Create Your Dream Routine (Or Get Back Into It)
I'm seven days away from passing a big milestone on my language-learning app: a 150 day streak. I originally set the goal of daily Italian practice in part because I wanted to keep up my language skills from years ago. I also wanted to incorporate something into my morning routine that allowed me to start the day feeling accomplished.
This made me start thinking about routines. Why do routines work so well for some individuals, while other people struggle to stick to a schedule? At its core, a routine is essentially a sequence of steps that you regularly follow. It makes sense then that some people (I see you Type As) like the structure of these steps, when others might find them boring and repetitive. But without any sort of structure, it’s too easy to get sidetracked. Before you know it, it's 7pm and you’re wondering, “what did I do today?”
As remote work and flexible work schedules become more common, creating structure in the day in the absence of the external accountability of coworkers can be challenging. If there’s no train to catch or meeting to attend, you might be tempted to fill the morning with sleep or distractions. Similarly, it's so much easier to get sucked into doomscrolling if you don’t have anyone around to witness how you’re spending your time.
In addition to flexible work, unexpected life events can steer a good routine off course. Having company over for a few days, or feeling under the weather for a week? Once you miss your normal routine, it’s a struggle to get back into the swing of things.
To help you be more productive instead of wondering at the end of each day where your time went, consider adopting a new routine! This article covers why routines are beneficial, how to set a routine, and how to get back to a routine if you’ve strayed off course.
Why You Need A Routine
If you can’t tell already, I’m a big fan of a good routine. As Heraclitus famously said,
"the only constant in life is change"
so there’s something nice about having at least one part of each day that’s predictable.
In fact, that’s why studies have found that routines promote mental health and reduce stress. One of the best tricks for getting better sleep is to have a nighttime wind-down routine and to fall asleep around the same time each night because this supports a good circadian rhythm.
Related Article: How To Be A Productive Night Owl
In addition to supporting your sleep by performing the same activities around the same time each day or night, a routine provides a sense of control. This can be super comforting, especially if you’re the type of person who struggles with anxiety around things that are out of your control. In fact, a routine is one of the best ways to cope with loneliness because it’s so grounding.
Beyond its mental and emotional well-being benefits, a routine is also a way to make sure you’re dedicating time to something that matters to you on a regular basis. Through routine, you allot the necessary space and time to get that thing done. By doing so, you feel a sense of accomplishment by making time for what matters, and that good feeling further promotes your mental health.
You can always build upon a routine and adapt it over time to incorporate new steps. For example, each morning I wake up, exercise, and then practice Italian while I make breakfast and drink my coffee. Lately, I’ve also started putting on a podcast while cleaning up the kitchen right after breakfast as part of my endless pursuit of trying to be more tidy (it does NOT come naturally to me). Doing my routine each morning makes me feel like no matter what’s in store for me that day, I’ve at least done one thing good for my mind and soul.
Now, I'd be lying if I never miss my routine or skip a few steps. My goal is progress, not perfection. In fact, my language-learning app lets me use my points to keep my streak when I miss a day. But by doing a task most days, it really adds up.
One of my favorite sayings (attributed to Gretchen Rubin) captures this perfectly,
"What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while."
In the same way that it's harder to retain material long term when you've crammed for a test as opposed to spaced study over time, our brains and bodies benefit more from consistent daily effort rather than an infrequent binge. Routines allow for this regular effort.
How To Set A Routine
Similar to habit-building, a routine usually needs a trigger: a time, place, and/or situation that sets the routine off. When the conditions are just right, you start the routine and follow the order of steps. After you act, you receive the reward, which encourages you to perform it again in the future.
For many people, having a morning routine is quite common. I love a morning routine because it allows me to start my day with a sacred ritual that’s almost on autopilot. The reason I love mornings is because it’s usually quiet and free of distractions. Once the distractions come along later in the day, I’m less likely to do those good habits. Plus, research has shown that as the day progresses, humans experience decision fatigue - mental exhaustion from all the micro-decisions we make throughout the day. By the end of the day, the brain goes for the easiest choice: stay on the couch.
So when I'm tempted to postpone my workout for later in the day, here's what I tell myself:
"Morning or it doesn’t happen."
Does that mean I’m never productive outside of my morning routine? Hardly! In fact, right now I’m writing this blog post after a long working day, so when necessary, I can in fact muster up the motivation to get things done later. But I tell myself “morning or it doesn’t happen” because I don’t want to leave my health priorities to my willpower. By assuming my own laziness, I make sure I get my workout done in the morning by making it a part of my daily routine. That way, if I am feeling tired and decision-spent later in the day, I can at least know that I did some kind of movement that morning.
By making my workout a required step as part of my wake up routine, I also spare myself a lot of mental negotiation. I used to do evening road races in the summertime and spent all day wishing for a thunderstorm so that I could get out of it. Weird, because I truly do enjoy running, but there was something about having an obligation to exercise after a long day of work that just did not seem as appealing as going home and being lazy or sociable. And on the days I caved into laziness, I always felt a huge sense of guilt. Now that I exercise almost exclusively in the morning, it's not a decision I even have to think about. I avoid a lot of internal struggle as a result!
