Be More Productive Using Routines as Automation

Can you automate yourself? It seems like an odd question to ask. We automate things that are repetitive. We let machines or software assemble products and complete tasks because they can do it quicker and with less errors.

Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio player above, Click here to listen. You can also subscribe in iTunes

Scaling the production of a product or business is all about automation. More efficiency is generally good for the bottom line. I’ll ask again, can you automate yourself?

It still sounds strange but I think you can. Not quite the same way as we use machines and software, but you can automate yourself or at least some of the things associated with being you and being alive. I think we all do this naturally by forming habits and routines.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about creativity and productivity and the sometimes struggle between them. I talked about time from the perspective of each and mentioned I’d do the same with routines. Today will be a look at routines and productivity. Next week I’ll talk about routines through the lens of creativity.

Multitasking is an Illusion

I come down hard on multitasking, because it deserves it. Multitasking as people think of it is pure garbage. Human beings can’t do two things both consciously and effectively at the exact same time. We can do multiple things at once, only if all but one of those things are done automatically and without conscious thought.

For example you can walk down the street and have a conversation with someone because walking doesn’t require conscious thought. Somewhere early in life we figured out how to walk and now we just do it without having to think about it.

Some of you will probably disagree and say you can do two things that require conscious thought at once. Maybe you’re also typing to someone in a messenger app of some kind while walking down the street talking to your friend.

Despite what you might think you aren’t doing both at the same time. You’re bouncing back and forth between the conversation with your friend and the conversation in the messenger. You’re doing it so quickly you might think you’re doing both at the same time, but you aren’t. You’re bouncing back and forth between them.

You might say so what? You’re still having both conversations. I and science say you’re doing each thing less effectively and less efficiently when you try to do two things at once. You’re going to miss parts of each conversation if you try to have both at the same time. That might be ok depending on the conversations, but you are communicating less effectively than you would be if you were having the two conversations separately

Let Your Subconscious Take Over

Notice I said we can do multiple tasks at once when only one of them requires conscious thought. If we couldn’t we never would have made it out of our cribs. It would be difficult to be alive.

We clearly do different things at the same time. I know of at least two you’re doing right now, breathing and reading this. Hopefully your conscious thought is being used to read and it’s the breathing that’s automatic.

Moving things to your subconscious (like breathing and walking) allows you to do those things at the same time as you do something with conscious thought.

When you can do things and make decisions without conscious thought, it’s not unlike being on autopilot and automating your life and yourself.

When we develop habits and routines we help move things from conscious to unconscious thought. They’re in a sense automation that can help us be more productive because they free your conscious mind to work on other things.

Routines as Automation

Did you ever get in your car and start driving somewhere only to discover a few minutes later that you’re driving someplace you didn’t intend to go?

Maybe you turned on the radio or got lost in thought. You weren’t consciously thinking about where you were driving and the next thing you knew you were following the route to work or some other location you drive to frequently.

At some point you might have been at a light where you usually turn right, but on that particular day you wanted to turn left instead. After the fact you noticed you had turned right like you usually do without even realizing you were doing it.

You weren’t consciously thinking about where you were going, when to turn and what roads to follow. Since you weren’t thinking about it, your subconscious made the decision for you. Your subconscious took over and led you somewhere it knows you drive to often.

The routine (driving to work or some other common destination) had become an automatic process. You may have been physically stepping on the gas, breaks, and possibly a clutch. You physically turned the wheel, but still it all happened automatically like walking down the street.

I’m not suggesting we should all drive on autopilot. Driving is something you should be doing consciously, but odds are that kind of unconscious driving is something you’ve experienced before and you can see how things we think require conscious thought don’t always need it.

Routines remove conscious thought, because they leave the decision-making to your subconscious. They become one less thing you have to think about. You respond the same way all the time so there’s nothing to decide. You no longer need conscious thought to make the decision.

