Get into a Routine That Sets You Up for Success

Simple daily disciplines—little productive action, repeated consistently over time—add up to the difference between failure and success.

—Jeff Olson

What if the secret to your success was small and simple?

You are creating your future by the things you do every day. So every little thing is significant. And that's why starting with a morning and daily routine to set you up for success is vital in the long run.

Your morning routine is where the rubber hits the road. If you have a particular vision about what you want from life, how are you putting that into practice today and every day? If you have a solid idea about your core values, how are you putting those values into action? If you are focusing on your health, what are you doing every day to move your health forward?

The truth is you already have a morning routine. Most of the time, you do the same things every morning and then later into the day. So the question then becomes—is your routine intentional? Is it supporting your future? Or is your routine just something that you do every day without really thinking about it?

The things you do at the beginning of the day can help you seize control of your life and get intentional about the future. Even the seemingly most minor things can make the most significant difference over time. William H. McRaven, a retired US Navy four‐star admiral, gave a famous college commencement speech about the importance of the little things. For him, it all started with making the bed. McRaven said:

Those “little things” that McRaven refers to are all the actions and micro‐actions that add up to the totality of your day. Those days turn into weeks and those weeks into months and years. The little things have a cumulative effect over time, adding up to an enormous benefit.

Jeff Olson wrote a great book called The Slight Edge, which explains that the secret to your success is in the daily activities of your life. With study after study, he proves that little actions, compounded over time, reap incredible results:

If everything little thing you do matters … what are you doing? That may be one of the most critical questions of your life.

Most people are not intentional about their mornings. I'll start with a fairly basic example. You may begin with an alarm going off, followed by immediately checking the phone for any texts, emails, notifications, or news alerts. Then, you might get ready for the day through a typical morning shower and hygiene, followed by breakfast and a commute to work. While on your commute, you might listen to some music, news, or one of the morning shows. Then, you're probably on autopilot for the rest of the day—commute home, make dinner, maybe squeeze some exercise in, watch some TV, and go to bed.

That routine is not a recipe for disaster, but it also isn't very intentional and won't move you forward. Chances are if you stick with that routine, whatever you are experiencing now, you're just going to get more of the same. Some people are happy staying where they are and not advancing. But if you want to break out of that, and help fulfill the future you've set for yourself, then you've got to switch it up and get intentional.

It all starts with what you do in the morning, which leads you into the rest of the day.

The Built‐In Routine of the NFL

I didn't think consciously about the importance of the daily routine until after I had left football. I didn't have to because my built‐in routine was decided for me by the Bills' intense daily regimen. It was in all the training and learning I had to do to maintain my field‐ready status even when we weren't playing. When you're a professional athlete, almost every minute of every day is accounted for. So I dedicated nearly all of my waking hours to football—it was part of my daily purpose.

During the season, my days were packed. I'd wake up early, usually before 6 am, get in my morning devotional or Bible reading, and then drive to the stadium for a workout first thing in the morning. Then I'd grab breakfast, take a shower, rehab any injuries in the training room, and be ready for football meetings to start at 8 am. Meetings would run from 8 to 11:30 am, and then we'd take a light meal and prep for practice. After that, we would practice for two to three hours. Then I'd shower, lunch, and potentially work out if I didn't knock one out in the morning. After that, it was back to meetings for two more hours.

The meetings required a lot of focus and energy and sometimes could run long. We would often have a film session in which we would study the opponents we were about to face by looking at footage of their performance on the field. Sometimes we would go over our performance to spot check things we could improve. We'd also study the depth chart, which is the placement of starting players and secondary players. Additionally, we'd focus heavily on the assignments—which are essentially how we're going to construct our plays to block the defense. Or, if you're a defensive player, you would study how to defeat the offensive scheme.

Then, I'd have time to get my treatment, which is essentially rehab for any physical issue that I needed to work on. It might be a cold tub, a sauna, or stretching. Sometimes we had an additional film session after that; that's when we would go over game footage at the end of the day. Between 4:30 and 6 pm, we would go home to our families, recover from all the activity, and start the whole thing over in the morning.

Throughout the entire daily and weekly routine, a whole team of people constantly evaluated us and gave feedback every step of the way. If I asked the question, “How am I doing?” I would get a precise answer and a metric that I could use to improve.

