Updated on 09.19.14

Establishing Positive Habits and Routines

Trent Hamm

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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  1. For Mike: I can’t help but recommend Leo Babauta’s ZenHabits blog and accompanying book (The Power of Less). They’are all about how to develop habits that will take you where you want to go.

  2. The idea of small steps is some of the best advice you can give for setting up habits and routines. The concept has another name, Kaizen, and many good books have been written about it. I would suggest checking a Kaizen book out of the library because it will discuss each of the steps listed above in even more detail if you are interested.

  3. Miranda says:

    I especially like the idea of starting small. When you start out too big, expectations are unreasonable and you end up giving up in frustration. I like to working on developing one positive habit at a time, and then move on to the next. It creates a natural progression, and I am only trying to work on one thing at once.

  4. This is great advice, especially with respect to building on newly-established good habits. I’ve found great success with that technique in the area of fitness (15 minutes on the treadmill for a couple of weeks, then 30, then add 15 minutes of weights, and so on).

  5. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    The best example I can think of in my own life is taking a shower and getting “dressed” for work even on days I work from home.

    I am usually able to get about 10x more done with just this little change in habit!

  6. viola says:

    These steps also apply to scaling back spending and increasing savings. When saving more than you spend becomes a habit, it no longer feels like hard work.

  7. J says:

    While the suggestions on routine for lifestyle components such as studying, completing projects, practicing skills, etc… are good, I would hope that most adults don’t need multiple post-it reminders to brush their teeth.

    perhaps an example of starting a routine for a healthy breakfast/lunch (preparing the night before, cutting up veggies when getting home from the grocery store, etc) would have been more useful.

  8. KMc says:

    I had the same problem in college, largely because each day was so different from the next. One day I’d go to class at 10 AM and 3 PM, the next I’d only have class at 6 PM. It seemed like my free time was just frittered away because of this lack of regularity and there wasn’t much I could do: I had to go to class at the time it was offered if I wanted to take it. Luckily, I found life easier to manage when I started working after graduation. My only advice would be to look at your schedule and find segments of time that are free every day and create routines for those period. If you are always free between 4PM and 5 PM, for example, maybe that’s the hour you spend at the library/gym/etc.

  9. “Once you’ve managed to establish one new routine, add another one.”

    I found this was the easiest way for me. I added writing, then reading. I try to take it slow.


  10. Lou says:

    When I was trying to complete my major project for post graduate study, I found it difficult to set aside time to do the work. The project was boring and I lacked motivation, but I was so close to completion that I didn’t want to give up (I came close several times).

    What finally worked was promising myself to spent at least half an hour every day working on the report. If after half an hour I was over it, I’d put it away for the day feeling happy that I had made at least some progress, but many times I would spend longer simply because I had gotten into the groove. The hardest part was always getting started. Knowing I had done my half an hour for the day meant that I could enjoy whatever else I had planned because I didn’t feel guilty.

    The upshot was, I completed my project, got a good mark and recieved my graduate certificate – and then got a job in my new field. Well worth it.

  11. Great Article!
    One way to get into a new routine is to reward yourself. For example, if you have been writing one article a day on your new blog for the last week, take a day off! Routines don’t have to be rigid.

  12. I have encountered people who are so set in their ways that they will never change, never adapt, never compromise…don’t be that person. If you find yourself entrenched in a routine it may be difficult for you to capitalize on opportunities that come your way. Establish habits and routines which are healthy and promote personal growth, not ones that stifle your potential.

  13. Kim @ money for disney says:

    I need this article! I am a naturally random thinker. No routine comes naturally to me. I’ve always cleaned my house “as needed” and felt like I was always working but never seeing results. Over the past months, I have slowly implemented a morning routine. I now have a clean house routine that only takes me about an hour a day. My house is much nicer and I have tons of free time!

  14. jonatsgoants says:

    Right, starting small is the way to go but do not forget to look at the bigger picture. Break it down to small steps that you could do. That way, you will not feel a big burden on your shoulders.

  15. Anelly says:

    I think being able to maintain self-discipline is one of the greatest challenges during someone’s life.

  16. Margaret says:

    ‘Quite often, it’s because you already are entrenched in a set of routines – and breaking those routines is quite hard.’

    You have identified exactly why most people think they have troubles building routines. Thank you! That is a point so often missed in various discussions on this issue.

  17. Sharon says:

    This may be a bit off-target for Mike’s question, but one strategy might be to identify a role model. For example, I had a roommate in college who was a great student. Since we naturally spent a lot of time together, it was eay to figure out and emulate her strategies for studying. This method may be helpful if you know what outcome you want, but you aren’t sure what habits or strategies you need to adopt.

