The Truth About Routines
Or why you don't have to get up at 4 A.M. to perform a two-hour ritual of self-care
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At the end of last year, Marina Koren wrote in The Atlantic that, “My mornings are the messiest part of my day. I do not rise and shine. Instead, I hit snooze on the alarm and throw the covers over my head.” This, Koren goes on, causes her distress because “it never seems to be the case with other people’s morning routine.” Koren is referencing the deluge of morning-routine media and advice, including The Cut’s “How I Get It Done” column, The New York Times’ Sunday Routine specials, roundups in news outlets ranging from CNN to Vogue, #routine Instagram posts, and the endless instruction from self-improvement podcasters.
Morning routines are having a moment. And it’s easy to feel that if you don’t have one, you should. Or else you’ll fall behind, or worse, be miserable. But, as is usually the case with these things, the truth is a bit more complicated and a lot more freeing.
The research on routines is clear. They are indeed effective. They help you activate when you’re feeling low, automate decisions so you don’t burn willpower, and prime your mind-body system to more easily groove into the task at hand. If you work out every morning, you don’t have to think about working out, you just do it. And, if you’re like most people, you feel much better afterward, regardless of how you were feeling before.
Research on “affordances” shows that physical objects and surroundings can help elicit certain behaviors. For example, the more you pair going to a specific coffee shop at a specific time of day and using a specific computer with writing, the easier it becomes to get into a productive creative rhythm.
But here’s the catch: Although routines can be magical, there is no magic routine. What works for one person might not work for others. This is problematic for those in the cult of routines, especially those looking to make a buck selling their own.
As Koren points out, different people have different chronotypes, a term which describes the natural and unique ebb and flow of energy that individuals experience over the course of 24 hours. Whether it’s a physically or cognitively demanding task, science has shown that most people tend to perform their best either in the earlier part of the day or in the later part of the day. Scientists refer to those who are most alert in the morning as larks and those who are most alert in the evening as owls. These individual differences are rooted in our bodies’ unique biological rhythms—when various hormones associated with energy and focus are released and when our body temperatures rise and fall. There is no evidence that either way of being is inherently better. There is, however, evidence that fighting against your biology is detrimental.
Other research shows that many of the typical features of “optimal routines” affect different people differently. Some people perform better while listening to music. Others do not. Some people get a boost from caffeine. Others experience anxiety or an upset stomach.
The bottom line is that the only way to an optimal routine is through astute self-awareness—not mimicking what other people do—and experimentation. The more you can match your activities to your energy levels, the better. The more you can figure out which types of environments stimulate your best work, the better.
There are, of course, certain behaviors that are close to universally effective, such as exercise and sleep. But again: there is no optimal time, place, or way to engage in these behaviors. You’ve got to figure out what works for you.
There is also a danger in becoming overly attached to your routine. If for whatever reason you can’t stick to it—you’re traveling, your special coffee shop closes, whatever elixir you order from your favorite podcast’s advertising goes out of business—you won’t know what to do. It’s like a Zen koan: The first rule of routines is to develop one and stick with it. The second rule is to cultivate the capacity to easily release from it.
I don’t have a special routine that will dramatically change your life. But you could develop your own that would. Just make sure that you’re willing, and able, to let it go.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance. Subscribe to his newsletter here.