My mindset and optimism had to be on point because I was getting critiqued every day. I thrived on it and became addicted to constant feedback, because with continuous feedback, I could constantly improve. That was the mindset we all had to get into to be successful players.

We would all put our egos in check and focus on our performance. We were bringing it to the table every week, and we were craving to get better because it helped us keep our jobs and make more money. Steady improvement made us more successful and helped us leave a legacy behind that we could be proud of. So, we wanted to upgrade and advance, and we were highly responsive to the coaching because we had faith in our coaches to help us improve. The coaches earned respect through their work ethic and daily consistency, just like we did.

The Bills were clear about their vision—they wanted to win and take us to the top. We would be the best players to contribute to the team's success; the Bills just drilled that into us. So every day was a reflection of that vision—hundreds of small actions that added up to a formidable and cohesive team ready to play professional football at the top of our game.

The Struggle of Finding a New Routine

My post‐football way of life was terribly disoriented at first. For the first time in my life, I didn't wake up each day needing to prepare for a workout. I didn't need to eat a certain way to stay 310 pounds. But, of course, I still held on to the structure around Leslie and our kids. I was still exercising my faith and doing some kind of morning devotional. But other than those things, I felt like I was adrift.

So, I just floated by. Days became weeks, and for the first time in my life, I started to suffer from anxiety. Lacking an explicit purpose was making me anxious, and there was no relief on the horizon. I didn't know what career path I was heading down. It didn't even need to be a career—I just needed to pursue something bigger than myself actively.

You don't have to be an athlete to empathize with difficulty coping from a lack of structure. Recently, many people were thrust into an unfamiliar routine during the pandemic—they had either too little or too much time on their hands. Neither is good for you. And I think that's a struggle for many people, especially when the situation forces them to be home when they have been used to going to the office or a job where everything is structured. Now, you supposedly have all this free time, but when are you able to be productive?

High Performers Have Similar Routines for Success

There had to be a way forward, I thought. I still worked with my executive coach, Mac, and was in the habit of listening to podcasts of people whom I admired. I also read a wide selection of self‐development books that I thought would help bring me out of the funk I was experiencing. I was surprised to realize that the people I looked up to, all incredibly distinct from each other, had specific morning routines that set them up for success during their day.

I knew I was onto something, so I researched the different morning routines to see if I could find some common denominator. Interestingly, they found remarkably similar morning routines that helped lay the foundation for their short‐term and long‐term success. It should be no surprise that healthy, self‐actualized people who are high performers often come to the same conclusions independently.

Almost all of the highly effective people I admired had some kind of gratitude practice. Some people write down the things they are grateful for, speak them aloud, or record them on a device. The point of it is to actively recognize the things you are grateful for in life. The results are phenomenal, as I'll explain in a moment.

The second common denominator was morning reading. For some people, that could be a biblical verse, self‐development material, or some kind of nonfiction where you are learning something new. It's a way of feeding the mind with positive content to give a significant boost.

The third commonality was an extended moment of silence of some type. Meditation was a common choice in this area, which I highly recommend. It could also be breathing exercises or simple silent reflection. It could be dedicated time to yourself away from all digital devices and media content. It could be time simply in silent prayer. All of these activities have measurable benefits in the long term, and it's incredibly healthy to quiet the mind and free yourself from toxic distractions. The silence does wonders.

A morning ritual they almost all had in common, too, was some kind of workout. Some people start with a swim or a run, and others might prefer lifting, yoga, or tai‐chi. Anything that gets your blood pumping and helps you get in touch with your body is excellent and has a tremendous positive long‐term impact.

The combination of gratitude, morning reading, working out, and silent reflection helps people take control of the morning and start the day on their terms. They don't start in a frantic state, reacting to all the stimuli thrown at them as soon as they open their eyes. They don't let their phones or other devices bully them around and force them into a place of fear or anxiety. Instead, they feed their minds and souls calmly and intentionally, helping to prepare themselves for the day ahead.

The intentional routine also stimulates their creative juices, spawning new ideas and new ways to approach a problem that may need solving. And there was a bonus—a new routine helped me put structure around all the other things I needed to do to focus on my health.

Once I had my vision sorted out and a solid personal mission statement, I felt ready to shake things up and try new things in my morning routine that would eventually become a daily practice. That competitive streak in me popped up again, and I knew I could do a lot better than stumbling through my mornings lost, looking for something to do.

