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How to Build Routines that Keep Your Life and Work On Track

This post is part of a series called Essential Productivity Principles.
Your Productivity Style: Find It and Use It for Better Work

If you think depending on routines will turn you into a boring, predictable, uncreative automaton, think again. Routines are the secret weapon of creative professionals and have been for centuries. Poet W.H. Auden recommended a routine approach: "Decide what you want or ought to do with the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble." 

Plenty of other creatives, from writers to artists to composers and filmmakers, have depended on sturdy, predictable daily routines to provide a safe place for their creativity to expand. (For a closer look, check out Mason Currey's blog and book, Daily Routines.)

Philosopher William James posited that habits and routines free our brains from continual small decisions, so we can more easily develop and use “our higher powers of mind.” Using routines is a matter of allocating resources. Research shows us that willpower, like a muscle, gets tired when used

When you have to really think about what to eat for breakfast, which route you'll take to work, and when you'll exercise today, you're using up a lot of your creative willpower on mundane decisions. Instead, if you set up your routines to pilot you through repetitive tasks, you can let your mind wander, ponder, muse, and percolate with great ideas. It's easier to jump into doing, creating, and problem-solving with a full tank of willpower at your disposal. 

1. Choose Routines to Stabilize Your Life

The desire to become more productive is usually focused, rightly so, on our work. However, by using routines for your personal life, you can simplify and stabilize it. That way, you're dealing with less stress and less complication, without missing important interactions, ignoring relationships, or neglecting your priorities.  

Small crisis moments in personal, family, social, and home life often come from forgetting or neglecting tasks. Think about the pain of rushing to do taxes, forgetting a birthday or anniversary, or double-booking your calendar. Routines ensure that you do what needs to be done on a regular basis so you can avoid those moments of crisis.

Here are some examples of helpful life routines:

  • Morning and Evening Routine: If your mornings are chaotic, frenzied times of rushing around the house, trying to find a clean shirt, a decent breakfast, and the stuff you need for your day, this set of bookend routines might be just what you need. Imagine waking up in time to get ready without hurrying, having the day's outfit hanging in the bathroom, a breakfast ready in the refrigerator, and a bag with your necessities waiting by the front door. You can make it happen by planning a few simple steps you take each evening before bed to prepare for the next day (your evening routine) and then putting a simple, adequately timed morning routine in place. 
  • Weekend Routine: Having a weekend routine can help you plan for and handle all the home projects, errands and shopping, family time and personal time that you need to fit into two short days. By setting up a weekend routine, you can plan and prioritize how you'll spend your time, ensuring you get the necessary chores and tasks done without feeling like you have no play time or rest time. 
  • Family Meeting: A weekly family meeting can help you keep calendars in sync, plan financial decisions, assign shared responsibilities, and stay connected with the busy members of your family. It could be just you and your partner, going over the budget and the calendar, or you can include your kids in this routine so you can all give input and stay on track with each other. 

 2. Choose Routines to Improve Your Work

Now it's time to think about how you can increase your productivity, lower your stress, and boost your creative output with some work-oriented routines. Even if you work in a creative field, or if your work responsibilities vary wildly from one day to the next, there are still ways to streamline work with routines. 

Here are a few examples of effective work routines:

  • Starting Ritual: Getting started at work is often the hardest part. Spending an hour on social media, idly chatting with coworkers, or getting lost in the endless stream of email is not a productive starting ritual. If you deal with big projects, creative tasks, or, really, anything more complex than tying your shoes, you need to have a quick, dependable way to get yourself in gear and going for the day. Design a starting routine, then follow it consistently, to train your brain to start without the hesitation and procrastination you might struggle to overcome now. 
  • Weekly Priorities Routine: Setting priorities regularly, with input from the people involved, helps you allocate your time wisely for the most effective output. Maybe you juggle a lot of projects, manage a team with varied responsibilities, or have to handle clients, accounts, or a slew of responsibilities that defy corralling in a neat, repeatable, time-bound plan. Set up a regular routine (weekly is usually good) to get a top-down view, determine which tasks merit the most attention, block time for what you want to accomplish, and give and get input as needed.
  • Communication Routine: Doing collaborative work, sharing responsibilities and projects with a team, or dealing with clients creates the need for dependable communication. But back-and-forth email conversations or games of phone tag can eat up valuable work time. By creating a communication routine, you become predictable to the folks who need to hear from you, which makes it easier for them to stay in touch, too. Designate a certain time, daily, to answer non-urgent emails, return calls, and otherwise update your co-workers and clients. A communication routine can keep you from forgetting to communicate regularly and, also, keep you from having your day hijacked by an unending stream of questions and clarifications. 
  • Follow Up Routine: Building strong relationships, whether with your peers, your team members, or your clients, is key to doing good work now and creating good opportunities for the future. There's a fine line, though, between proactive networking online and wasting hours on social media. A follow up routine can help you streamline your networking activities, whether via social media, email, phone, or in-person meetings.

