It’s safe to say Steve Jobs was a pretty successful guy. Say what you want about the man’s personal life or character flaws, Jobs revolutionized the way we communicate and structure our lives in the 21st century. Case in point: I’m writing this from my MacBook, while streaming iTunes radio from my iPad and taking periodic iMessage breaks on my iPhone. While most of us are simply focused on the next promotion, he looked way, way beyond.
Given his place in the history books, it’s no surprise that biographers, tech giants, personal development coaches and journalists have spent countless hours trying to crack the Jobs code. What exactly was it that made this kid from Mountain View who dropped out of college so colossally, irrefutably successful?
There's no shortage of reasons, and we're not suggesting that you can trace his insane success back to one small personal detail. But one part Jobs’ life tends to pop up as part of his ability to stay on the ball: his morning routine.
In a commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, the then-CEO of Apple Computers and Pixar Animation Studios told a simple story about the way he starts each day.
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
His message puts a spotlight on the impossibly scary “What am I really doing with my life?” question so many of us are wrestling with. Say you're dreading whatever is on deck for Monday morning. Is it paying off in the big picture? Getting you one step closer to achieving the goal that’s motivating you? Is paying those dues moving you closer to the thing you really want to be doing – something you’ll actually like to be doing some Monday in the future?
Jobs’ morning routine was all is about answering "yes" to those questions, keeping himself out of a grind that’s steering his life and work in a direction that he doesn’t want to be going in and, most importantly, that he doesn’t actually enjoy. Orienting your day – and by extension, your life – towards the things you actually like doing should be your first step to a similar routine.
But before you start using his mantra as an excuse to start skipping work to catch a game with friends or spend the afternoon drinking beer on a roof somewhere (What? He did say you should only be doing the things you want to, right?), note the part where he says “too many days in a row.” There will be mornings where you roll out of bed, toss on your robe, lather up in front of the bathroom mirror, and completely dread what you have on the docket. That's inevitable – after all, you can't build an empire without a little elbow grease. Just make sure it doesn’t become a bigger pattern.
So how can you put that insanely lofty advice into practice without feeling like a cliché? Start small.
At first, it’s about aligning your daily priorities with your greater vision. Sometimes that means being cool with missing happy hour to carve out some time for your side hustle, or being firm with your boss that you really do have to dip out of the office at 6:30 to make it to your nephew’s birthday party. Sometimes that means spending a week doing mindless Excel entry because you know it's going to pay off big when it comes to that one kick ass project that'll score you the promotion you’ve been dreaming about.
In that same speech, Jobs said:
"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
A little intense, sure, but the dramatics matched the scale of his success, and the lesson can hold true even if you implement it to a smaller degree.
The way you prioritize your day will look very different depending on whether you value free time or a big bank account more, for example. Or if your true passion lies in creating something entrepreneurial, versus rising in the ranks at your current company.
This assumes, though, that you know exactly what you want to prioritize in your life – and we don't blame you if you think having a full “what really matters to me” discussion with yourself in the mirror each day before you’ve had your morning coffee seems like a bit much.
To take the high-level reflections on intentionality down a notch into simple daily actions, spend a few long days or weeks thinking carefully about what you want from the next few years of your life. It's okay not to know specifics, but a general idea of what you want to work towards should be apparent. Then write down whatever you come up with wherever you keep track of your schedule, or set a recurring calendar reminder for five minutes before you usually start tackling the day’s emails and assigning priorities. That'll give you a morning reminder about what you're really working towards, helping to center your thoughts, remind you that your day-to-day work is part of a larger goal, and make sure that you're following a path that you really want to be on.
Whatever your method, you don’t need a turtleneck or a multi-billion dollar company to channel Steve Jobs’ success. Take his simplest and most profound piece of advice and be intentional about going after the things that really make you happy. That’s all that really matters.