The Universal Path to Life-Giving Routine
Everyone needs routine. Everyone.
(Stop throwing stuff at me, you adventurers.)
People who are beautifully grounded in their spontaneity, who are in a posture of finding the next thing to explore, discover, or eat, still do things routinely. A monthly detox. A daily centering prayer. A commitment to always choosing a menu item they've never had before.
Routine is repetition tied to a certain task or time of day, and we all do the same stuff under the same sun.
Your routine looks different from mine based on all the regular variables - personality, life stage, vocation, goals - but we all need the grounding power of routine for more reasons than you might think.
Stuff You Might Already Know About Routine
It helps with decision fatigue.
We have a physiological limit on the number of decisions we can make in a day, so the more we can eliminate through anticipated repetition, the more we have available for things that come our way.
It creates dependable expectations.
If I know what's for dinner before breakfast is over, I can reasonably expect to have less stress at 4:30pm. If I routinely treat my leather boots, I can reasonably expect them to last longer. If I try to touch my toes every night, I can reasonably expect that I'll be able to do it eventually.
It provides inner security.
Automatically knowing what we're doing next is like scaffolding for the soul. If we create routine around what matters most deeply to us, we also create mental and spiritual margin to receive the unexpected - the comedy and tragedy - with more compassion for ourselves and others.
Stuff That Might Surprise You About Routine
The brain prioritizes repetition.
I don't pretend to have the scientific know-how to explain the data behind this adequately, so we'll go with something more universal. (Know your lane, y'all.)
Hands up if you've played Candy Crush. 2048? How about Dots? Snood was my first binge-y game in the college computer lab.
Our favorite smartphone games are not always our favorite because they're the best out there; they're our favorite because we play them all the time. We know what to expect. We have regular times we open the app. They're familiar and mindless and awesome.
But have you ever found yourself playing Candy Crush in your head? Like, when you're not actually playing Candy Crush? When I was on a major 2048 kick, I'd lie in bed and watch numbers slide around in my head without trying to. My brain continued to engage in what I repeated. The brain prioritizes repetition.
Things we do repeatedly - even questions we ask ourselves on a daily basis - get more mental priority than one-off thoughts, ideas, or commitments. Our brains work in the background on things we repeat. That's why you hear so many entrepreneurs say their best ideas come in the shower. They're already trying to solve a problem, asking themselves nuanced version of the same question about their business, customer, or product. The brain recognizes the regular presence of the question, keeps it at the front of the queue, and eventually creates opportunity for a compelling answer.
We call those lightbulb or aha moments, but that's misleading. Those ideas, those life-changing answers don't just happen. If you've ever listened to the podcast How I Built This (one of my new obsessive favorites), you've heard stories of big-time business people - the founders of Whole Foods, Dell Computers, Melissa and Doug, and Instagram. Never has the story begun with a random, single thought that sparked a major company. Those people had a problem to solve, and they thought about it constantly. They noticed how the problem played out around them at the grocery store and the bank, around the dinner table and at the dog park. The brain prioritized that repetition, creating a lightning rod for an eventual solution.
Your brain is doing the same thing. You just have to repeat the right thing.
Routines are the building blocks for big life change.
Sometimes the big changes comes first, requiring routine to keep them afloat. Other times, routine steadily builds to big life change, culminating in a new skill or goal accomplished.
Say you move to a new city. If you don't find places to get your morning coffee, buy your groceries every Thursday after work, or eat dinner with a new friend, your life in this new city will be hard. The big change came first, but without routine, you won't experience all the big change has to offer.
On the other side, you're not going to just pick up the violin and be awesome. In order to become good - good enough to experience the life change of playing with others or playing a piece that brings joy to your soul - you need a practice routine. You need to regularly engage with that violin, giving its presence in your life priority, eventually leading to a beautiful life change of being able to play an instrument that moves you.
It's virtually impossible to achieve or sustain big life change without routine.
The smaller, the better.
I've written and spoken about goals in recent months, and one of the most impactful components of how a Lazy Genius frames goals is in the daily small step. The Japanese call it kaizen which I have to mention because my husband is Japanese and I feel irrationally giddy to appropriate anything Japanese for you guys.