The New Routine That Works for Me

My morning routine is a constant work‐in‐progress, and at the same time, I'm thrilled with the one I have—it's producing great results. I encourage you to experiment and formulate what works for you. However, I feel strongly that you must have some form of gratitude, silence, reading, and physical activity to have the most impact on your life. After that, it's all customization.

When I wake up in the morning, it's completely device‐free. I've banned the phone or other devices from the bedroom. I bought a separate alarm clock to wake me up. It's extremely freeing, not waking up in a reactive state. Once you pick up your phone, you're looking at messages, you're reading emails and news, and your whole state of mind gets hijacked.

Next, I pour myself a special hydration drink. It doesn't taste the greatest, but it's great for hydration, digestion, controlling my blood sugar, and mental alertness. It also has fantastic anti‐inflammatory properties. I wanted to share the recipe with you in case you'd like to try it.

Eric Wood's Awesome Morning Drink

  • 40 oz alkaline water
  • 2 tbl of apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tbl lemon juice
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 pinches of pink Himalayan salt
  • one serving of creatine and beta‐alanine

Next, I'll go to my office for some kind of journaling. Sometimes it's a gratitude journal, where I write three unique things that I am grateful for. Lately, I've been working with Ben Greenfield's spiritual disciplines journal, which also includes gratitude. It's got a little bit of scripture reading, and I'll read a morning devotional that takes me about 10 minutes. For me, I look at it as similar to tithing, which is giving 10% back to God. Well, I like to give God at least the first 10 minutes of my productive time of the day. That's another win that aligns me with who I want to be in life.

I recently received a pro tip from one of my buddies, David Nurse, who recommended writing a daily journal entry to Leslie every day for a year. These were often short recaps of the day before or something the kids said or did that brought us joy or laughter. These entries would often involve just an affirmation about her as well. I did it from one birthday of hers to the next. That journal traveled all around the country with me and was even left in Florida once and had to be mailed back! It was an additional daily commitment, but I am so glad that I completed it. I may have cried harder than her when I gave it to her, but she was definitely blown away by it.

I like to involve a little prayer practice or quiet time after the devotional. Sometimes it's just silence, and sometimes it's active prayer. Sometimes I'll just sit there and take in my surroundings for a few minutes in the form of meditation. That's pretty much how I start every single day. No matter what's going on, I find a way to make it work. Clearing my mind and starting my day intentionally just works wonders for the rest of the day.

This quiet time also gives me an opportunity to formulate a short‐term vision for the day. Who do I want to be this day? What good am I going to do in the next 12 to 16 hours? Who will I serve this day? That's a question in Ben Greenfield's spiritual disciplines journal that I love. Pondering that question puts me in the proper mindset for the day.

Another thing I do as part of my morning routine, which many people might find intense, is subjecting myself to some cold exposure. Many high performers have the same habit. If I don't feel refreshed entirely from the night before, I'll pop in a cold shower. It completely reinvigorates me.

More important, there's reliable research out there that cold exposure has neurological and physical benefits. Exposure to the cold activates the thermogenesis process, which can help you burn fat throughout the day. The extra benefit is that it wakes you up, and honestly, it knocks out a win first thing in the morning. I like that feeling that I did something that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. If I can deal with this uncomfortable thing first thing in the morning, I can deal with other uncomfortable things that come up during the rest of the day.

I work out at some point of the day. Usually, it's right before or after my reading or quiet time. Regardless, I want to get in at least a good 30 minutes before I have to start my day with broadcasting or podcasting or other work. So I don't even touch my phone until I finish my morning routine.

Intentionality: You Get to Decide How Your Day Will Go

As I mentioned, your morning routine is so important because you are starting the day intentionally and not just waking up and flying by the seat of your pants. Certainly, things can happen throughout the day that you don't expect and have no control over. However, you can have much more control of everything if you take the time to decide how you will react, what you will do, and who you will be at the beginning of the day. Leave your phone out of it—this time is yours!

You get to decide early how great your day is going to be. You can design your day and be in control. That intentionality gives you the tool to say, “This is the day I want. Here are the things I want to do.” It prepares you for whatever comes next and gets you field ready for anything that might pop up. Of course, all kinds of different (and sometimes difficult) things can happen to you during the day. But if you hold your intention, your odds are much higher to stay true to your purpose than if you start your morning saying, “Well, whatever. Let's see what happens.”

