Ever since 2020 turned into the year of Covid-19, my social media feeds have evolved into a never-ending stream of home-cooked food, bodyweight workouts, and forwarded challenges of all types.
There have been a handful of people who’ve picked up seven new languages as well as those who’ve turned into three-star Michelin chefs overnight. Then there are the ones advocating self-care from the couch, assuring everyone that it’s okay not to be productive.
I say fuck it. You’re old enough to decide what you should or should not do with your time, regardless of all the flexing—both figuratively and literally—you’re seeing on social media.
Some people find it easier to sleep at night when they’ve ‘earned their day’, while others would be content with having the sun be the only thing that moved in their day.
I’ve done both, and I’ve come to learn that no matter which side of the fence you’re on, you’re still going to need this one very important thing.
And that’s having a routine you can count on.
Because what else are you going to do during months of lockdown anyway?
The case for a solid routine
It doesn’t matter if your calendar’s packed to the brim or if Netflix is the only order of the day, you’re still going to need a plan, and depending on the duration of your lockdown (one month seems to be the running average), it’s easy to lose all structure to your day if you don’t get a proper flow going.
Besides, do you want weird sleeping hours, bad diets, and heightened anxiety from not having a routine? Because that’s exactly how you get weird sleeping hours, bad diets, and heightened anxiety.
But routines are so boring, you might say. It’s almost as mind-numbing as eating clean and sticking to a personal budget.
Done correctly, you wouldn’t even feel it. Tell me, when was the last time you’d put ‘brush teeth’ on your to-do list? What about ‘sleep’? ‘Bathe’? ‘Eat’?
“I like routine. It enables me to improvise.”
Let’s get rid of the myth that routines are tedious and hard to execute. In fact, once you get into the groove, routines are hard not to execute. So there you have it, the first benefit highlighted for your convenience: It’s easy to stick to a routine once you’ve acquired it.
And you know what that means? It means that you can throw willpower and motivation out the window. Ever find it hard to floss every day? Or maintaining a regular housekeeping schedule? Don’t blame that on your lack of willpower. It’s most like because you haven’t established the habit.
Because once something becomes part of your routine, it becomes almost automatic.
So tasks that conjure dread and despair in your heart—writing, in my case—becomes just another part of your day. Something you just do without paying any mind. And that’s the second benefit right there: Hard tasks stop requiring so much willpower.
Once your routine takes off and you stop spending so much brain juice making mundane decisions, you’ll find that you have more power over your day, and who doesn’t love some of that sweet, sweet power?
Ever been so free that you ended up wasting an entire day away? I used to drift during my days off, not sure how to spend all the free time I had, only to realise that being idle didn’t mean being relaxed.
But if you have a routine and you get it out of the way (automatic, remember?), then it wouldn’t matter if you spent the rest of your day on Reddit, because you’d have done your work for the day.
And that’s where the third benefit comes to mind. Having a routine gives your day a purpose other than work. Most importantly, these purposes are set according to your own standards, not anyone else’s.
I could really go on and on here, like how routines save time, help replace bad habits, and gives you an insight into your own personality, but I’ll leave all that Googling and reading up to you.
Start a routine today
How do you get into a routine anyway? Well, you could stop thinking for one. Overthinking only kills the budding spark of action, and this spark matters more than your preferred method of madness.
A fire needs nurturing at the start of its life, not fuel to drown it with. Doing the former helps it set everything ablaze, while the latter only leaves you with wisps of smoke and a bitter aftertaste.
So the first thing you should know about starting a routine—or starting anything at all—is to dive in headfirst.
Think you want to start journalling before bedtime? Just do it. Don’t Google what’s the best journal to write in, or if longhand is better than typing. Just start doing it and your experience will guide you much better than any pre-research ever can.
“It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.”
Don’t try to cram everything in one go too. What’s important is you prioritise consistency over intensity. After all, twenty push-ups every day (scaled to your abilities, of course) sure as hell beats a hundred once a week.
Again, don’t overthink the magic number. The number of reps don’t really matter. What matters is you harbour a ‘no zero day’ mentality rather than thinking it’s all or nothing.
Don’t get ahead of yourself and expect to have thousands of hits on your blog just because you’ve put out an article every week for a year. Results should always be a byproduct of your actions, and not your goal.
Outcomes will always be beyond your control, but your effort isn’t. Choose to take satisfaction from having done something instead of the arbitrary feedback you may or may not get. In other words, start small and focus on doing the action rather than reaping the rewards.
All this talk about effort might make you doubt your ability to stick to a routine. But why would you not want to stick to something pleasurable? Yup, I said it. Routines are fun.
What, you think routines are nothing more than a glorified to-do list? I don’t know about you, but eighty percent of the things in my routines are pretty great. The only thing I groan at having to do every day is working out and writing. Other than that, I enjoy having my first cup of coffee in silence, journalling, and reading before bed.
Which brings me to the most important point: Build a routine that’s as fun as it is challenging.
Because face it. As much as you think you prefer the easy life, you’d still abandon things the moment they stop being a challenge. So make your routine pleasurable, but add in some things that are good for you that you don’t necessarily like (vegetables being an example). The best part is, you can tailor this threshold to suit you and only you.
For some people, getting up and getting dressed is already an achievement in itself. For others, it’s making sure they get their protein shake for the day while they work in their hour’s worth of exercise after delivering a killer sales pitch to the top brass in a foreign language.
My own routine
I’ve created and honed my morning routine for about a year now, which consists of having a cup of coffee as I write my morning pages, practising penmanship, learning Chinese, writing (novels), and meditating.
Everything I do after that—work included—is noted as a bonus, as long as I complete my routine. And I’m glad to say that I’ve stuck to it every day now.
But ever since Covid-19 struck, I found myself with much less ‘going out time’ on my hands, and this void had to be filled somewhat. This was why I’d added exercising, breathwork, writing some more (drills and techniques), reading, and nighttime journalling.
I don’t have a fixed timing for everything, but I typically complete my non-bedtime tasks by late afternoon.
All in all, this recent lockdown has fanned my appreciation for routines. It’s given me a cadence to my days, without which I’d probably have seen one day meld into another without any specific purpose to them.
What does this mean for post-Covid life, when work and responsibilities come back in full force? I don’t know, but this past month has given me a new perspective which could be useful to my regular life once everything goes back to normal.
Most of all, as I’d strived to complete my tasks no matter what the day brings (hangovers, dog falling sick, last-minute work), I’d come to realise that there is one ultimate benefit that comes from having a routine. And that’s how to keep a promise you’ve made to yourself.
Because you can break a promise to someone else and pretend it never happened, but you’ll never get over breaking a promise to yourself. And as long as we constantly learn how to live with ourselves, we’ll be pretty much set, regardless of what the external world brings.