Kaizen is essentially the belief in the power of small steps. (This short book is a great overview if you're interested in digging deeper.) The smaller the step, the more likely you'll do it and the more likely you'll repeat it, leading to the brain prioritizing it even more.
We've all tried to start an exercise routine that we promptly quit. I love the idealism that I'll run three days a week when I barely walk around the block once a month. But the beauty and (as counterintuitive as it sounds) efficiency of the small step lies in our ability to stay on a path for longer than we have before. Even if we're tiptoeing, we're still there. We're still moving, and that's far better than standing still.
Small choices have more power than big ones do.
Routines are beautifully buildable.
I've always wanted to be a yogi. I want to be able to stand on my head and turn myself into a pretzel on a beach at sunset. Not to mention the collarbones. Have you noticed how amazing yogi collarbones are?
In my attempts to achieve this lofty goal, I'd grandly commit to doing at least 30 minutes of yoga a day. You don't need me to tell you how that whole situation turned out.
Four months ago, I committed to doing one down dog a day. Just the one pose. I mentioned it during an Instagram Live once, and a few of you were like, "Wait, what? Just the one pose? What good is that going to do?"
I understand the skepticism, but here I am, four months later, and I've built up to ten minutes of yoga every morning. I realize that ten minutes is still a small number, but it's forward movement on a path that matters to me, a path on which I'd previously clocked the sporadic thirty minutes amidst a bunch of guilty zeros.
Every day, I'd do one down dog, often right before I crawled into bed (because I'd forgotten), but I did it every day. It was too small to not do, and I marked it on my 30 Days of Small Steps sheet to help me form the tiny habit.
Eventually, I started remembering to do the pose first thing in the morning; my brain was giving priority to the repetition. Then the craziest thing happened. I started doing more than one pose. I know; it's mind-blowing stuff. I'd do one round of a sun salutation. Then a few weeks after that, I found myself doing three. Now, four months later, I'm doing maybe five rounds of sun salutations plus a few balancing poses before I begin the day.
One small step built on another small step, and I now do ten minutes of yoga every morning without having really changed anything about my life.
Routines allow you to build toward bigger goals that matter, one small step at a time.
Routine helps you identify what matters.
We have lofty aspirations of the people we want to be, and routine helps us weed out what aspirations should stick.
Let's say you want to be the kind of person who drinks hot tea every day. (That's about as non-threatening as an example can be, y'all.) Kaizen would say not to commit to drinking a cup of tea every day but instead commit to putting a tea bag on your desk or kitchen counter every day. That's your small step too simple to ignore. Seeing the tea bag is a reminder of your intention and might sometimes prompt you to boil the water, steep the tea, and sit still long enough to drink it. The small steps build on each other until you become a tea drinker and truly value it.
But what if every time you see the tea bag, you feel nothing? What if you have no desire to even attempt the tea? Maybe you don't actually care about drinking tea as much as you thought. The simplicity and repetition of routine helps weed out the aspirations that don't matter.
Once you've experienced the joy of taking the first step, you can decide whether it's appropriate to take another.
One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way
Creating Your Own Routine
All you need are six questions.
1. What kind of person do I want to be?
We've talked about this before, but the reminder is never a bad idea. Rather than thinking about what we want to do, let's try thinking about who we want to be. You can dig deeper into this question, asking yourself why it matters to be this person. What benefit does it serve you? Sometimes who we want to be is forced on us by well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) people. Starting with who you are as a person and who you want to be is the truest litmus test for getting rid of routines that will do you zero good.
I want to be the kind of person who can do a yoga headstand.
- Yoga is the best type of movement for my body (doctor's orders) and my soul (mental stillness is my nemesis).
- I am scared of my physical limits and want to safely breach those limits by standing on my head.
- A headstand is a difficult pose, one that requires a lot of small steps to get there, and I want to experience the process and gracefully show myself what I'm capable of.