In addition to fighting decision fatigue, doing some light mental and/or physical exercise in the morning can help you clear your head. My brain fog can take a bit to clear up and I need time before doing mentally intensive work. The way I can quickly get going even in my groggy morning state is by preparing the night before by setting my alarm, planning my workout, often even choosing my workout clothes if I’m really on top of things. That way, I don’t have to make any decisions while I'm going through the motions like a zombie when I wake up. I already know when I’m waking, what I’m wearing, what I’ll be doing. It’s a surefire way to set myself up for success.
Think about your ideal routine and what activities you want to do. How can you prepare?
Let’s say you want to have a more structured routine at work. Are Mondays a wash for you because you forget whatever you were working on last week? Here’s a trick I do: Friday before I wrap up, I always jot down a few priorities for my next week’s to-do list. That way, when Monday rolls around, I don’t have to do the heavy lifting of thinking through what I was working on. Instead, I browse my list and get to it.
Routines don’t have to be in the morning or at night, however. You can create routines around meals, or commutes. It’s up to your lifestyle and your priorities.
Here’s my 3 steps to building your routine:
Start with your main motivator and focus on building your routine around that. Start small and add on once you’ve consistently kept to the routine for a week or so. What’s the main way you’re looking to improve your life through this routine? For many people, it’s their health and well-being. For others, making time for daily prayer is a habit they’re trying to build. Some people may be looking to have a routine that allows them to work on a creative project, like writing a book or setting up a website. Journaling or meditation are other popular daily goals.
Identify the amount of time, place, and materials you need to perform this action. Again, morning and evening tend to be natural anchors, but if you’re a parent of a newborn, for example, you may need to structure your routine around the baby’s sleep patterns. Same goes for pet parents: how might you create a routine around when you need to take your dog out?
Build on your routine incrementally. Imagine that your perfect routine is made up of Legos. Start with one or two blocks, and keep adding a bit more over time. Eventually you’ll create a masterpiece, and that masterpiece may take different shapes over time. So many books about success describe elaborate super-early mornings filled with a ton of activities: start with meditation, then go for a workout, then journal, then plan your day, then call a friend, then water the plants, then read a chapter of a novel...it’s a lot of stuff! Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your ideal routine! The best routine is the one that works for you. Adopting someone else’s schedule may not be right for you. It’s more important that you do a short routine that makes you happy rather than stress over a schedule you simply can’t sustain.
One more thing I’d like to mention as you’re building your routine. Think about what you don’t want during your precious sequence of events. A big distraction for me is my email. If I get a certain message, I’ll abandon my routine so that I can respond, and sometimes doing so throws off my entire day. Be intentional about what media you consume and when you consume it.
I once heard someone say that they always strive to “create before consuming” - meaning that they don’t allow themselves to consume email, news, or social media until they’ve finished producing something like an article or some lines of code. What a neat idea!
You're well on your way to building your dream routine. You've been sticking to it regularly and then...something happens and you get out of the routine! How do you get back on track?
Get Back To Your Routine
What’s one of the hardest times to stick to your routine? When your normal triggers aren’t around to nudge you to act. I’ve already mentioned working from home and the absence of coworkers and commutes, but even weekends can throw us off because they tend to be irregular.
Rather than obsess over any disruption to your routine, a more strategic and gracious approach may be to embrace the likelihood that there will be times that you can’t do your routine perfectly, and work around that.
For example, when you’re on vacation, you may sleep in a bit, especially if you switch timezones. Before you know it, sleep time has crept into your normal morning routine, and you’re running around deciding between a quick workout or breakfast. Have company staying over your house? It’s totally understandable that you might not feel comfortable leaving them alone back at home so that you can do your routine.
To avoid losing momentum with your routine when you’re out of your normal environment, try scaling your routine back to its bare bones, and do a miniature version of it.
A way you can adapt your morning routine for the scenarios above might be to do a quick video workout right in your room. Or, you could ask your visitors to join you for a leisurely morning walk outside. It’s not perfect, but it sure is better than skipping everything. If you skip the entire routine for several days in a row, the next time you get back to it in full force, it will feel like lifting a boulder uphill.
In the same way that you increase your chance of success by preparing for your routine the night before, if you have a “modified” version of your routine that you can always go back to, it will help you keep up the motions through a variety of scenarios.
This simplified strategy is a best-case scenario. I recognize that it’s not always possible given the curveballs life throws at you. So what do you do if you’ve completely gone off track?
Start back at the very beginning. Choose the ONE thing, the one part of your routine that will anchor you. Is it waking up at a certain time? Is it opening up a book before bed, even if you only read a single paragraph? That’s the small step that you’ll build upon. Eventually, you’ll be back to that Lego masterpiece, and who knows? This time around it may even look a bit different, and that’s okay too.
Looking for some external accountability to jumpstart your new routine? Supporti pairs you up with a buddy for a week at a time to hold you accountable to sticking to your schedule. Learn more about how you can use the app for your morning routine!