To decide which work routine you should establish first, ask yourself which tasks or goals you struggle most to accomplish. Those areas are the ones that will benefit most from a strong, supporting routine. 

3. Design a Solid Routine

From these examples, a few routines might stand out to you. Often, the most appealing routines are the ones that would apply to the most chaotic areas of your life and work. It's not enough, however, to have a general idea of a routine in mind, or to copy someone else's routine. You're unique, and your life is your own. To build a routine that works for you, get really specific. 

Start With the End Goal

What is this routine going to accomplish for you? Each routine, to be most effective, needs to be built for a specific purpose. For example, the goal of morning/evening routines might be to get you out of the house each morning in an organized, unhurried, healthy way. The goal of a starting ritual at work might be to help you make significant progress on your main project or task before midday. First, define the end goal before you start designing your routine. 

Work Backwards 

Next, start from your end goal, and work backwards to determine what steps belong in your routine. Estimate how much time each step will require. Streamline as much as possible, but don't force yourself to hurry. It's best to overestimate the time you think you'll need at this point. You can always reduce it later. 

Walk Through It

Next, mentally walk through your routine from beginning to end. This mental walk-through will help you see steps or necessary resources that you might have overlooked. You can also look for ways to simplify. Cut out any redundant steps. Complication is the enemy: the best routines are easy to remember and as simple as possible. Order the steps for your routine in the most logical way, but don't worry about reaching perfection. You'll have time to tweak it after you've tried out your routine a few times. 

4. Start Using Your New Routines

Focus on building no more than two routines at a time. More than two will get confusing and exhausting, and the attempt will become counterproductive. One approach is to choose one life routine and one work routine to establish at the same time. Seeing increased efficiency in both your personal life and your career at the same time is nice, and helps minimize confusion or overlap since each routine belongs to a different part of your life.  

It takes time to build a routine. It might take more than 21 days to make it stick. Research shows that the time needed to build a solid habit can vary widely, from 21 days to upwards of 250 days

The time you need to make your routine automatic will vary according to the complexity of the routine as well as other factors, such as your personality, stress level, and support. Give yourself at least 30 days to build a new routine, or set of routines; at the 30-day mark, you can evaluate if you've established your routine well enough to build another, or if you need to stay focused on the current routine for another 30 days or so.  

5. Improve Your Routines

When you first start using a new routine, expect resistance...from yourself, mostly. Anything that requires change and increased self-discipline will feel uncomfortable, maybe even painful, at first. Don't mistake discomfort, lack of familiarity, or difficulty as a sign that your routine is bad or incomplete. Certainly all routines can be improved, but if you start tweaking your routine too soon, it will never become habitual. 

Try to stick with a new routine, as is, for at least a week before you make changes. After a week, consider the small tweaks that might improve your routine: rearranging the order, improving methods, changing the designated amount of time, adding or subtracting a step, or reorganizing the space or resources. After you've tweaked your routine, stick with it another week before you change it again. 

Once you feel confident with a routine and ready to start building another, try to leave the established routine alone. Tweaking an established routine while building a new routine (or two) can quickly lead to a pile-up of small changes and the disintegration of the stability you've gained from your routines. 

The power of a routine is in the fact that it becomes routine: you want it to be a default set of actions, second nature, a set of steps that you don't have to think about. If you continually tweak and adjust your routines, you limit the benefits of that routines power. If you find it hard to resist continually tweaking routines, then schedule it. Assign one day each month, or one week each quarter, to play with tweaking and improving routines. The rest of the time, let your routines be routine and do their magical work, so you don't have to.

6. Maintain Your Routines

Some routines will serve you well for a long time; others will need to be adjusted, rearranged, or even discarded as the needs of your life and work change. If you get promoted, for example, and trade one set of tasks for another, your old routines may no longer be helpful. You'll need to look at your new responsibilities and think about how you'll accomplish them in the most streamlined and effective way. 

Whenever you approach a major life or work change, take a little time to think about how your routines will be affected. The routines which don't have to be changed will help you stay grounded and effective as you deal with the stress of newness and change. Evaluate the routines which must change to fit your new situation, and follow the steps above to build new routines to replace the old, out-dated ones. 

Let Routines Do the Work

Routines are magical because they are calm, mundane, predictable, even a little boring. It's the boring repetition of a strong routine that keeps you grounded, enabling you to function effectively, even in the midst of chaos, a crazy work load, an unpredictable environment,   demanding clients, or other situational stressors. 

Routines in your life and your work allow you to follow well-placed tracks straight to the end goals you've chosen for yourself. They free up your creative power and self-discipline to be spent on higher, creative pursuits, while keeping the daily stuff of life in dependable working order. 

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