the coffee machine when we’re feeling a lack of energy.

And while caffeine definitely has its place in our workday. Drinking more water is one of the best daily routines you can build. Our bodies run on water, and dehydration doesn’t just result in a dry mouth but causes a lack of energy, focus, motivation, and productivity.

To stay properly hydrated during the day, build a habit of drinking water during the day. Carry a water bottle with you as a reminder to drink more or set a goal for the day.

21. Regular exercise

Lastly, you don’t need another person telling you the benefits of exercise. But I’m going to do it anyways. If your physical health and having a beach body isn’t as much of a priority to you, then listen to these other results.

Exercise can slow down neurogenesis, meaning you’ll keep more brain cells as you age. Over a shorter time frame, it can also give you more energy throughout the day, keep you happy and motivated to work more, and even help you stay mentally focused for longer.

Building exercise into your daily routine doesn’t have to be a huge endeavor. In their book, Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, authors John Zeratksy and Jake Knapp explain how modern culture encourages unrealistic expectations about exercise:

"Moving your body is the best way to charge your battery. But you don’t need lengthy complicated workouts."

Instead, the authors suggest a few simple rules:

This means your routine could be going to the gym for a quick workout, doing some body weight exercises in the office, or even just going for a brisk walk and taking the stairs each day. Like most good daily routines, it’s about being able to do it consistently. Not going for broke every single day.

Daily routines are just guidelines for living your best life

All of these habits and tips will help you be more productive. But trying to add them all to your daily routine is probably a bad idea. Instead, you need to experiment and see what works for you. Try one for a week and track your results. Does it work? Why not?

Ultimately, we’ll always default to doing what works best for us. Your body and mind will tell you if certain things aren’t working for you (you’ll get restless, bored, anxious, tired, etc…). Listen to those signs and use them to build your own personalized daily routine.