HUGH CULVER

The magic of boring routines

Updated to Life on March 4, 2024.

This morning I lined up a podcast, hit play, and headed out the door for a run. This wasn’t some extraordinary, Instagram-worthy, unique thing. I ran yesterday and will run again tomorrow. Running is one way I stay fit. It’s a routine. 

And it’s a bit boring. 

Our society idolizes novelty and extremes. What makes the news are criminals, politicians (could be the same), celebrities, tragedies, and war. Boring rarely does.

Every year there are about 34 million commercial flights worldwide. About 40 end badly. They make the news. The 33,999,960 routine flights don’t.

On average, about 400 people a year are hit by lightning in North America. About 10% of the strikes are fatal. That makes the news. The rest of us, lying on our backs on a cool summer evening enjoying a lightning storm don’t make the news.

It’s the same with productivity.

Much of what makes us productive in life are routines that, on the surface, are kind of boring. 

And there can be magic in those routines.

It’s called progress.

Magic

The most elementary principle of building wealth is to start early and make regular investments. It’s a tortoise-like approach that will outperform trying to time the market, or hoping to catch up later in life. 

It’s not very exciting, or dramatic, like buying lottery tickets, or gambling on tech stocks. But it’s a routine that guarantees progress. Famed investor Warren Buffett once quipped his investment strategy “bordered on lethargy.”

All great inventions, from vaccines to technology to artwork are built on routines repeated over and over. 

Every big “win” came with the price of endless experiments, product testing, and skills honed through years of practice. 

When I stood at the starting line of the Boston Marathon it felt like magic. I remember asking myself “How, at the age of 65, having not run much for a dozen years, did I get here?!?” 

I got there through routines. I got up early, put in the miles, ate a healthy diet, cut out alcohol, got massages, got to bed earlier, and stretched like a madman. What I didn’t do was wake up wondering if I should go for a run that day or head off to the gym.

It’s the boring work that leads to enjoying extraordinary results. 

And it gets easier.

Easy

When you repeat the same routine over and over it gets easier the next time. Like a river carving a deeper path through a valley, a neural pathway develops a path of least resistance. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb famously wrote.

That’s why you don’t have to think to put your seatbelt on whenever you get in your car, close the garage door as you back out of your driveway, or look left and right before entering the street. 

When we repeat routines – however boring – until they become habits they become a part of who we are. 

Building a new habit is like downloading a software upgrade slightly better than the last version.

When asked why he goes to the gym every day, Arnold Swartzenhegger once said, “I ate breakfast yesterday. I ate breakfast the day before. Does that mean I don’t eat breakfast today?”

Win

When I lead workshops on productivity I’m always looking for the new routine someone needs to start. I have lots of lessons I can teach, but when someone adopts a better routine that’s when progress happens.

If they want better health – they need a routine for exercise, sleep, or nutrition. If they want fewer distractions – they need a routine for better planning or setting boundaries. If they want to make more progress at work – they need a routine for creating small wins.

Hoping that things will suddenly get better, people will behave better, or work will be more manageable is not a strategy. Whatever the gap between where you are and where you want to go, there is a routine that will help. 

It might just be a little boring.