Routines Are Fluid

from Jeremy

I've only recently come to routines in my life.  Jan is a huge fan of them.  I always thought of routines as inhibitors of original thought.  Over the years that we've lived together though, I've come to realize there is some immense power in specific and well thought out routines. At the same time, Jan has learned to be a little more spontaneous, as well as question why she does some of the things she does in the way she does them. 

First, though, let's distinguish between routines and habits.  Routines are a series of actions you take on a regular basis after thinking through how best to achieve the outcomes you desire.  Habits are things you regularly do without thinking about them.  Often we confuse habits for routines, when the two are distinct.  We highly recommend routines.  Habits are up to you, although with those we recommend keeping them positive. 

When we first met I would often ask Jan why she was cutting the polenta with a string. She did this, and many other things I'd never seen done before, automatically.  I wasn't challenging her, even though that's sometimes how it felt, as much as simply trying to understand the thinking behind the action.  Her answer for many things was "That's the way my mom did it." When I'd ask why her mom does it that way, she'd say "Probably because that's how my grandma did it."  Jan is not alone, though, in doing things the way her parents did them.  I realized that I often respond to situations in the same way my mom did, by looking outside of myself for the problem and the answer.  We're all socialized by our parents, guardians, teachers, and society.  Some of us pick-up cooking habits. Others pick up personality traits.  The great thing about the habits we establish from these sources is that they are simply picked up.  If they work, great!  If they don't, we can put them right back down again and try something else. 

When we had our son, Joshua, I started becoming a huge fan of routines for both him and me.  Turns out kids, at least our kid and most other kids we hear about, love and thrive off of routines.  Kids take comfort from knowing what's happening, being used to it, and being comfortable within situations they have experienced before.  In my opinion, one job of a parent is to, within reason, begin taking them out of their comfort zones, testing their ability to be resilient in times of missing information or required self-reliance, but that is something only done after the routine and sense of self has been established.  Basically, once the kid is comfortable in himself, kick the routine around a bit to teach them that life isn't always as straightforward as mommy and daddy tried to make it originally. 

I took personal offense in college when my 1st year political science professor asked why we brushed our teeth, and he dismissed my answers of needing to have a fresh mouth for his pre-set and repeated year after year stock answer that people brush because it's what they have been doing every day and they don't think about it. I thought he was an idiot because I don't do something every day just because I've done it before.  I think about things as I do them.  I was looking at brushing as a component of my morning routine.  He was thinking about it as a habit.   

Not having to think things through each time we do them is how people have to live in order to not get bogged down in contemplation before breakfast.  The more complications added into your life, the more routine becomes not only useful, but necessary.  Given that dialectic: 

  • How do we improve our lives with repetition of the things that don't matter so we can focus on the things that do?  

  • How do we institute routine without becoming a slave to the routine?  

One answer is brush your teeth in the morning, just as you've always done, as well as brush when your mouth needs refreshment. This psychology of routines helps get you what you need as well as what you want. 

Improving life with routine 

Routines are very useful for conditioning yourself, or your kids, into getting used to particular actions at specific times of the day.  They are great for improving your efficiency, and for reducing decision fatigue. Bedtime routines are awesome to ensure that you get as good of a night of sleep as possible. Morning routines are fantastic for ensuring that you start your day in the most efficient way that you can.  There are tons of resources on the power of these routines, as well as on how to implement them yourself.  Here are a few from one of my favorite blogs, The Art of Manliness: 

I'll share my morning and evening routine, so you can see what I'm talking about. 

I usually wake up at 5am and get to work: 

  • Bathroom 

  • Drink of water 

  • Write my morning pages

  • Write a short story or blog article 

  • Meet Joshua, who wakes up about this time 

  • Eat breakfast 

  • Play with Joshua 

  • Help get him dressed 

  • Play a little more 

  • See him off to school 

  • Go to the bathroom 

  • Start my job around 9am. 

Then, I also have an evening routine, although not nearly as extensive.  I combine mine with Joshua's to ensure that we all set ourselves up well for a good night's sleep. 