  18. Andrea says:

    Here is a little different twist on this. I am the mother of three boys, 24, 19 and 4. Yes, its a big gap and that has so much benefit for the youngest.

    In a sense it’s almost a do over for me. I parent him in a much differnt way, mostly becuase I am a different person, but also because I have made it to the adult phase with almost two of them and have the perspective of what is really important (ie sparkling house is not important).

    This post really hits nerve of ‘kids’ who lack the ability to focus. One of the things that I have been working on with DS3 is sitting and doing one activity for a period of time. As the parent, I have the right (and responsibilty) to ask him to play a game, color or play with a specific toy for a set amount of time by himself.

    Starting out for a short period of time (5 minutes) at first and then stretching that out over the course of weeks and months. When he wants to quit it is my job to help him stay on task and keep at it. I’ve already heard from the preschool that he works very well independently and stays at the center when that is the assignment. So early indications are that this concept is working.

    I didnt get it completely right the first time around, so I am much more focused on giving the youngest a set of skills that will serve him well, long after he is grown and into adulthood.

    I am not always great at staying on task myself, but after learning about the concept in the toddler phase, I have found success that even this ol dog can learn a new trick. Perhaps parent readers can work on this idea too and the next generation will not have the same issues we adults have.

  19. steve says:

    “there are always innumerable personal projects beckoning to me”

    if you’re at all like me, you have an unrealistic sense of time and a sense that there’s plenty of time “later” to get done what you need to get done, whereas in fact you end up discovering that there really isn’t all that much time in the end and things get left unstarted and undone.

    Try this: For a period of about 2 hours a day, do the first thing that’s in the back of your mind or on your mind that you know needs to be done–and do it right then.

    All the negative feelings and resistances will easily go by the wayside if you just focus on that.

    This will develop a habit of doing things when you think of them, instead of later, which is an important micro-habit to form. Later on you can start cherry-picking tasks by priorities, but for now just try doing the first somewhat important thing that is on your mind (instead of just thinking about it).

    Try it.

  20. DPT says:

    I agree. Sometimes, a new routine comes down to being able to provide for and enable it. When I try to start my morning running routine, it’s important for me to take time and eat a piece of toast with jam to be able to have some energy for exercising. But simply, the time it takes for the bread to toast makes me want to go back to bed.
    So I think I need a different method. :-)

  21. Margaret says:

    I have this problem too. One way that it manifests for me is that my house is a mess. Everyone once in a while I get it all cleaned up, but then it falls back into chaos. Two sources to help deal with it are http://www.flylady.com, and that is based on the book “From Pigpen to Paradise”. They deal with housekeeping, but you might find you get some good insights into why you are the way you are when you read them. I certainly did.

  22. Margaret says:

    I love the role model idea. I adopted a mentor for myself when I had my first child. Her help and advice was invaluable. She has since passed away but I think of her every day and often frame my decisions on important matters on how I think she may have acted or upon the advice she may have given.

    Using a timer helps me to focus on a task. It helps to stop me getting side tracked. I find 15 minutes is a really good time block for most things. After 15 minutes, I stop generally unless the task is so interesting I keep going. If the job is particularly onerous, I set the timer for a break, then get back to it for another 15 minutes and so on till the job is done.

    That and lists. Got to have my lists! The lists are short, realistic and manageable and only for the day at hand. I get a great deal of satisfaction crossing stuff off the list. I know, getting all excited over lists… I just gotta get a life!

  23. “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”

    So true. People want to change their life overnight. Taking things one at a time works so much better.

    Life may be short, but it is also LONG! Take your time… you won’t die tommorrow. And if you do, then changing a habit IMMEDIATELY won’t help anyway. :)

  24. ElaineSS says:

    All of these concepts … building habits, doing tasks for a short period of time (15 mins), & adding change slowly … are concepts that the FlyLady advocates (www.flylady.net) … and she does it in a humorous way … Check her out!!

  25. steve says:

    Identifying a role model who is high-achieving in the area you are interested in is a good idea. Then when you can get into the habit of asking yourself, “ok, what would (so-and-so) do right now in this situation?”, which pops you into a different thought pattern and will easily drive you into a more effective use of time.

  26. Alisa says:

    Thanks for the great article! My problem has always been creating and following a to-do list. It seems as if I am always in crisis-mode and what should just be a simple task ends up being a project. Instead of doing a load of laundry a day I end up having mountains of laundry to do and will spend the entire day trying to get that area caught up. Of course this causes other routine tasks to get behind and the cycle continues. I did end up creating a rough schedule for the day/week of how to divide my time and then started plugging in my routine tasks in the appropriate slot. I don’t always do everything on my list just yet and will keep your comments in mind to start small.

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