Routines get a bad rap these days. They’re seen as a dreaded state of stagnation, the hamster wheel of life nobody but the blessed few can escape. Another take is routine being the beast that has to be slain to be a truly be a free-thinking individual. Either way, we all have routines whether we like it or not, and this article will attempt to show how that’s not a bad thing but something we can use to benefit us in achieving our goals and possibly even our entire lives.

Understanding the Fundamentals

Before we begin, we have to establish a baseline on what a routine is.

Oxford Language defines a routine as “a usual order and way of doing something” or “a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program.”

Now how does this apply to us? Whether productive or not, we have many routines we take part in every day; morning, mealtime, hygiene, exercise and nighttime being some of the most common forms of a routine.

Unfortunately, these systems we place ourselves in are often seen as perpetual and unending. Because of this, we start to look at our routines as a chore or something to resent, especially when the tasks at hand are boring or difficult.

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus less on the common routines described above, and more on two routine categories: Maintenance/Lifestyle & Goal-Oriented.

Maintenance/Lifestyle Routines focus on sustaining a state of being. Basically, if this routine falls off, then the thing we are maintaining will fall off, as well. One could think of them as lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, jobs, etc.)

Goal-Oriented Routines are tied to more temporary efforts. These routines for example could be learning a language, studying for a test, or perhaps writing a novel. They can be very similar or even parallel maintenance routines. For the purpose of framing, we are going to try and consider these routines as something we can move away from once we have achieved our goal. With these things in mind, let’s look at how this can benefit us in our own lives.

What is Your Normal?

One common misconception that many people have is assuming there isn’t enough time in the day to dedicate to this task or another task. We convince ourselves that we’ve maximized our time and the things we are doing today are of the utmost importance to our continued existence.

In many cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth. If we take the time to analyze our day-to-day, we can actually find a lot of wasted time. Now, this doesn’t mean that literally every second of every day needs to be dedicated toward a goal, but a lot of routines have more wiggle room for extracurricular activities than we want to admit.

Let’s look at an example:

6:00 AM – 7:00 AM - Wake up, shower, shave, and eat breakfast

7:00 AM – 8:00 AM - Ease into the day checking news/emails. Watch YouTube until it’s time to go to work.

8:00 AM – 4:00 PM - Work, work, work. There’s a one hour lunch in there, too.

4:00 PM – 5:00 PM - Gym

5:00 PM – 10:00 PM - Wind down for the day, eat dinner. Bedtime rituals

10:00 PM - 6:00 AM - Sleep

This is a fairly simple design routine. This person works an eight hour day. They sleep eight hours and even get some time to work out at the end of their day. It’s easy to believe this is a busy and fulfilled day.

But further scrutiny will show that there’s a LOT of room to fit an extra activity in there. It’s safe to say it doesn’t take all five hours at the end of their day to make dinner and get ready for bed, so what else are they doing in that time? Let’s not forget the hour in the morning they were checking the mail or watching YouTube.

That is a theoretical six hours of their day that could be more productive, fulfilling, or dedicated toward a personal goal. Now that we know there’s room for activities, let’s look at how we can make our time more valuable.

Applying Purpose to Process

The entire purpose of a routine is to perform a task. The steps toward accomplishing that task can vary, but the end goal will remain the same. Meal preparation goes toward sustenance. Reading a book can go toward education. Heck, even the simple act of sitting on the couch and watching television can carry out a recreational need.

Knowing why we are doing a task gives us a better chance of adhering to that routine during those times when we lack the energy or motivation to see it through. It is imperative that the routines we inject into our schedules be practices that we value. Otherwise, it will be incredibly easy to abandon them the first chance we get.

This should also be considered when determining if a routine is going to be short-term or a lifestyle. The effort may feel like it’s too much, but if we have a proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ it can help us find the strength to press forward. Conversely, a lifestyle choice usually comes with a need that would dramatically affect a person’s health and wellness if it isn’t taken care of.

Finally, one of the most important parts of applying purpose is how we manage our expectations. Being realistic with our goals can help us avoid disappointment and appreciate growth as we navigate our day-to-day. If we exceed the expectations we set, we can always re-evaluate and approach things with a new perspective. Our goals can grow with us, but if we’re overambitious from the start they can become impossible things.

Method Over Madness

Life will do everything in its power to make things complicated. When this happens, we cut out the harder or less convenient parts of our day-to-day in order to focus on whatever temporary challenge we’re facing. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy to pick those practices back up once we’re freed from the challenging task that made us step away in the first place.

When taking on a new routine, figure out some contingency plans as well as alternative versions of that routine that can allow us to keep focused. For example, if the weather prevents us from taking our nightly jog, find a treadmill indoors. Maybe change that day to strength-based training instead of full cardio instead.

