Updated: Apr 24, 2019
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
There are people out there who wake up early almost every day, get out of bed right away instead of scrolling on their phone, start their work immediately instead of procrastinating, work out regularly, meditate every day, go to bed when they intend to, and get enough sleep every night. These people also keep their space clean, take care of chores in a timely manner, and prepare themselves healthy meals. I know these people exist because I’m one of them.
The secret? Routines. Every single one of those healthy-lifestyle actions is part of a routine. And since a routine is something that you do automatically, without using willpower or making a conscious decision, all of these things get taken care of with very little effort on my part.
The point is, I don’t have to think about doing any of those things. They just happen. I can’t imagine having to actually think about doing every single one of the actions I take to be healthy every day. That’d be exhausting and overwhelming. I wouldn’t even get to half of them, and I’d be burned out before noon. With routines, I don’t have to use any mental energy or willpower, and there’s no decision to be made. Everything is pretty much taken care of for me.
What Is a Routine, Really?
A routine is just a series of habits. According to Merriam-Webster, a habit is “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” (Source) By packing all those healthy habits you wish that you had into a routine, you can get them all out of the way without much effort.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to take some time and effort to build these routines. You can’t suddenly wake up one day with all of this put into place. But after the first few weeks or months of building and establishing routines, they will become “nearly or completely involuntary” meaning that you’ll be on your way to the gym without a second thought.
Getting up early, working out regularly, and getting right to work instead of procrastinating may sound daunting right now. You probably do these things occasionally, and every time it’s a battle to get it over with, leaving you feeling accomplished, but a little drained.
That’s because they aren’t yet habits. All of these things become way less painful when you’re able to do them without thinking. It’s the thinking that makes them difficult. If you spend two hours thinking about going to the gym, it’s going to be much harder to get there than it would be to just get up and head out the door because that’s the next step in the routine. There’s no battle to win when the action is automatic.
Though no one can say for sure at this time, there are quite a few studies that point to the conclusion that willpower is a limited resource (Source). The more you are able to automate those healthy actions, the more likely you are to actually do them since you won’t have to use willpower to make it happen. Routine is greater than willpower.
Similarly, the less willpower you have to use to take positive action, the more you’ll have left to use for making healthy choices elsewhere, say, for instance, not eating an entire bag of chips for dinner.
If you’re worried that having so many routines will make your life too disciplined, too boring, or too restricted, know that this isn’t true. By getting all of the less fun, taking-care-of-yourself stuff out of the way quickly and with little thought or effort, you give yourself more free time and more energy to do the things you want to do. Sure, you could continue to just not do any of that stuff, but taking care of yourself will make you happier and healthier in the long run and is so worth it.
How to Build a Routine
Since a routine is just a series of habits, you’ll have to start by building a habit or modifying one that you already have. If you're interested in more reading about habits, I recommend The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin.
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All habits consist of three things, which combine to form something called a “habit loop”. First, there’s a trigger. That’s the thing that makes your brain go, “oh, right, I have to do that thing.” Then, the habit—brushing your teeth, picking up your phone, whatever. Finally, there’s the reward. Something about the habit makes you feel good, which is what keeps you coming back to it.
You likely already have quite a few habits, good and bad. Take a moment to reflect on the things you do without thinking about them. There’s a pretty good chance that you also have the awful habit of checking your phone all the time. The trigger? Probably a notification, feeling bored, or even just seeing that your phone exists. The habit? Picking up your phone. The reward? That stupid dopamine rush that comes from getting on Instagram or whatever.
Figure out what your habits are. Then, start tinkering with them. If you want to break a bad habit, remove the trigger. For instance, I always put my phone face down so that I don’t get distracted by notifications. I know that seeing the tabs and address bar at the top of my window is what triggers me to get on YouTube or Reddit instead of working, so I make my current tab full screen (cmd+shift+F on Mac btw) so that I don’t see them anymore.
I’ve found that the best way to build a routine is to start with one existing habit, and slowly add to it. Don’t try to overhaul your entire lifestyle immediately. Then you’re back to using willpower, rather than routine, and we already discussed why that’s not a great idea.
Decide where you’d like to start. Maybe you want to implement a morning routine, which is a great first step. If you don’t have an alarm, set one. That’s the trigger.
Then, decide what you’d like to do as soon as your alarm goes off. You really can’t go wrong with getting up, washing your face, and drinking a bunch of water. This will wake you up and start to make you feel human again.
Finally, a reward. Ideally, your reward is starting your day early and having more time to go about your life, instead of wasting time in bed doing nothing, but it can take some time to appreciate that inherent reward. If you need to, add in a temporary treat that keeps you looking forward to getting up. A cup of your favorite coffee, listening to a good podcast (I have recommendations, if you're looking for one), or making a nice breakfast should suffice.
Suddenly, you have a morning routine! Before you get carried away with adding thirty new steps to your morning routine, stick with this one for a week or two. Once you feel confident in completing your routine and can do it consistently, then you can add a new step to it, like stretching or meditating.
Remember, we’re building habits. Getting out of bed will probably always take a bit of willpower, but after that, the routine should run on autopilot. By adding new steps before the old ones are solidified, you’re back to using willpower as fuel. That’s not what we want. Start small.
