"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
The Challenge: Daily Morning and Evening Routines
In the past four months of training for a marathon, I revisited years of notes and ideas about the optimal components of a healthy lifestyle. After lots of reading and reflection, it occurred to me: to get the biggest impact with the simplest effort, I need to commit to daily morning and evening routines.
Daily routines are a form of “habit chain.” If three beneficial habits are flossing, brushing your teeth and using a gentle homemade mouthwash, then a habit chain is doing each of these things in sequence. When you’re standing in front of your sink, ready to clean your teeth, that’s your cue to begin the chain. One beneficial task follows the other seamlessly, and you don’t waste critical willpower or decision-making energy on each step. It becomes as natural as putting on your underwear, your pants and then your shirt.
When it comes to maximizing your health, there are so many positive habits you could take on, it’s overwhelming. Lots of us would love to read every day, connect with a loved one, meditate, exercise, learn a language, practice good posture, set or review goals … and the list goes on. A simple search or some research on social media can generate tons of great ideas to help you get the most out of each day. Once you get clear on your personal values, you should narrow down the possibilities. Once you’ve done that, you can work out a habit chain (or two) that incorporates what you need.
Decision fatigue is a real thing. We expend mental energy whenever we’re not on autopilot, so why not reserve that mental energy for meaningful work, for creative projects and for effectively handling emergencies and putting out the little fires that always demand our attention. A daily routine/habit chain can help you conserve energy by letting you tackle your self-care more or less on autopilot. The best habits will generate more energy to fuel the rest of your day.
In my own quest to prioritize self-care, I created the following daily routines.
You can tell from this breakdown that many links in my habit chain are actually mini-habit chains themselves. For example, adding values writing and mission writing to the obligatory bathroom visit first thing in the morning. Also, easing out of phone/digital screen land while I food prep and tidy the kitchen. You could add more mini-steps like these, such as setting the thermostat and shutting blackout curtains to create an ideal environment for quality sleep.
I’m for crafting a habit chain with no more than five explicit links. Any more and I’d start to feel overwhelmed.
Some Notes about Time Management
When I started implementing these habits on a daily basis, my morning routine might take up to 3.5 hours or more. I realize this is ridiculous and unsustainable. It took so long because I a.) had the freedom and time to burn, and b.) had the motivation to pursue loftier innercise and exercise sessions, like 30- or 45-minute guided meditations and two-hour long runs.
I imagine relatively few people have this kind of freedom and time to burn. I certainly don’t always have it, which is why I now practice limiting myself to 10-minute innercise and exercise sessions. These sessions are enough to feel a sense of accomplishment, and they’ve allowed me to shave down my morning routine to a solid hour and change. With more practice, I think I can be even more efficient (less walking from room to room to retrieve running shoes, hats, meditation pillows) and take a bit less time.
Your motivation will wax and wane, so it’s important to practice that concise and simple routine so you can fall into it on autopilot on the hard days. Just getting four or five things checked off your list should help boost your mood and maintain your sanity. On those wonderful days of high-energy, exquisite freedom and prodigious willpower, you might tackle a more difficult meditation session, cooking bonanza or comprehensive strength training workout during your morning routine … or later on. Don’t expect to do it very often.
I’ve come to think of my routines as maintenance. With persistent daily devotion, the incremental benefits start to add up. If my goals call for a bigger boost in one area or another (like an endurance workout or revamping my goals), I’ll plan it or just let it happen during some free time.
Finally, it’s worth considering the time management implications of sleep schedules and deficits. If you get home at ten and have a 5 a.m. flight the next morning, do you sacrifice your sleep to finish your routines? One night of disturbed sleep seems acceptable to me, especially if I have an opportunity to nap the next day. Also, getting up early after you were late getting to bed can make you really tired the following night, and thus more able to fall asleep at a reasonable hour and kickstart a positive sleep schedule. Things get trickier when multiple nights of sleeplessness are at stake, like when the chaos of living on the road threatens the stability of your daily routines.
I’m nervous about the impact of my own upcoming roadtrip on my daily routines, so I’m mentally preparing myself as best as I can by creating a gentle expectation that I will prioritize my daily routines in transit and also visualizing myself doing these routines in all kinds of places and situations. I’m also trying something new to add some accountability.
Some studies suggest it takes at least 21 days to acquire a new habit. Since I’m not particularly gifted with focus and follow-through, I thought I’d go the extra mile and join the bandwagon of 30-day challenge enthusiasts.
Early this month I tracked my daily routines on a sheet of paper in my productivity journal. I got to seven days of full morning and evening routines before I fell off the cart. It was mother’s day weekend and I had a schedule that included a wedding, a baby shower, two work shifts that lasted past 11 p.m., a double shift and an online teaching obligation. I kept it up for the first two days, then I faltered, then I completely dropped the ball.
I wanted to sleep in on mornings after I got home from work at midnight. Most evenings I felt a deep, anxious desire to zone out in front of the TV rather than crack a book.
I reached out to my partner and told him, “Hey, this is what I want to do. I hope you’ll support me in this.” It didn’t really help. I wasn’t specific enough, and my partner is too busy with his own goals, obligations and late-night TV binging to offer the kind of support that would make a big difference.
So I’m turning to social media. It may help me stay more consistent. It may not. It might just be an interesting way to force me to reflect on this challenge day by day. It could be a nice way to connect with people over their own daily routines and struggles with diligent practice. It might be the start of an unhealthy obsession with getting likes, comments, and flattering selfies (I hope not). We’ll see. I’ll let you know.
If you’d like to follow my journey, you can connect with me on Instagram @samantha.thinks.out.loud or on Facebook or Twitter @Samantha_Sprole.