At 7pm we start to wind down: 

  • Take a bath 

  • Put on pajamas 

  • Read many books while having a snack 

  • Go to the potty and brush teeth 

  • Put on diaper/sleep shorts 

  • Tuck into animals 

  • Read a final book 

  • I tell Joshua a story 

  • Say goodnight, and thank him for being my son 

  • Then, I head into either the living room or bedroom, depending on where Jan is 

  • We talk for about 20 minutes, reviewing the day, preparing for the next 

  • Brush teeth, floss, and hit the head 

  • Lotion my hands and face 

  • Get into bed 

  • Read until my eyes cannot stay open 

  • Close the book and go to sleep around 9:30-10pm 

This set of daytime routines works for me on weeknights and weekends.  I usually get 7 hours of sleep, and feel refreshed.  If I mess with this routine by watching Netflix at night, or putzing on Quicken or Personal Capital in the morning, I throw everything off that day.  If I stick to it, I tend to have an utterly productive day, achieving most of the objectives I set out for myself. 

I also have a weekly routine.  Every Friday afternoon I conduct a weekly review to set up my schedule for the coming week and capture my priority list.  I clean out my inboxes, my e-mails, and all of my loose papers.  I set up my calendar for the coming week, putting in the names of all of the stories I intend to write in the morning, mapping out my exercise times each day, and putting in all of my meetings from my work calendar so that all of my time commitments are synced up in one place.  In this way, I do not have to make any decisions on any particular day, unless my week starts getting thrown off by unforeseen events.  My week always gets thrown off by unforeseen events though, so I'm used to updating my calendar on a daily basis at the end of every work day. 

That's a lot of routine for someone who used to rail against it, isn't it! 

This proves that, having realized the power of routine, I made the necessary changes in my life to tap into the force multiplier they provide.  This leads well into a discussion of not becoming a slave of routine. 

Routines without Slavery 

Looking at the routines I outlined above, one can imagine that it may feel very regimented.  You may be surprised to hear me tell you that it isn't.  What it does is allows me to avoid having to make a decision every morning on what to do and every night about whether or not to watch videos. I'm saved from decision fatigue so that I can operate at full efficiency as often as possible. Taking decisions away creates freedom and helps me Get Things Done.   

Yet, given this set of routines, I do not allow myself to become a slave to them.  If a friend invites me out to dinner I'll go, changing out my routine for that evening.  If I wake up at 3am, rather than 5am some morning, I'll add in additional writing or some other activity in order to try to get something done.  Well, that's at least what I should do.  In reality, I end up watching videos like CollegeHumorChina UncensoredIt's OK To Be SmartThe Art of Manliness, and The Great War among others.   

Routines provide us an ability beyond our normal status quo.  They allow us to focus our energy on our creativity, find our comfy, and be the most effective us we can be.  If they don't do that, then they may need to be evolved. Does your routine make you more effective at the goals you set for yourself? If not, then you may want to think about your routines, whether they be calendar or emotion based, and figure out how to change them to fit into the life you want to lead. 

A great way to evolve your routine is to conduct a 3 step process: 

  • Capture It 

  • Assess Effectiveness Against Alternatives 

  • Adjust Accordingly 

Let's go into each of these steps a bit here, but you may want to follow along using this handy printout. 

Capturing your routine could be done by simply writing down what you do during a certain period of time, or after a particular event.  Say you tend to do the same thing every morning.  Just write it down, noting what and how you did it.  This could also be done based on how you react to a particular stimuli.  Say, for example, someone comes to you with good or bad news.  Do you react the same way to each event each time?  If so, that is a habit, and may be worth capturing. 

Then, you assess the effectiveness of your habits and routine against alternatives that are out there.  Using our morning routine example, you may want to consider an alternative order to brushing teeth and going to the bathroom because washing hands may need to be inserted between the two.  Or, you may want to think about when you eat your breakfast so that you don't deplete yourself of food for long periods after you've been awake.  There's a ton of things we do in the morning that may be effective, or may hinder our productivity during the day.  If we look at each one, assess it against alternatives, we often find that there are other things we can be doing that may be better options for us. 

Finally, take your collection of improved effectiveness actions, put them into your routine, and implement accordingly.  It may not be easy to remember all of the time, but the more mindful you are of what you're doing, the easier that implementation will be. 

LIFE IS COMFY NOTE – This last section on capturing, comparing, and adjusting is the gist of all of Life Is Comfy.  Take a look at your life.  If it's not going the way you want it to, consider alternatives.  When you've figured out a better alternative for yourself, implement it. 

What are some of the routines that you have that work for you? 

What are some of the routines that you have that may need alternatives? 

How do you implement routines in your life? 

How do you keep yourself from becoming a slave to your routine? 

We look forward to a discussion with you about our routines as well.  I'm always looking for a more efficient way to live my life, as long as it makes me more comfy in the process.