Moving some decisions to your subconscious frees up your conscious mind to think about more important things while the less important ones become automatic routines. You can increase your focus on what’s important to you and so gain a productivity boost by not having to waste mental energy on things that don’t matter to you.

I work for myself in large part because of the freedom I have in when to work so naturally I work between the hours of 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM Monday through Friday similar to many people in offices around the world. Why?

One reason is that it matches the schedule the majority of the world works under and it makes it easier for me to talk to clients and see friends after work.

It’s also one less thing to think about. I don’t have to wake up and think about whether I’ll work that day and when. I wake up at the same time and start and stop working at the same time. After awhile my mind is used to it and what can be done subconsciously is. When the clock strikes a certain hour, my conscious mind is already waiting for me to get started.

Routines as Modular Blocks of Thought

Similar to the way you can extract blocks of code to create component and pattern libraries and then work to improve them, you can extract blocks of conscious thought, make them routine and habit and work to improve them. I use habits this way all the time.

Last year I decided to get into better shape. Most of my work day is spent sitting on my ass. I don’t need to do a lot of physical activity to do write or design and consequently I’ve gotten out of shape over the years through a lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle.

The thought of exercising when you live a sedentary lifestyle is not a pleasant one. It’s hard to imagine yourself exercising when you don’t have the energy.

Still I wanted to get in shape so I had a friend buy me an ab carver, one of those wheel things that you can use to exercise your core.

I started as easily as I could. I tested the equipment one day. A couple days later I tried the easiest version of the recommended exercise routine and I did one set instead of the three suggested. It wasn’t hard to do.

I doubt I was doing my body much good at first, but I was establishing a routine. One set of very light exercise may not sound like much, but it does develop the routine. Once I could do one set, I added another and then a third. Then I started increasing how many repetitions I would do in each set.

A year later I added another piece of equipment for chest and shoulder exercises. I started the same way with an easy routine so light I could barely notice it and little by little I iterated the routine.

Fast forward to today and now six days a week I’m doing something to work a group of muscles in my body for a good 15 to 20 minutes. I’m consistently increasing the repetitions whenever the routine starts to feel a too easy.

Later in the year there’s another piece of equipment I want to add to work different sets of muscles. I’ll continue to build up. I can tell I’m in better shape than I was before I started.

I took something that seemed like it would be difficult, established a simple routine, and iterated the routine until it was more productive and useful to me. A year and half ago I couldn’t envision where I am right now, let alone where I hope to be a year or two from now, so I started with as simple a routine as possible and built from there.

I don’t have to remind myself to do the exercise. It’s routine and I just do it. I built up slowly. Each change wasn’t much of an increase. I don’t feel like I’m doing more after increasing the repetitions of each set and I look back over a longer period of time and realize I have increased more than I thought.

If you normally do 20 pushups, you won’t notice the difference in doing 21. Once 21 becomes your routine you won’t feel the difference in doing 22. Continue those small increases though and in a few months you’re doing 50 or 100 pushups.

You are a Process

The same way I suggest you treat your work as a process I’ll suggest you do the same with yourself. See yourself as a process that you can improve, by improving the parts, automating some as unconscious routines and habits. Free your conscious mind to focus on other things.

Observe yourself. What decisions do you make the same way all the time that you could probably turn into a routine?

Steve Jobs famously wore a black turtle neck and a pair of jeans for the last 10 or so years of his life. He’s not the only person to do have done that. I’ve heard Einstein did something similar where he owned a number of the same suits and picked the next one off the rack each day, though I’ve also seen reports that he didn’t.

The reason is similar to why some people pick out clothes the night before. They have more time to think about it at night and in the morning when the decision needs to be made, but time is scarcer, it’s already been made. It’s one less decision to consciously make in the morning which allows you to use the time thinking about something else.

In the case of Steve Jobs, his clothing choices might have been about branding in part, but the main reason is because it was one less thing for him to consciously think about in a day filled with lots or conscious thought and decisions.

