We have all been at a point in our life where we said to ourselves, “enough is enough, I am going to be more productive from this day onward”. You start setting all kinds of crazy goals, like making an exercise and diet plan, or telling yourself that you will now finally start to learn that new language you’ve always wanted to know. Fast forward a week from now and likely your life will have been no different than it was before you made all these promises to yourself. Trust me, I know this feeling all too well and it sucks.
How come we are so sporadic to change our life one day, but completely lose this the next?
This sweet rush of wanting to turn your life around is what is called intrinsic motivation, and also explains why most people fail to stick with it. Motivation is very similar to emotions, they come and go, which can often appear at random times. Once this feeling has worn off, so has your desire to see through the change you wanted to make. Most people do not have the discipline to keep working at it once the initial motivation has worn off.
This however does not mean you are lazy or unmotivated. It is simply indicative of a lack of structure in your life, a lack of a routine.
What is a routine and why is it so important?
A routine is essentially a set of tasks that are completed in a certain order and repeated each day. Take the most basic example of a routine: taking a shower after you wake up, eating your breakfast, and then brushing your teeth.
Everyone in the world has many routines like this all throughout the day, and for most of us, we do this on autopilot. Our brain is so used to doing the same thing in the morning we don’t even have to think about it.
The main reason it is so easy for us to do this, is because our brains love certainty and structure.
As David Rock from psychology today said: “Your brain craves certainty and avoids uncertainty like it’s pain”. The brain loves nothing more than a routine!
To put it into simpler terms, the brain loves a routine simply because it requires less energy. The brain will have to work much harder if you are unorganized and constantly asking yourself what you have to do next. But if its running a nice routine on autopilot, it gives the brain much more space for clearer thinking.
What does a good routine look like?
I will use my personal routine here as it has served me very well and allowed me to be very productive with my time. It was a routine I planned out when I was in my doing my bachelors in engineering and really helped me get that degree.
Lets see what I did and why!
I woke up at 5:30 in the morning sharp. This meant that my alarm would go off and I’d be out of bed. I would eat a light breakfast snack, usually a banana or other piece of fruit. Then at 5:45 I would be out the door going to the gym (on my rest days, I would replace my gym time with either reading or getting started on studying one of my courses). Once I got back home I would take a shower and eat breakfast.
I followed this morning routine religiously. While in the beginning my brain did a lot of complaining, as it was used to a lot of snoozing and getting up late, after about a month or so it became the most normal thing in the world.
Once I was done with breakfast it would usually be around 8:30am depending on how long the gym session was. I would then devote all my time until 12:00 noon for studying.
Note that I never made specific routines for my study times, as it would always be changing. Some days I might have to go to class to do practicals, while others were just self-studies. The only thing I did was devote my time to my studies.
A big mistake often made in the making of routines is the idea that people have full control over their lives, which often is not true. Therefore loosely defining my school routine allowed me to deal with the variability that is university life quite easily.
From 12:00-14:00 I would make and eat my lunch, as well as spend the remainder of that time just relaxing a bit. From 14:00-18:00 I would once again devote all my time to my studies.
I would have dinner around 18:30 and spend the evening either with friends or just relaxing in my room. As with the morning routine, I kept this time quite open because in the weeks where we had midterms or project work due I would be working till I went to bed.
At 21:00 my evening routine began with closing off all electronics and I would read another chapter or so in a book. Then at 21:45 I would look for a nice place to stop reading, and go brush my teeth. This ensured that the moment the clock hit 22:00, I was in bed.
Some tips for you to make a great routine
- List all items you wish to complete
It is best to make 2 lists. In the first list you are going to write down all the items you do on a daily basis that are reoccurring everyday. This means breakfast, brushing your teeth, walking the dog etc. These are all specific tasks that have to be completed every single day.
The second list consists of items that have some kind of variability to them. Like in my personal routine, my studies was seen as variable, because on some days I had to self-study, some days I had practicals, and other days I had tests and mid-terms. These are the activities that simply wont be doing every single day.
2. Schedule your day
Divide your day into the morning, afternoon, and evening sections. It is important that you cater your routine to each stage of the day properly.
The morning is all about getting out of bed and being productive. Numerous studies have concluded that people are most productive in the mornings before noon.
At noon, the productivity sees a decrease in relation to the morning. Have your lunch and take a break here. If you are doing cognitive heavy task, I really recommend you take a nap of no more than 20 minutes. Personally this gives me a great boost and I really struggle to work productively if I miss this nap.
The evenings are all about preparing you for a goodnight sleep. We have all heard that sleep is enhanced if we stay of our computer and mobile phone screens about an hour before we sleep. This is very true and my quality of sleep has seen improvement since I cut my usage of these devices one hour before I go to bed.
3. Fill in the tasks and practice the routine
Now that you have your tasks and know how to schedule your day, all you have to do is write it down. Once you have a manageable routine, I suggest you stick with it for at least 30 days. Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power Of Habit” explains that it takes the brain roughly 28 days to normalize activities.
It will likely be that your brain complains for the first few days, but this feeling will gradually subside over time. I promise you that!