I haven’t always been good with routines.
When I was in college, I spent a day mapping out the perfect plan for my daily and weekly life. Gridlines on notebook paper were the original Bullet Journal, and my hand-drawn schedule reflected the best intentions.
I took it to work the next day and showed it to Rosita, one of the agents at the real estate office where I worked the front desk. Her glasses hanging on the tip of her nose, she studied it. I was basking in the glow of my efforts until she said to me, “Aren’t you supposed to be rollerblading right now?”
We can put all the tasks in the world in our planners, but that doesn’t mean they’ll magically get done. I’ve found that the best way to handle daily tasks is to make them part of daily routines: a series of habits that does not require me to put (much) thought into getting it done.
If you find yourself planning or talking about things, but not taking action on them or getting them done, resist the temptation to discount yourself. Let me show you two tricks I learned.
The key is to start with something you already do.
Do you eat breakfast every morning? Brush your teeth? Have coffee? Do you pray, meditate, or journal right when you wake up? Whatever it is that you know you do, start there. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It can be the smallest task in the world: it just needs to be something you know you’ll do.
From there, add a simple task to that thing you already do to start building a routine. Last year, I started having adult acne breakouts. I wanted to be better about washing my face, so I took something I always do (go to the bathroom when I wake up), and added face-washing to build a routine.
I call this habit stacking. For example, a glass of water before and after your morning shower or filling up a water bottle by your bed before going to sleep could help you consume more water.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg calls these keystone habits. Intentionally tie a drink of water to a daily task, and you’ll build a routine.
The second trick involves breaking down the new habit into smaller steps. Trying to add rollerblading to my usual routine was too much: I had to remember to schedule the time, put the rollerblades in my car, drive to the lake, and make time for a shower after.
My efforts at college scheduling were too cold turkey. If I could give advice to my former self, I would have said: just start by blocking off the time to rollerblade. Chop it down until it’s effortless. Then you can build on it.
Say you want to start running regularly. Pick a routine you already have—drinking a morning smoothie. Then, pick a small task—putting on running shoes after you make your smoothie. Don’t make yourself go anywhere. Just put on your shoes. Once you can do that for a week, aim to go outside and to stretch, too. Then, after a week, add walking around the cul-de-sac or the block. Once that’s a habit, move to jog the same portion. Soon enough, you’re exercising each day.
This might sound like mind tricks, and it is. Your mind is powerful: use it! You already have so many unconscious habits! You can create new ones.
Soon enough, you’ll notice that you have several habits stacked together. Habit stacking creates routines. I use morning and nighttime routines, lumping as many daily tasks as possible into those two-time slots. This transforms these tasks into habits, something I don’t have to think about or schedule: they are simply things I do daily.
When you make your nightly routine, ask yourself: What can I do the night before? There’s no time like the present to pacify tomorrow’s fires.
Maybe that’s putting out the dog’s leash or starting a load of laundry. For us, it’s having the kids lay their clothes out and make their lunches. Other things you could include in your routine would be a time to review your planner or schedule, gather your bag and supplies for the next day, or decide on meals for the next day.
Think of the possibility: What will this allow for in the morning? Less stress, more sleep, happier family, smoother commute, healthier choices. You can truly help yourself (H) when you’re not thinking about what you’re doing; you’re doing it. This is the power of daily routine.
You’ll be so much more prepared to handle the day.
Part of my morning routine is a few minutes of journaling. I always journal something, even if it’s just “I’m not sure what to journal right now, so I’ll just write about what I need to get done today.” Other times, I’ll write the same list I wrote the previous night, adding words for how I feel about the task next to each item. Sometimes putting a feeling beside each word is enough to help me process what I’m up against, emotionally, for the day.
Sometimes, I make an effort to work out in the morning. I know people have different opinions on this, but if I don’t get moving in the morning, it might not happen at all. If I squeeze an afternoon workout into an out-of-control day, it will only get half the attention and energy I could have given if I had done it first thing.
I wish I could tell you I have the universally perfect morning and evening routine. But routines are not one-size-fits-all: Waking up at a particular time, eating a certain way, or working out for a certain amount of time cannot guarantee a routine’s success.
Part of the magic is that routines are the sum of smaller pieces. Everything works together, empowering you in the way of your needs.
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