I don’t necessarily wear the same things every day, but I don’t spend a lot of time choosing what clothes to wear. I usually pick up the jeans and t-shirt closest to the bed when I wake up and that usually works for me.

Fashion isn’t important to me so I relegate decision making about what to wear to something of an automatic process. I’d rather spend the mental energy on something like planning what I’ll be working on that day.

Another routine I iterated is when I wake up. I’m a night person by nature, but I wanted to wake up earlier than being a night person usually allows.

Many of us wake up at the same time every day when the alarm goes off. Have you ever noticed that after awhile you start to wake up on your own a few minutes before the alarm goes off? Waking up has become routine. You might not be awake, but your subconscious knows what times it is near enough to wake you.

I wanted to wake up earlier than I had been. Instead of setting the alarm a couple of hours earlier, I set my alarm a few minutes earlier. It didn’t take long to get used to the change and again wake up before the alarm. Then I set it a few more minutes ahead. I’m now more likely to see the sun rise when I wake up than just before I go to sleep.

You’re different than me so you’ll have different priorities for the things in your life. What you wear might be very important to you, but something else might not be. Automate that thing by making the same or similar decision every day to the point where you no longer have to think about it. Make it routine. Make the decision once and put on autopilot.

Closing Thoughts

Maybe it’s not the usual way we think about them, but routines are a way we automate our lives. I use routines to create processes in me and how I work. Every routine is one less thing that requires mental energy so that I can focus the mental energy elsewhere.

Despite what we may think, we aren’t as good as we believe we are at doing two things at the same time when both require conscious thought. Conscious thought needs focus and multitasking reduces focus.

What you can do is relegate the less important things to your subconscious. You can develop a routine and your subconscious will take over. Let it and use the time to consciously think about something more important to you.

Iterate and improve your routines like anything else. Make small incremental changes that you won’t notice, but will still improve your overall position. Over time you’ll see the difference.

You have this wonderful automation tool inside you. Let your subconscious take over where it can so your conscious mind can focus on other things. Let your subconscious make decisions you don’t need to think about.

Of course living your entire life on autopilot is not the best way to live. I’m not sure what the point of life would be if you were always on autopilot. There is another side to this. Next week I’ll look again at routines, but through a different lens. I’ll talk about breaking out of your routines so you can be more creative.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. ‘Multi-tasking is an illusion’…completely agree with this. Multitasking does increase your efficiency, but at the cost of effectiveness. The chances of errors increases as well.

    Good Read, Steven.

    • Thanks Preston and I agree. Errors go up and effectiveness goes down. I think you can do two things at once when one of them doesn’t require conscious thought, but otherwise you’re just doing two things less effectively than each alone.

  2. Thank you for this great post. As someone who does content strategy, it seems too easy to focus on tools these days rather than use our brains and willpower. I’m a fan of habit design and last year heard BJ Fogg speak on a panel. He stated that we become more effective by consciously moving our habits down the brainstem towards reflex.

    • Thanks Ellen,

      Whenever someone asks me for any kind of tool recommendation, I usually suggest their brain as the best tool to use.

      I’ll have to lookup BJ Fogg. Sounds like we’re saying the same thing.

  3. This whole notion is very similar to multi-threaded applications that take advantage of multi-core cpus. The reason computers now can do multiple things at once, is because they have multiple brains!

    But we only have one, so we’re limited to switching between task.

    Multi-tasking is often the reason why I don’t get anything done at all. For me to be effective, I have to prioritize and do one task at a time (starting with the most important).

    I can work and listen to certain genres of music, that’s about the best I can multi-task without losing efficiency or effectiveness. I can’t watch videos and work though, it’ll kill my productivity.

    • Interesting Daquan. I hadn’t thought about this in terms or programming and multi-threading, but as soon as you mentioned it, I see how it fits right into this conversation.

      It’s a great analogy.

      I’m with you. I do better when I focus on one thing at a time. Sometimes that’s hard to do, but when I try to do more than one thing at a time, I inevitably get less done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *