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The Art of Routine

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Fri, Sep 21st 2012

Each weekday morning, a familiar series of events ensues at our house. My husband and I rise at the same time, but he heads for the shower while I head for the kitchen. While he gets ready for work, I prepare his food for the day. I have a list of nine things to put in his lunch container (yep, I'm sounding a little compulsive now), and I check them off in my brain as I put them in the bag. On most mornings, my husband is ready to leave shortly after I've put his lunch in his backpack.

checking off listSounds boring, doesn't it? Yet for us, it's an efficient way to start the day, considering that he works outside of the house while I work from home. It's also comforting in the way familiar routines can be. And perhaps most importantly - according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business - it frees up our brains to think about more important things such as, "What in the world am I going to write about today?"

Duhigg scoured oodles of research studies on habitual behavior to find out why we create routines in our lives and how they serve us (for better or worse). A habit starts out as a conscious decision to do something a certain way because we think it will save us time, ensure we do it correctly (or at all), or simply because we think it is good for us. If we feel rewarded for the behavior, we eventually stop consciously deciding to perform it - we just do it. And when we don't have to think about it anymore, we suddenly have more free space in our brains to solve complex problems, cultivate new ideas, and even daydream.

That's right - humdrum routines can actually bolster creativity by giving us the mental space to exercise it. But we have to make sure our routines are still serving that purpose.

Life is funny and ever-changing. I recall a habit I once had several years ago that entailed doing several calisthenic exercises in the morning. I developed the habit in graduate school because I rarely had time to go to the gym. However, when I completed school, I began running and hiking regularly. Though I loved this, I found myself unusually fatigued. When I reassessed my habits, I realized that I was still doing daily calisthenics - even on the days I went running or hiking. No wonder I was exhausted! But that habit was so ingrained that I didn't realize it had morphed from a healthy habit to a potentially unhealthy one until my body forced me to listen to it.

My point is that every now and then, we need to reassess our routines to ensure that they are still serving us well and creating that mental space we need to be creative and on top of our game. Think about the routines that create the framework for your days, such as getting ready for work, answering emails and phone calls, eating, exercising, completing chores, and getting ready for sleep, to name just a few. Then ask yourself:

  • Is this routine healthy or unhealthy?
  • Does this routine save time or waste time?
  • Does this routine reduce or increase anxiety for me?
  • Does this routine help me achieve my goals?

If you decide that a routine is no longer very helpful, you now have the power to adjust or completely change it to meet your current needs. Reevaluate your habits whenever your circumstances change, such as when you switch jobs, leisure activities, or living arrangements. Use the art of routine to your advantage, because good routines are crucial to enhancing our well-being and daily functioning.


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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