In interviews with successful people, there seems to be a general trend: most of them have specific routines. During training, Michael Phelps gets at least 8 hours of sleep plus a two-to-three hour nap during the day. Oprah Winfrey meditates for 20 minutes each morning before exercising. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, turns off all her technology every night. Steve Jobs asked himself every morning, “If today was the last day of my life, would I be happy with what I’m about to do today?”
Human beings thrive on routine and habit. Why? Because routines ultimately lead to freedom — a sense of ownership for your life and the way you live it. They free up our mental energy because we don’t have to spend too much time thinking about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, or what comes next. This mental efficiency is why Mark Zuckerberg basically wears the same thing every day.
Sitting down for morning coffee, going for a walk after dinner, brushing teeth after meals, reading for 20 minutes before bed — these are all types of routines. Whether we’re thinking about these repeated activities or not, building habits and routines makes you happier, less stressed, and more confident about your use of time.
I guess I never thought too much about routines because they are often built into our daily lives, especially in our childhood and youth. Most of us went to school each week, followed by all sorts of lessons or extracurricular activities. In college and afterward, we are often faced with the importance of routine head on. We have to decide what to do with our time and when to do it.
Often, this vast freedom leaves us paralyzed, though — we’re bouncing from activity to activity, stressed, and feeling like we’re not rooted in anything. Our lives are also incredibly transient. Add the 24-hour news cycle and social media to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for brain overload. Routines ground us in the midst of the noise and the unfamiliar, helping us cope and thrive.
People with regular routines are generally happier, healthier, more confident, more efficient, less anxious, and more adaptable, as numerous studies about family routines have shown. People who go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, for example, get better sleep and fare better academically. Without routine, we end up stumbling through our days, allowing life to happen to us rather than taking ownership for our destiny.
I’m not saying we should banish spontaneity from our lives or live rigidly according to a set, structured plan. I’m saying that life is already messy, ever-changing, and complicated. We have to process so much in our daily lives that having a routine helps our brain regulate it all. The more we have a hold on our schedules, plans, and habits, the happier we are.
Here are some ways to incorporate routines into your life, which will lower stress and boost confidence:
- Create a schedule
- Don’t try to build routines all at once
- Give yourself something to look forward to
- Remain flexible
Creating a schedule helps you to develop routines organically and to see what you’re already doing or what you might want to add.
Rather than doing laundry only when you’re down to your last sock, try creating a schedule for your laundry and general cleaning. It will make all the extra work you have to do less daunting. If you know that every Monday is laundry day, you won’t have to spend half of the day battling yourself to get it done.
To help you get started, download a time-management app or calendar on your phone to keep you organized and accountable. Schedules ensure that we have a routine and stick to it.
This isn’t New Year’s Eve, and routines are not resolutions. If we try to build too many habits too soon, we will become overwhelmed by the amount of change. This can paralyze us rather than move us to healthy action.
Pick one or two things at a time to build into your daily, weekly, or monthly schedule. Once you’ve incorporated them into your life, see if there’s anything missing that you’d also like to incorporate into your schedule.
If there’s something you can’t stand that you know should be made into a regular routine, try rewarding yourself for your work or doing something fun during your dreaded activity.
For example, you can listen to a podcast or watch a favorite show as you fold laundry or drive to get groceries. Or you can allow yourself a certain amount of time on social media after getting your task done. Giving yourself something to look forward to helps make the process of building a habit and routine easier.
There are times when your routine will be impossible: a sickness, a visit from a friend, a vacation. During planned times that will take you away from your regular routine, like a trip, try to incorporate what you can of your routine into that time away.
What’s important here is self-awareness. If you know you need regular exercise and have built it into your routine, try a walking tour on your trip, go on a hike, or do some physical activity you might not normally get to do. If something unplanned interrupts your routine, remember to handle it with grace, and get back to it when you can. A friend coming over for an impromptu visit, for example, is more important than cleaning the bathroom that day.
Routines are meant to help us make the most of life, not trap us in rigidity. Remain flexible.
In a world constantly bombarded by change, it’s a good idea to have some routines to keep you grounded. Routines help us take ownership of our lives by maximizing our freedom and efficiency. They ultimately leave us happier, more confident, and accountable — enabling us to become a better version of ourselves.