Designing a routine that can be kept.


May 5, 2020

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Posted in  Improvement

I had a goal of reading 30 books.

To do that, I had a routine all set up and ready to go: 1 hour before bed, easy peasy. Pat on the back, well done Sonia. You’ve got this.

The appointed time comes around, I’m staring at the closed book, and go “nah… Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”

One week later: the book remains untouched and I’m dreading even looking at the damn thing, stressed out by how I’m nowhere near finishing the 30.

“Damn it! I thought my routine was supposed to make this EASY!!”

I’ve lost count of the number of dropped routines. It’s incredibly frustrating because the goals are always worthwhile ones.

Reading 30 books, getting abs, eating clean: I’ve given up on all of these at some point, despite knowing that the goals in themselves were very much aligned with the person I want to be.

Now, being home so much, routines have become an essential part of my day to keep me sane.

With all this time to experiment with what work’s for me, I’ve recently started redesigning my routines.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are a couple of learnings.

Why routines can be self-defeating

Science has found that people have a limited amount of willpower in a day.

Willpower is like the wind in a sails; when the wind is strong, we can go against the currents and make creative decisions, or push ourselves through a bout of procrastination.

When the wind is weak, we coast along the sea currents, carried along by automatic reactions.

Because willpower is critical to make even the smallest decision, we tend to look for shortcuts that conserve as much energy as possible.

Routines are a powerful tool that can conserve willpower by automating meaningful activities which take you closer to a goal. But a routine can also be self-defeating if it demands too much energy to keep up.

With this, designing a routine that sticks starts with self-awareness on 2 key questions:

  • What drains my energy?
  • What recharges me?

1. Balance activities which drain and recharge:

An activity that drains doesn’t make it negative. It simply means it uses a lot of your internal battery. Draining activities can be both extremely meaningful and also exhausting.

Speaking to loved ones on the phone, for example, is both extremely meaningful for me but also exhausting. The deep focus and creativity required in conversing is delightful, but also takes a lot from my cognitive and emotional resources.

An activity that recharges is one that re-energizes. This isn’t necessarily passive activities like watching Netflix or taking a nap. For me, reading, physical activity and cooking are all re-energizing.

What drains and recharges will differ by person. Once an activity is identified as being either draining or recharging for you, sequence a routine accordingly that balances the two.

I would not attempt to write a post immediately after an emotional phone call, for example. Instead, I’d read for 15 minutes before to recharge.

To be at my best, my routines all follow a similar pattern of drain – recharge – drain – recharge.

This applies even to a series of highly related activities. In my writing process, the actual writing is the most draining. Brainstorming ideas however, is energizing.

I arrange my writing day accordingly, working on 2 posts simultaneously: Draft today’s post (draining) – Brainstorming for tomorrow’s (energizing) – Editing today’s (draining) – Research for tomorrow’s (energizing) – Lunch (energizing) – Outline for tomorrow’s (draining).

A self-care routine could look like: meditation (recharging) – strength training (draining) – yoga (recharging) – journaling (draining)

Sequence the routine in a way that maintains your energy levels.

2. Plan for failures

Even the best laid plans can go awry.

You may decide that 9pm is time to read in bed when the baby starts crying. Or you’re ready to start on ’email o’clock’ when the building fire alarm goes off. Or maybe it starts pouring rain when you step out to hit the gym.

Life happens.

Having a plan for what to do in case the routine gets interrupted doesn’t set you up for definite failure. It gives you a second chance.

In practice, this means I set buffers of 50% more time than I expect to finish tasks. “This post should take an hour”, so I’ll set aside an hour and a half.

It also means I have space in my calendar where I can postpone the routine for later. If I have to go to the doctor this morning, that’s okay, I have time in the evening to complete what I had in mind.

That said, I don’t force it.

Sometimes, I just can’t keep up a routine that day. And that’s ok. One day won’t make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. The trick is to get back to it as soon as possible, before the new routine becomes ‘not doing it’.

3. Stick with the program

I received a Garmin fitness watch at Christmas. It’s packed with more features than I could ever hope to use, but the single most important was this alert:

“You are over training.”

Before my watch started pointing it out, I never considered over training as a thing. Running 10km instead of 5km; surely that’s a win?

When looking to build consistency, it isn’t.

Pushing yourself sounds good and might even be possible. But routines are about consistency, not one-off achievements.

If I tried running a 42km marathon tomorrow without any training, I might be able to do it. Getting the completer’s medal might feel great, but the entire experience of the run would be torture, I’d be bed-bound for weeks and most likely have incurred serious injury.

In short, I’ll never want to run a marathon again.

Instead, following a 24-week program that starts at just 5km for several weeks and bit by bit increases the mileage is what will build my stamina to confidently finish the marathon — and still have my legs for a second one. Heck, by then I’ll probably be running everywhere instead of taking the bus.

The same goes with routines.

Whether the goal is “send 10 prospecting emails”, “eat one healthy meal” or “meditate for 1 minute”, then stick to that. Don’t push yourself beyond the program before you’re ready.

With practice, the routine builds your stamina in getting closer to your goal. With your willpower muscles rippling, you might then say “let’s add in another one”.

Or you might not.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you have to.

Have a constant feedback loop

As much as routines by definition are repetitive, iteration especially in the early days of setting one up is critical.

A few questions I constantly ask are:

  • Would a different time of day be better?
  • Can the sequence of activities be improved?
  • Can a task be further broken down?

I note these down in my journal, as well as a visual habit tracker.

In keeping the rhythms of my energy levels in mind, I’ve been able to design and stick to daily rituals in the morning and evening, a writing process and a self-care routine.

It doesn’t matter if the routine is 1 minute or 5 hours. The best routine is simply one that can be kept up to get you closer to your goals.

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