2. What needs to happen regularly for this person to come alive?
I need to routinely do yoga, building on a foundation of strength and balance if I'll ever be able to stand on my head. I also need to believe I'm capable of something previously seen as beyond my abilities. Truth-talking is necessary.
And I need to be okay with falling.
3. What do I do regularly now that's building toward this person?
I'm starting every day with yoga! Honestly, I never thought that would actually happen. That one downward facing dog, man. Small steps.
I've also started meditating, a practice that's creating an awareness of my mental crazy and the skill set to be still. I feel like headstands need stillness? Just a guess.
4. What's my next small step?
Since I'm not even sure how to get into a headstand, my next step is to find out the first element, even if it's just putting my head on the floor. Then I'll do that element every time I practice yoga for at least a couple of weeks, not rushing to the next thing.
5. Where does this go in my day?
My morning yoga routine.
6. What's my reward?
Timeout. Let's talk about rewards.
This feels like shaky ground, right? We often see personal rewards the way we see our kids doing chores around the house. You live here! You're supposed to help out! Nobody pays me to clean the floor!
(I don't get riled up by that at all as you can tell.)
But I also see the benefits of giving an allowance or paying for certain chores in the context of a bigger lesson. Our kids need to learn how to manage money, and if they never have any of their own, they'll never learn. The same is true of us.
We're not very good at managing our own self-care, at learning to live with our dreams and desires in a healthy way. If our deepest longings - heck, even our most frivolous ones! - are met with a dismissive wave from within, we'll never learn to live with what makes us come alive.
So rather than roll our eyes at rewards, maybe we can embrace them one small step at a time.
If I put my head on the ground every day in an effort to build toward a headstand (assuming that's the first step), I'm honestly motivated by the reward of self-encouragement. I don't speak very well of myself and definitely to myself. It's a practice that's constant and has required a lot of therapy dollars. But if choose to tell myself that I'm strong, that I'm proud of my commitment to something so small, that I will one day be able to do this thing I never thought I could do, that's a truly beautiful gift. I don't often choose to speak those kinds of words to myself, so connecting them to a routined activity guarantees that I'll be kind to myself at least once every day.
Your reward doesn't have to be so rooted in personal baggage, but it's okay if it is. It's also okay if you reward your small step of a daily swept kitchen with thirty guilt-free minutes of reading your book or a square of chocolate. Maybe you want to be the kind of person who reads every day, so you drop a quarter into a jar every time you read for 15 minutes during your lunch time. Eventually you'll (in the form of actual cash) take those quarters to the local bookstore to get a new novel.
The smaller the reward, the better, just like the steps in a routine. Sometimes the reward is simply scribbling in one of those circles on the 30 Days of Small Steps sheet. You're simply affirming your intention with a positive reaction. There's nothing silly or guilty about that.
Building Multiple Routines At Once
Danger lies in doing too much at once, but it's possible to build multiple routines simultaneously.
The key? Start ridiculously small.
If you want to be the kind of person who has an hour of quiet before everyone wakes up, a person who has dinner prepped before school pick-up, and a published author, minuscule steps are vital.
When we fail at one thing, we often feel like we're failing at everything. I'm the poster child of this lovely phenomenon. I hurt my kid's feeling within an hour of accidentally going first at four-way stop when it wasn't my turn, and I can quickly spiral into feeling like I have failed at every relationship I've ever had. The number of times I've said out loud through snot-faced tears "I just feel like I'm failing everybody!!!" is embarrassingly high. Perhaps you're not as extreme as I am, but we all tend to be zero-sum failures. If we're bad at one thing, we're bad at everything.
Rather than setting the table for failure in these three desired routines, start so small that you can't possibly fail.
- If you want to have an hour of quiet before everyone wakes up, get out of bed five minutes earlier than usual. Not sixty. Five.
- If you want to have dinner prepped before school pick-up, know what you're having for dinner before school pick-up. No ingredients chopped. Just know.
- If you want to be a published author, keep your laptop open with your book proposal draft in plain sight. Don't work on it every day. Just look at it.