As you get more comfortable in your routines and do them consistently for longer periods of time, the rewards will grow. Going to the gym consistently does wonders for your body and makes you feel great. Before long, you won’t want to stop. Going to bed on time may not feel like much at the time, but feeling rewarded by having enough energy the next day makes it worthwhile.
Focus as much as you can on these intrinsic rewards. These are your Why. They’ll keep you going and remind you why you’re putting this effort in.
One of the most important parts of creating a routine is to decide not to decide. That is, when you create your routine, you are making your decision. When the time comes, this is what I’m going to do. And then when that time does come, there is no decision to be made. You aren’t allowed to debate whether or not you’re going to the gym, because you already decided that you’re going to the gym. Decide not to decide.
As you take on the process of building routines, know that sometimes your routines will need to change. As convenient as it would be if we could keep the same morning routine for our entire lives, that just isn’t realistic. Things will change, sometimes even day-to-day. Let your routines adapt and flow as they need to. Sometimes creating multiple different routines for one specific action may be the way to go if your life isn’t always predictable.
As you build routines, make sure that each habit is serving you. Don’t try to force habits that don’t work for you. I’m not a morning meditator, for instance. Meditating in the morning is often recommended, but I’ve tried it and it just does not work for me. I’m too ready to get things done when I wake up, and I need to get moving and make things happen. Taking time to meditate throws me off my game. I’m an evening meditator because that’s what works for me.
As I often do, I’m going to end this post with a few examples from my own experience in order to get you thinking about what this advice may look like in the real world.
I am currently in the home stretch of the #5amwakeupchallenge. I have seven more mornings to go. At the moment, I get up by 5 and take some time to drink water, make tea or coffee, wash my face, and generally just get the blood flowing and start to feel like a person again.
Around 5:20 I grab my laptop and curl up on the couch to start writing. I hang out on the couch for the next hour and a half and make frequent trips to the balcony to watch the sunrise.
At 6:50, I brush my teeth and get dressed for the gym. I typically make it to the gym around 7:15 and leave around 8:45. When I get home from the gym, I shower, make breakfast if I want it, and get back to work. My morning routine means that I have an hour and a half of work, plus my workout, all finished before 9, which sets me up for a productive and enjoyable day.
If the “start small” thing doesn’t resonate with you, you could always try out a challenge of your own. Unless you’re a seasoned morning person, I don’t recommend getting up at 5 every day for a month, but you could commit to a week or two of getting up and out of bed when your alarm goes off.
I laid out the rules for the #5amwakeupchallenge here, and it had been quite beneficial to know what these rules are. I’ll definitely be carrying a few of them into my mornings even after the challenge is over. Next Tuesday’s post will be all about the results of the challenge, my thoughts on how it went, and my plan moving forward. Get on my email list if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything!
I love my evening routine. It’s pretty short and sweet, but it leaves me feeling so ready for bed. Sticking with an evening routine for a while eventually conditions you to start feeling sleepy as you go through the routine, and by the end of it, I’m ready to fall asleep. This is a huge improvement for someone who used to spend hours on her phone when she should’ve been sleeping.
My evening routine starts with dinner. Dinner isn’t really one of the habits in the routine, but it does serve as the trigger. After dinner, I’ll hang out in bed with my fiance for a while, typically reading, watching TV, or checking in on Instagram or Twitter for a bit. I also drink a mug of spearmint tea. Allegedly, it’s good for your skin, which is why I started doing it, but I find the ritual calming.
Lately, I’ve been tweeting three things I’m grateful for each evening, a habit which has strengthened my practice of gratitude. This pushes me to reflect on the day, and I often end up telling Bennett about quite a few things I’m grateful for, even if only three make it into the tweet. This moment of mindfulness in my routine puts me in a calm, content mood for the rest of the evening.
Whenever I decide it’s time to go to sleep, usually between 8:45 and 9:30, I’ll head to the bathroom to brush my teeth, wash my face, and moisturize. I’ve been putting more effort into my skincare recently, and have been using the Yes To Tomatoes Detoxifying Charcoal Facial Cleanser and following that with Alaffia’s Everyday Shea Body Lotion in lavender and lemongrass. I love the smell of lavender, and the lotion puts me in the mood to sleep if I wasn’t already.
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The last part of my nighttime routine is a meditation for sleep or a sleep story from Calm. I’ve always been someone who likes to listen to something when I’m falling asleep, though typically it’s just been music. A guided meditation or relaxing story meant specifically to help me fall asleep does the job even better, and I'm typically asleep in a few minutes.
We are what we repeatedly do. Your lifestyle is made up of the habits you have and the choices that you make every day. A shift in lifestyle means a shift in routines. Consciously setting out intentional routines ahead of time means that you won’t have to decide every day whether or not it’s going to be a healthy and productive day.
Routines make healthy lifestyles not only possible but pretty easy. Once you can get everything done automatically, rather than fighting your brain every step of the progress, working out, getting up early, meditating, and a whole plethora of other healthy habits aren’t hard at all to maintain. Decide not to decide, and build the things you want to accomplish into a routine so that they get taken care of before you even realize what’s happening.