Create SMART goals that can be tied to our routines so we can measure our success better and keep ourselves accountable. A SMART goal is an objective that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. For example, “I want to watch the entirety of One Piece over the next year.”

This goal specifically has you watching One Piece. It’s measured by the entirety of the series. It has a timeline. The only issue with this particular goal is that One Piece will never end. However, for this goal we are close enough to something we can work with.

For more on SMART goals check out this article: CLICK HERE

Schedule the routine. Pick specific times over the course of the week to accomplish the task. This will let us mentally and physically prepare for it. As time goes on, we will become more familiar with the task and how to streamline its execution. For example, incorporating meal prep into our schedule may be difficult at first. However, as we do the prep more and more, we form habits that make the process easier. Because we’re more efficient, it takes less time. Perhaps we adapt the lessons from meal prep to other aspects of our life and make them more efficient.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that the task will become so natural that we can suddenly perform it in our sleep. A common misconception of habits is that we feel compelled to do them and this compulsion will carry us through those low motivation periods. This is both true and false.

A habit is how we execute a task when we perform it. It is not the task itself. Let’s say we have cereal every morning for breakfast. We take the cereal and pour it into the bowl. Then we take the milk and pour it over the cereal. Some of us may tamp down the dry parts of the cereal into the milk and then we eat. The habit takes the form of pouring the cereal before the milk.

The habit is the order of execution, not the fact that we are eating cereal. If we put the milk in before the cereal, it’d feel completely wrong because it goes against our habit. However, we can easily skip breakfast and feel nothing odd until we’re nearing lunch and realize how hungry we are. The same goes for our routines. Without discipline, we will discard them from our day-to-day. So, make sure to pay attention to them.

Respect the Process Enough to Give It Your Full Attention

At our core, we are creatures of comfort. We like to feel good about ourselves and the things we do. Because of our nature, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to rewarding ourselves for a job well done.

How often do we sit down after a long day and say “I deserve a break.” We’ve worked hard, we’ve completed our tasks and now we just want a few minutes to unwind. After that break, we ask ourselves, “What are a few more minutes?” Next thing we know, the night is over and we’ve accomplished nothing.

Now, this isn’t to say rewards are unjustified or should never happen. Again, we are not machines and we should absolutely take breaks as they are needed. This can be especially frustrating when we look back and begin realizing how much time we are wasting.

How about when we get so far in our efforts that we decide to step completely back into the behavior we’ve been actively working against? To take it to the extreme, imagine somebody celebrating one year of sobriety by taking their friends out to the bar? This would likely never happen because usually the value of staying sober is enough to prevent this behavior, but I hope this point is made.

Let’s cite something perhaps more relatable. We’ve reached our goal of losing ten pounds through diet and exercise. Now we are celebrating with an entire cake or a pizza, thus eliminating a lot of the progress we’ve made. We also run the risk of throwing our body out of balance by overloading it with foods we’ve likely been avoiding to this point. That’s not to say we can never have cake or pizza again, but all things in moderation. Reward yourself, but do it in ways that are responsible. Don’t allow the reward to be the only motivation. If possible, try to select rewards that are not harmful to the goals we are working so diligently to achieve.

Conversely, don’t be so focused on the goal that we prevent ourselves from enjoying life. Schedule in days where we can actively step away from the routine as a way to prevent burnout. This is vital when we are doing tasks that are physically and mentally demanding. Physical and mental fatigue can result in errors in judgment or execution that can harm ourselves or others. Remember, all things in moderation.

One last thought before moving on. We are easily distracted creatures. Find a way to silence those distractions. If you’re one of those people who get lost in YouTube videos or television, remove those elements during the time you’re dedicating to the task. Play some music to keep you focused or move yourself to an isolated area devoid of things you know are bound to catch your attention. Respect the process enough to give it your full attention.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

If we could make our dreams a reality in an instant, they wouldn’t be dreams. Life isn’t a straight path from point A to point B. There are hills, valleys, and moments when things are easier. There are also moments where things are more difficult. We all have to navigate this journey in our own way.

If a routine has failed, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to succeed. Take a step back and re-evaluate where the failure came from. Was it a step in the process we didn’t fully understand? Was it us not valuing the process and failing to maintain discipline? Did we reach too high or not high enough in our goals and milestones? Did life approach us with a dilemma that needed our focus so much that we had to sacrifice our efforts to accommodate the new stress?

All of these reasons are valid and okay. Failure can teach us both how to succeed and how to appreciate that success when we actually attain it. Don’t shy away from failure - embrace it and learn from it.

Have patience with yourself. Very few things worth having can be had instantly. Finally, remember to allow time for growth.