Establishing Positive Habits and Routines

Mike writes in:

If I had to evaluate myself, I’d say one of my largest challenges is my ability to maintain self-discipline. There are always innumerable personal projects I’d like to dive into. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that almost all of them slip away from me. I’m an undergraduate in computer science, and I feel like the same problem extends to my academic pursuits. Creating a regular study routine in college has proven quite a daunting task for me.

I don’t think the problem is my ambition. I’m quite passionate about both my studies and my hobbies. I’ve come to the conclusion that habit and routine are the essential factors that are missing from my life. Perhaps this is a personality trait I lack; but I have a hunch that this is something many individuals wrestle with. Do you have any techniques or thoughts on how I might be able to ensure the cultivation of habit and routine in my life? I feel as though this stability will be something I could leverage for the rest of my life.

For much of my college career, I had the same problem. I’ve always been able to focus in on one thing, but establishing patterns and routines was always a challenge. I would be aware that I should be doing one thing, but there was always something else going on that would intrigue me more in the moment, and then I’d find myself pushing up against deadlines.

By the time my penultimate year rolled around, I realized I had to do something different. My GPA wasn’t where it needed to be and, although I had actually completed several nice projects over my college career (including writing my first novel, which will never be published), I still had a very hard time establishing daily routines.

How to Establish a Positive Daily Routine

1. Start Small

Many people who aren’t naturally routine-oriented start off by attempting to establish a ton of routines at once – and then they fail miserably. I know this from personal experience, as I tried many times to establish routines of my own and watched others fail at it as well.

The trick is to start very small. Focus on establishing just one simple routine in your life, and give yourself a month to do it.

Instead of establishing an elaborate daily study routine, instead just pick a very small block of time to devote each day to reading. Instead of building up a morning routine with lots of activities, focus on just one activity after you wake up, like brushing your teeth.

Spend some time thinking about the single, simple routine you want to establish. A good “starting” routine is one that is simple, one that involves something you would have to do anyway (like homework or hygiene), and one that you’ll repeat quite often – a daily routine is a good one. Later on, as you get used to establishing routines, you can move on to more complex routines.

2. Make Effective Reminders

The most common problem that many people have with establishing new routines is simply remembering to do them at the appropriate time. If you normally wake up and start on your day, it can be hard to always remember to start off by, say, brushing your teeth. Why? Quite often, it’s because you already are entrenched in a set of routines – and breaking those routines is quite hard.

In truth, the challenge with establishing new routines is that you usually have to break old ones to establish new ones. You might not think that your mornings have a routine in place, for example, but, quite often, there is a subtle but powerful routine already there, one that incorporates a small handful of variations that, together, make your mornings seem rather random and chaotic. Thus, even though your morning seems very un-routine and it seems as though you can’t add a new routine because things are so irregular, quite often the opposite is the truth – you have a routine and breaking that routine is difficult.

So, how can you break through that resistance? The best way to do it is to think about your change in routine consciously at the very moment you need that thought, and the best way to do that is through a reminder.

It’s often difficult to know exactly when or where you’ll need that reminder, though, so I suggest trying a bunch of reminders when you’re starting a new routine. Let’s say, for example, you want to get in the habit of brushing your teeth as soon as you wake up. You can start by putting your toothbrush in the place where you always go first thing in the morning, then putting notes in various places that you might otherwise go. Stick that brush on your bedside table, then put notes in your pants pockets or right in the middle of the mirror in your bedroom. You’ll soon find that one of those reminders is the one that always works, so you can quickly reduce the effort to focusing on that one key reminder.

3. Repeat Until It’s Natural

Replacing one routine with another usually takes one to two months. Until then, you continually run a risk of falling back into your old routine without the new habit ingrained in it.

For me, I often found that the reminder I would set up carefully for myself would become part of my routine. I began to expect to find my toothbrush on the table when I woke up, for example, and that led naturally into brushing my teeth. I began to expect to carry only the materials I needed for studying in my backpack, so that when I went to the library between classes, all I would have on hand is the required study materials. When this type of expectation happens, it’s a very good sign. It means that, at least in part, you’ve adapted to the new routine.

The final threshold to ensure that your new routine is natural is that you can easily remove any inconvenient reminders and still succeed in accomplishing the routine. Take down your reminder notes, for example, and see if you still go through the routine as normal.

4. Add One New Piece at a Time

Once you’ve managed to establish one new routine, add another one. Go through the same procedure – find one you actually want to add, set up a bevy of reminders so that you think about it when you need to, and keep those reminders in place until you just simply do whatever it is that you’re trying to establish.

For me, I found that once I had added three or four routines to my life, it suddenly became very easy for me to establish further routines. I no longer had to really think about it after the first few days of a new routine. That’s not to say I lost all spontaneity or anything, but that when I needed to take care of things on a regular basis, it became much, much easier to get used to those routine tasks.

The end result? My GPA went up significantly each of my final three semesters in college while, at the same time, I was working harder than ever at a side job. Quite simply, learning how to add routines to my life made me much more productive than before.

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