Habits and routines make efficient use of our brain’s mental powers to make decisions all day long from the moment we open our eyes in the morning until the moment we draw them closed at day’s end. Throughout our day we make decision after decision, everything from what we’re going to eat, what we’re going to cloth ourselves with, to what we’re going to say to someone, among others. Without establishing habits and routines in our day, we would crumble under the stress of decision making.
Have you ever traveled to a new city or country and had to make so many decisions that you don’t normally face on a typical day? Things like learning about where you can shop for food or what restaurant would serve food you enjoy, to navigating transportation, and finding your way around unfamiliar territory. Perhaps you have to learn how to successfully use the city’s metro system or find your accommodations. This work takes a lot of mental energy! Often when we return from a vacation or visiting another place, we feel like we need a vacation from our vacation. A big reason for this is the sheer exhaustion from all of the decisions we had to make each day that drained our will power well.
We have a finite supply of will power each day. If you start your day making decisions like “do I press snooze? Do I have time to press snooze again?” and then make a decision about what you’re going to wear, what you’re going to eat for breakfast, and what shoes best match your outfit – you’ve already got quite a withdrawal from your will power bank account before you walk out the door. Now if you establish a routine in your morning that takes away this decision making, you’re that much more ahead for what you might face when you head out your front door.
First things first
I have a morning routine for weekdays and a morning routine for weekends. I wake up at the same time and run through a solid 20 things before I head out the door. The only item of those 20 items that I have to make a decision on each day is what I’m going to wear. I don’t pick out my clothes the night before, even though I could and some people do, but that is one decision I leave for the morning. That’s it, one decision. My evening routine is a little less standard, but follows a similar pattern each night and I am in bed within the same 15 minute window each night. For me, my kids make my evening routine a little bit more lose than the morning since I’m the first one to wake up in my house each day.
Patterns and triggers
What is the difference between routine and habit? As nouns they are actually synonyms. They are both something that is practiced. So how do you set up this practice? I would start with the habit first. An example of a habit is exercise. I have been an avid exerciser my entire life. It started when I was young and since it’s a healthy habit, it’s never been one that I have felt any compulsion to overrule. It has stuck with me for decades. Even though exercising has always been a habit of mine, it has fallen into different routines in my life depending on my other obligations. Working this habit into a routine took linking it to a trigger. My trigger right now for exercising is waking up in the morning. I wake up, I exercise. It’s that simple. I don’t have to talk myself into it or weigh the pros and cons of extra sleep versus exercising, I just do it. No decision is necessary.
Make your choices work for you not against you
A routine is a consistent sequence of actions that you follow that moves you from one activity to the next. Habits are routines of behavior that you partake in and they may be positive or negative. I think of habits as smaller, more succinct patterns of behavior within a larger picture of actions or routine. For instance my routine of exercising when I awake is part of morning routine, but exercising itself is the habit that fits into my morning routine. Now if I had the habit of exercise, but I didn’t do it first thing in the morning, I may not do it later because by the time I got to the end of my work day I would have to make the active decision at that point to exercise and I’ve likely made one million other decisions up to that point and I have dwindling will power to say “yes”.
It is said that Albert Einstein did not bother himself with trivial decisions (like choosing what clothes to wear) and instead just always wore the same clothes. Not bothering himself with these decisions was because he understood that those constant nagging, everyday mundane questions sucked precious mental energy. Steve Jobs was similar in regard to habits, routines, and eliminating certain decision making from his plate leaving himself with the mental will power to focus on bigger issues.
Best of intentions
As I stated in the beginning, we have a finite supply of will power. When making decisions you say yes to one thing and no to another. There is bound to be a point when you cave in and give the opposite response than you truly desire, like my example of leaving exercise for after work hours. Another example might be your good intentions of making healthy food choices. You might do great at breakfast, okay at lunch, but then sometime in the afternoon you feel the will power slip and by 8:00 pm you’re eating off plan like the world is ending that very evening. You can set yourself up for success by preparing foods ahead of time and purchasing good food choices at the grocery store. First you’d practice the habit of eating healthy foods and then build a routine of when you can be fully present at the grocery store with a well thought out plan with plenty of will power in your pocket.
It’s all about the practice. Nobody is perfect. If you stumble, fall, or veer off course, congratulations for noticing! That’s the first step to resetting your intentions. There is no perfection in practice.