How To Craft A Routine For Everyday Success
Illustration by Mr Francesco Ciccolella
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” wrote the poet Mr WH Auden, whose timetable is recorded, along with those of other luminaries, in journalist Mr Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals. Auden was up at 6.00am, then work fuelled by coffee and amphetamines (maybe after a pass at the crossword), lunch, more work, then cocktails at 6.30pm sharp.
Stoic self-help author Mr Ryan Holiday prefers “practices”, such as reading, exercise, walking, reflection and journalling, which can be performed as and when and stresses the need for adaptability. A rigid routine, he warns, is fragile.
Which is all the more reason, to my anxious mind, to erect a bulwark, however makeshift, against chaos. You won’t always be able to adhere to a routine, but things will invariably run more smoothly if you can. It’s not about being stuck in a rut; it’s about getting into a groove. Here are five ways you can use a routine to achieve everyday success.
Whether it’s work or exercise, the hardest part is getting started, which is where a pre-game or pre-whatever-it-is routine comes in (well, just before that). According to Mr James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, this should consist of a series of steps that pull you into work or exercise mode, the first so easy that you can’t say no. His writing routine starts with pouring a glass of water, while his weightlifting routine starts with putting on his weightlifting shoes. I’d put on my shorts first, but that’s just me.
My writing routine starts with making (or ordering) coffee, sitting down at a desk or table, setting up my laptop and browsing two favourite football websites (and only those two). In this way, I’ve created what Clear calls a “motivation ritual”, associating something I enjoy (drinking coffee and reading about football) with something I don’t always (work).
A pre-whatever-it-is routine should include some physical movement, even if it’s just going to sit at a desk. Move and it is likely that motivation will come along for the ride. The primary goal is establishing and repeating a pattern: this is what you do before you do that.
Routine might not sound all that creative, but it reliably summons the muse on cue. Evolutionarily, the ability to perform habitual actions on autopilot freed human brains to invent fire, tools and TikTok. Conversely, people who suffer injuries to the habit-forming part of the brain, the basal ganglia, become paralysed by even the simplest processes, such as turning on a light switch.
In his book Deep Work, computer science professor and productivity expert Mr Cal Newport gives the example of Mr Charles Darwin’s regimen while perfecting On The Origin Of Species to illustrate how “those who use their minds to create valuable things” often stick to strict routines that allow them more easily to get into the headspace where they could push their brains to their limits and stay there longer.
The optimal deep-work routine is individual to you, writes Newport, but should address several key considerations.
• Where: ideally a dedicated location, but it could just be at your desk with the door closed or a “Do not disturb” on it.
• How long: the aim is a concentrated burst and not an endless slog.
• How: with restrictions (eg, on phone or internet use or message checks) and output metrics (eg, word count) so you know you’re on track and stay there.
• And support: raw materials to hand and organised, food and drink on tap, light exercise (eg, walking) – whatever your brain needs to fire on all cylinders.
A routine enables you to bake in desired behaviours you might otherwise deviate from, such as exercise and eating healthily. You can ringfence time for – or better still, diarise – physical activity, plan what you’re going to do (and a fallback option), get your kit out ready and minimise friction. Having a set time for exercise – an advantage of fitness classes and sessions with a personal trainer – also locks you in (“a pre-commitment strategy”). If you think you’ll just exercise whenever, that often becomes never.
Having to think about exercise at all increases the chance you won’t do it. Clear writes about “decisive moments” that can send you down the right or wrong path – for him, changing into his workout gear at 5.15pm when his wife comes in from work and going to the gym together or flopping on the couch and ordering a takeaway. As far as possible, you want to make exercise habitual.
For a few months I tried to exercise in the evening after work only for events of the day to conspire against or just plain knacker me. So now I squeeze in my training, with much greater consistency, after preparing breakfast for my family and before the day runs away with me.
Determined though they are to play havoc with it, children like routine, which gives them comfort and reassurance. Routine can also reduce stress for adults, not just parents (only another 12 hours to bedtime).
Research by Dr Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut, and colleagues found that inducing anxiety made subjects’ behaviour more “ritualised”, which is to say repetitive. The researchers believe rituals provide a sense of regularity, predictability and control. Our brains are “active prediction machines”, says Xygalatas, constantly crunching data to ensure our survival, and rituals are “mental technologies” that can hack and aid the downregulation of our system.
Stress, which can interfere with thinking clearly and learning and remembering information, is not conducive to everyday success. Athletes’ pre-game routines or rituals are partly about reducing anxiety so they can perform.
When does routine become ritual? That depends partly on the number of scented candles, but mostly on the attitude. Anything can be a ritual provided it’s repeated over and over again in the same way. Meditating. Going for a walk. Making tea or coffee. Or, as I did for nearly a year from the outbreak of the pandemic, having a bath every Friday night with a can of BrewDog Punk IPA.
A routine can also get you out of a groove, especially important when working from home, aka living at work. A shutdown ritual, in which you review every outstanding task, goal or project and satisfy yourself that you have a plan for its completion, or have captured it to be dealt with later, is worth the extra time so you can properly switch off, restore your attention and let your unconscious process information and precipitate shower thoughts.
Newport checks his inbox one last time for any messages that require a reply, transfers any uncaptured tasks to the relevant lists, skims them and his calendar to make sure no deadlines or meetings are creeping up, makes a rough plan for the next day then says out loud, “Shutdown complete.” Cheesy, he admits, but a set phrase cues your conscious mind to deactivate work mode.
Then don’t check your email or even think about work. A shutdown ritual must be honoured.