Is It Time to Rethink Your Routines?

I’ve never liked the idea of routines. Just saying the word makes me feel claustrophobic and trapped.

But as I pay more attention to my own behavior, I’ve realized something shocking.

I already have routines.

(Okay, maybe it’s not shocking to you. But my free-spirited self has been in denial…)

Every morning during the week, I get up and make my husband breakfast while he gets ready for work. I chat with him as I help him get his stuff together. After he leaves, I skim my email by cell phone (so I can see if anything urgent’s come in, but won’t be tempted to spend the morning replying to non-urgent email). Then I get to work.

That’s my morning routine.

When I start to get hungry, I break for lunch. Lunch is usually leftovers that can be microwaved or something very simple that can be assembled from ingredients in the fridge. While I eat, I write emails and web surf. I check on the garden and water as needed. Sometimes I remember to start a load of laundry or unload/reload the dishwasher before I go back to work.

That’s my lunchtime routine.

Somewhere between 5 and 6 pm, my husband calls to let me know he’s on his way home. I stop working and cook dinner.

That’s my evening routine.

Somewhere between 9 and 10pm, I straighten up the kitchen, fold laundry, brush my teeth, and lock up the house. I get into bed and read for a few minutes before I turn out the light.

That’s my bedtime routine.

Barring emergencies and pleasant surprises, I do these things five days a week, at roughly the same time and in the same way.

I didn’t design these routines. They evolved over time to fit the rhythm of my life. They meet the minimum requirements of my existence–in other words, they’re good enough to get by.

But they’re not optimal.

My dinner routine is the worst, because it’s the loosest. Instead of starting at a specific time, I let my husband’s schedule dictate when I start. And how much straightening up I need to do in the kitchen before I start cooking can vary wildly depending on whether I remembered to unload/reload the dishwasher at lunch and whether I took the time to clean up after preparing lunch.

If I forgot to run the dishwasher, I might have to handwash a specific pan in order to make the meal I’ve planned. If veggies have to be chopped (rather than being used as-is or run through the food processor), I could still be chopping when my husband gets home. Dinner is seldom ready at the time I think it’s going to be.

I could keep going on the way I have been and hope that my routines will continue to evolve in the right direction. But wouldn’t life be easier if I spent a little bit of effort optimizing my routines?

For example, what if I add unloading/reloading the dishwasher and starting a load of laundry to my morning routine?

And then I put laundry in the dryer and set the kitchen up for cooking dinner as part of my lunch routine?

And then I set an alarm to go off at the time I need to start cooking dinner?

Wouldn’t that eliminate a whole bunch of stress around dinner preparation, and make it easier for me to get dinner on the table more quickly?

Naturally, there’s an irrational voice in my head that’s squawking in protest.

I’ve already got enough routine, adding more is going to make my life boring! Next thing I know, I’m going to be stuck in a rut! Besides, all this discipline is going to kill my creativity!

That’s nonsense, of course. The routines are a small fraction of my day. I’m still free to prioritize my work as I see fit, to choose whatever type of exercise I feel like doing, and to intersperse the work with a few breaks for fun.

In fact, if I do a good job of redesigning my routines, I’ll have even more time for the fun stuff, because I’ll have fewer glitches to deal with. I’ll also have more willpower–Baumeister and Tierney (in their book, Willpower) discuss studies which reveal that one of the “tricks” of self-disciplined people is that they use habits and routines to conserve willpower so that they can spend it on important decisions.

I’m not going to overhaul everything at once. I’ll pick a couple small changes to make this week, and I’ll set up some external triggers to remind myself of what I’m supposed to do: a checklist in the kitchen to remind me what my new breakfast and lunchtime routines should be, and an alarm clock in my office, set to remind me what time I need to start dinner.

Are your daily routines helping you achieve your goals, or are they just allowing you to scrape by?

What small changes could you make to your routines that would help you get the mundane stuff out of the way and give you more time to work on meaningful projects?


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