On Routine

There is a series of events each morning that can usually set my day up to be a good one. They include getting up with my alarm, having time for tea and coffee with Jordan, and not having to rush around like a mad woman.

However, our actual mornings only go that way about half of the time. More often, Jordan snoozes our alarm ten times until we’re almost late, we both jump out of bed and he races to take the dogs out while I race to go to the bathroom. We brush our teeth, grab bananas for the road, and we’re out the door, feeling disheveled and tired.

This morning was one of those mornings, hence this post. I didn’t even have time to put on deodorant, so I’m feeling especially lovely for my coworkers.

I love routines. Good routines especially, with time built in for things you enjoy, and sacred, quiet moments that allow for reflection. I’ve noticed that when we’ve had a week or two of a good routine, Jordan and I are both significantly happier. We feel good about ourselves and the way we spend our time, instead of feeling exhausted by life and out of control.

But as important as they are, I’m horrible at establishing them, and even once they’re established, I can easily become unmoored from the habits I worked so hard to form. (I’m even bad at bad routines. I never seem to have a crazy day in the same way twice. I guess I’m just not a creature of habit!).

It doesn’t take much. One late night spent talking above the covers. A post-work obligation that made us start dinner late. Even one small turn of events, one lazy evening, can cause a cascade into chaos.

For example, if we don’t make enough dinner the night before, often we’ll end up not having any options for lunch the next day, so we toss together something meager and unsatisfying, and we come home hungry and grumpy.

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Our dogs help keep our routine somewhat stable: they require being fed and going out regularly, and also go nuts if we don’t exercise them, which means we have to hike/jog/walk more than we would otherwise

Or we’ll get into a really awesome routine of spending our evenings jogging with the dogs and playing chess (which is legitimately soul-satisfying–Netflix tends to leave us both exhausted and unrefreshed). But if one of us gets home late for work, suddenly the whole evening is occupied by making dinner. And then we’re too tired afterward to do anything, and so we end up slouched on the couch, watching mindless Youtube videos or some dumb show that we likely have already seen before.  

Before we know it, our week has devolved into a treadmill of rushed mornings and late evenings consumed by screens and chores.

(Note–if watching stuff actually relaxes you and makes you feel good, by all means, do it! This is not a condemnation or a judgement on that–everyone’s healthy routine will be different).

Some people seem to fall into routines so easily–they do something for a few weeks, and it’s second nature to them. They have trouble not doing it. But it’s never been like that for me. I can even force myself to do something every day for six months (like meditation–I actually meditated every day for six months), and then a slight change in schedule–someone visiting, or an early meeting thrown into the mix–snaps me right out of it.

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Hiking is a big part of our healthy, happy routine streaks

I’m sure we aren’t the only people who struggle with this. If we all had an easy time forming new habits, everyone would exercise daily and eat carrots for snack and journal and do all of the things research tells us will make us happy and healthy.

So how do successful people do it? I’ve noticed it comes down to two things–simplified routines (e.g. making them as streamlined as possible), having contingency plans built into your life for when life throws a wrench into things, and setting reminders for yourself so that you don’t miss things.

For example, my cousin Charlie visited us for a week over the summer. During his stay with us, he took his dog out for a jog every single day. Even when the day was fairly busy. Even when it was raining. Even when he hadn’t slept well the night before due to a jam-packed house and crazy cat leaping on him.

Through all of that, he didn’t think twice about it. He’d toss on his sneakers, clip a leash on the dog, and away they’d go. This is in contrast to how I prepare for runs, which includes hydrating for an hour beforehand, checking the weather, strapping myself into a sports bra, digging through drawers to find the perfect pair of socks and clean running shorts, and then harnessing both dogs into their respective gear.

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Joggin’ and fetch

The preparation in itself is a hassle, not to mention the run. And there are a dozen moments in that litany of tasks where the whole thing could become too much and discourage me from going at all. Like for instance, if I can’t find a sports bra. Or if I didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Or if it’s too hot. Or if all my running shorts are dirty.

If I instead simplified the whole routine so that it was easier to head out (maybe only bringing one dog instead of both, having my sneakers placed near the door for easy access, and putting my sports bra back in the same place every time), I’d be more likely to turn jogging into an unconscious habit, instead of a daily ordeal.

Having back up plans for meals also help us keep our good routines from unraveling. This is partially necessary because of our food shopping choices: we try to avoid buying pre-processed food as much as possible, which means that unless we’ve already put hard work in, we don’t have food options. If we had pre-made bread and deli meat (or any other premade items, like granola bars), it’d be a lot easier to just slap something together and go, without having the rest of the day thrown off.

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Homemade pizza: so much tastier than frozen or restaurant pizza, but so much work

But making food from scratch is important to both of us–it tends to be healthier and is significantly cheaper–and so it’s a lifestyle choice we’re dedicated to upholding. But sometimes it throws a significant wrench in our plans when things get busy or hectic.

Lately, the freezer has been our new best friend. When we have plenty of time we cook, so that when we don’t have any time, we have food to eat. We’ve found that easy recipes like overnight oats and frozen breakfast burritos make for easy prep-ahead breakfasts, and frozen stews and curries are lifesavers on nights when we just can’t seem to get it together.

The tricky part comes when you can’t get it together enough to make the things that you need for the days when you can’t get it together. We try to capitalize by cooking on the weekends (we’ve found that if we make a list and go shopping Saturday morning, eventually over the course of the weekend we’ll have the time and energy to prep a few items).

I’ve also found that setting reminders for myself to do something helps–or just not procrastinating doing it in the first place. Like for example, with my meditation practice, sometimes it isn’t that I’m too busy or too tired or don’t feel like it. Sometimes I just simply forget to do it, because it doesn’t occur to me until later. In that instance, figuring out some way to remind yourself is a great way to help you build it into your routine–whether it’s a post-it note on the fridge, or writing a note on your hand.

But even with reminders and simplification and contingency plans, we have days where there isn’t much to eat in the house, or when we get to bed too late and wake up exhausted. And I think a big part of it all is having the good humor to weather less-organized days without feeling like life is spinning out of control.

So tell me–what’s your perfect morning/evening routine like? And how do you try to stick to it? (I could use some tips that actually work!)

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