For me, my quiet time enables me to be more present and intentional with my family. When I do see them, because of my personal mission statement, I want to have an impact on them. I want to be there for them, and it's a great time to remind myself of that. It's a great time to get reacquainted with yourself and revisit your vision, mission, core values, and ideal standards. What you're doing is building systems that reflect who you are at your deepest level.

Gratitude Changes Everything

The benefits of living with gratitude and gratitude practices are immeasurable. Studies have shown that when you spend 30 days writing three things you are grateful for each day, you can literally rewire your brain. In the 2012 Psychology Today article “The Grateful Brain,” Alex Korb writes:

The same researchers went further and found that gratitude not only positively influenced the mind but it also affected the body in measurable ways. Korb went on:

When I work on my journaling in the morning, one of the first questions I ask myself is, “What are you grateful for?” So I'll write down three things that I'm grateful for. And it's fantastic; the more I practice gratitude, the more things I find to be grateful for, and the more I feel a sense of general well‐being.

That's not unique to me—it's just part of how we are wired. Try it! It feels great, and you can start feeling the difference in your attitude immediately. Just start to look for things throughout your day for which you are grateful, which will make that practice as easy as possible. After that, things will just start popping out at you.

Some form of gratitude practice has been a part of my life even before I stopped playing football. I recognized early on how lucky I was to be playing in the NFL and took daily stock of it every day.

By the last year of the league, I had a favorite gratitude practice. I got the idea from author Jon Gordon, who does a “gratitude walk” every morning. I would do a gratitude drive on my way to the stadium. I would turn off all the sound in my car and focus on all the things I was grateful for. It was beautiful. I only lived about a mile from the stadium, but it was just enough time to reflect on all the wonderful things that had come into my life. I'd be driving before it was light out, and I'd see the stadium lights and think, “Man, how incredible is it that I get to go work at an NFL facility today? I only had one scholarship offered to a college that I was lucky to get. And then I was a first‐round draft pick, and I got to stay with the same organization. And my job is not really in jeopardy today. And, I'm a captain of this team, and I get to represent this team that I love so much.”

I would just fill myself with gratitude before I got there, and then my whole day would be different. It took a lot of the worry out of what could come that day about losing a rep in practice or whatever else I might have been worried about. I'd walk in with a little bounce in my step, and people probably thought I was goofing, but that routine helped set me up. What a vast difference, as opposed to just rolling out of bed, being a little groggy, and being in a reactive state—similar to waking up and letting your phone boss you around first thing in the morning.

Even on the days I was injured, when I would be driving with a boot on my leg because I had just come off surgery, I still felt grateful. I was saying to myself, “I can still walk. I get to go to work today.” Gratitude also helps with being intentional and giving you that mindset to conquer that day. Even if the circumstances aren't ideal and they're not perfect, putting yourself in a “get to” mode and not a “have to” mode is valuable, because there are so many people who drive to work every day and say, “Man, I have to go to work again today. This stinks.” But there are always people who would kill to have that job or are physically incapable of doing your job. So it all goes back to perspective coupled with gratitude. Do you appreciate what you have?

These days, I try to come up with three unique things each day to be grateful for, though I've had many repeats in the last few years. That's not a bad thing—it's good to remind yourself of what you are grateful for, even if you have mentioned it in the past.

Intentionality the Night Before Can Enhance Your Whole Next Day

As I became more advanced in my morning and daily routine, I started to work backward a little to set it up even more. For example, what could I do the night before my morning to make my next day even more manageable?

I became inspired, once again, by entrepreneur, coach, and author Craig Ballantyne. He wrote Unstoppable and influenced me in core values and all the non‐negotiables I needed to set up in my life. I had the pleasure of hosting him on my podcast in Episode 86, “The World's Most‐Disciplined Man.”

Craig also wrote a book called Perfect Day, which heavily influenced my thinking about how my day should work. He comes at his morning from a slightly different perspective. Craig argues that most people have too many self‐help routines in the morning before they get work done. You see, his dad was a farmer, and from his experience, it was always you knocked out your chores first thing in the morning. After that, you would get to your workout or whatever it may be. I don't necessarily follow that approach exactly, but it did get me thinking.