So in one scenario, you set yourself up for suddenly losing 5-7 hours of sleep a week, frantically trying to chop vegetables when you make your coffee (which you need more of because you're so freaking tired), and forcing yourself to stay awake after your kids go to bed because you have to write for an hour a day.
Or... (aren't you glad there's an or?)
You wake up five minutes earlier than usual, you decide to make tacos on your way to preschool, and you leave your book proposal open on the counter while you sweep the floor, thinking about the reader you want to impact.
One of those scenarios feels exceedingly better than the other.
If you want to create multiple routines at once, routines that are slowly crafting the person you want to be, you have to start small. Like, really small.
Here's where it gets fun.
The better the foundation of your routines, the more likely you are to continue them.
The smaller the steps, the stronger the growth.
I told you that I started doing one down dog pose a day which grew into ten minutes of yoga most mornings. I've also added meditation, prayer, one cup of coffee alone, and a playlist to my morning routine. The down dog snowballed.
And as I experience the beautiful benefits of space in the morning to become centered in who I am, I desire the same benefits in other areas, at other times of day. One small step at a time, I'm developing routines around other things that matter to me. One of those areas is my skin, namely caring enough about myself to spend time on something that seems so frivolous and unimportant but does indeed matter.
It started out with just washing my face. It didn't matter how. I didn't have a million steps. I just wanted to wash my face every night rather than fall into bed. As I quickly spent time scrubbing my face with a wet washcloth, allowing my brain to prioritize the repetition of that decision, I found myself heading to the bathroom a minute or two earlier than before so that I could use a magical cleansing oil that makes me feel special. Then I added a playlist of music to listen to as I get ready for bed that settles my mind and makes me smile. The small step of just washing my face has become a domino routine of four skincare steps plus music and pajamas I love and a book on the nightstand. That last step is one I'm still working on. I want to read in bed before I sleep, so my small step right now is keeping a book on my nightstand. Sometimes I pick it up, sometimes I don't, but it's there as a reminder of a routine I'm hoping to build.
Routines domino. Enjoy the process of discovery as they do.
A Final Word of Freedom
I've always been good at order. If you need a kitchen organized or a step-by-step plan to clean it, I will not fail you. But for most of my life, I've depended on order to keep me safe and worth keeping around. It's often been my drug of choice, my addictive behavior to keep me from dealing with the junk inside. But guess what? I'm still really good at order. I still love routine and lists and knowing what's coming. It can be part of how I'm made without being a crutch. (If you're an Enneagram junkie or want a peek inside my head, listen to this song. And if you're an Enneagram One, this is my playlist for us.)
If you sometimes feel that order is dangerous, that it makes you become a version of yourself you don't like, I'd like to offer an alternative. And if you're simply a person who doesn't like to plan and doesn't understand anything that I'm talking about, this alternative works for you, too.
Routine isn't about control; it's a path to becoming who we most deeply are.
Think about anyone who's accomplished anything. Olympians, doctors, Etsy shop owners, marathon runners, gardeners, handlers at a dog show... they all started with one small step. They developed routines that led them to becoming true versions of themselves. Marathon runners start by walking around the block. Gardeners start with one potted tomato plant. Dog handlers walked a dog in a park before they were in front of judges.
Routine doesn't have to be restrictive. In fact, if you see it that way, you'll give up. Routine is the path, the stepping stones and edges and orange lines spray-painted on obtrusive tree roots that keep us safely moving toward what matters.
Be a genius about the things that matter and lazy about the things that don't is not just a tagline. It's a way of life.
Decide what matters and take small steps to get there. Leave the baggage and unneeded expectations behind. Develop routines with grace. Be exceedingly patient with the sometimes frustrating pace. Remember that you're building a strong foundation of who you are and who you want to become. The slower and smaller you go, the quicker it will actually happen.
I'm cheering you on.
And don't forget to check out The Lazy Genius Podcast episodes about routine.
- The Lazy Genius Morning Routine
- The Lazy Genius Evening Routine
- The Lazy Genius Cleaning Routine
- The Lazy Genius Movement Routine
- The Lazy Genius Dinner Routine