There are times when I need to be ultra‐productive throughout the next day. What if, the night before, I could knock three chores out when the kids go down for bed? That will give me time to do my preferred morning routine and still have knocked out a few tasks prior. But ultimately, I need to get these things done. If I do those life maintenance things at night before my big day, then that's all the more room in my morning schedule to approach my day right.

It's a sort of like building on “how do I want my day to go?” If I can start “prepping my landing” for the next day the night before, then I'm just setting myself up for more success. Of course, I can ask myself the same question the night before, too. “How do I want my day to go tomorrow? And what are some little things I can do tonight to help make that a reality?” These activities can include everything from laying out your workout clothes to prepping breakfast and lunch. Every little thing counts!

Become a Super‐Learner

I didn't invent my morning routine out of thin air. Instead, I adapted some things from my past, some practices from football and my faith, and a lot of new material. So much of it came from reading and consciously trying to learn as much as possible from successful people. That's one of the beautiful things about self‐actualized and thriving people—they want to share their successful methods with others.

If you can put yourself into a super‐learner mentality—absorbing anything and everything that might be helpful to you—then nothing can stop you. Read the self‐development books that interest you. Listen to podcasts from people you admire and find inspirational. Watch videos that give you something positive and valuable to learn. Spend time with friends who uplift you and have positive practices you want to emulate. You don't have to go all in on any one technique. Instead, you can cherry‐pick from here and there and put all kinds of different tools in your utility belt.

My podcast became a platform and an advanced learning curriculum for me. I was so curious about what makes different successful people tick and learning all these incredible techniques that work. It gave me lots of new ideas and a free license to experiment with other methods. The great thing is if you are at a pivot point and having a rough time, what do you have to lose by trying something new?

I talk to about 40 or 50 high performers a year on my podcast. I found many common “Denominators” for successful routines. Yet, I didn't implement everything.

After absorbing everything you can, ultimately, it's up to you to find the best routine for your life, core values, and vision. Be intentional, learn from the best, and borrow what works.

Habit Stacking

As you experiment with your daily routine, you'll start to find the things that work for you and that you can do every day. One advanced technique I like to use to solidify a new habit is “habit stacking.”

My good friend Kyle Idleman has a lot to say on the topic. He is a bestselling author and teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, one of the largest churches in America. He is an incredible soul, and I am lucky to have such a great friend in my life. He introduced me to habit stacking years ago, and we talked about it in Episode 61 of my podcast, “The Value of Connection.” Kyle learned about the practice from the book Habit Stacking by S. J. Scott.

Habit stacking is a way of associating a new habit with an old one. This association makes it easier and faster for your brain to solidify the habit, pairing new neural connections with stronger, older, and more established ones. For example, I like to memorize bible verses while I'm brushing my teeth. I'm going to brush my teeth anyway, and that's a good two minutes or so I can do something else. Here's another example—say you want to practice reading self‐development material for at least 10 minutes a day. Well, download the audiobook and listen to it while you're doing the dishes or taking a drive.

Ask yourself, “What do I want to do while I'm doing [existing habit] to be more intentional?”

You can get creative with this and try all kinds of interesting things associated with a habit you already have. For example, some people like to walk on the treadmill while watching their favorite television show, associating new exercise with an already established viewing routine. Or you can practice learning a new language while putting away the laundry, something that you have to do anyway. As Kyle said, “It's a little thing, but it's a powerful concept. If you can take something that's already a habit and connect something new to it, it builds a habit. It's a very simple but practical shift that can make a big difference for people.”

It doesn't always have to be at the same time, by the way. You can also make an effective link between an old habit and a new one by doing the new one immediately before or after. For example, after brushing your teeth every morning, maybe you practice meditation. Or maybe when you get up out of bed, you immediately put on your gym clothes to work out.

Any old habit can be the key to a new one.

Key Takeaways

Here are the key takeaways about getting into a routine that sets you up for success:

  • Small daily actions add up and cumulatively make a huge difference in your life in the long run.
  • Every little thing you do matters.
  • The NFL training process is an extreme example of a straightforward, structured routine designed for success.
  • We need to create a routine and structure that works for us individually.
  • High performers from different walks of life have found similar success routines, including exercise, gratitude practice, silence, and intention.
  • Your intention is essential to taking control of your day.
  • Gratitude changes everything for the better.
  • Being intentional the night before can help your next day go smoother.
  • Find the things that move the needle in your life—they can be different for everyone.
  • Practicing habit stacking can help you learn and keep new habits faster.
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