Do you know anyone that got a dog in the last couple of years? It seems the demand for pandemic puppies was robust starting in the Spring of 2020. When we were locked down at home and our opportunity to socialize restricted, many of us resorted to roaming the web so that we could find a furry friend with which to cuddle and to walk. If you brought home or know of someone who brought home a fresh Fido during the past two years, what was the focus of the first few weeks at home? Was it trying to house train the young puppy to learn to manage its business outside? If so, what was the approach taken? Much of the guidance offered new dog owners related to house training involves establishing routines. We’re encouraged to work to create a routine to help the animal associate when and where it is appropriate for it to relieve itself. We’re taught to take the dog outside first thing upon waking and then to create a schedule so that we feed it at the same times then take it outside shortly after. Puppies shouldn’t be left alone for too long. They should be taken outside every few hours. In creating routines, we set the puppy up for success.
Separate from puppies, parents of newborns know this as well. With respect to both sleeping and feeding, the life of adjusting to newborns can be disruptive. Developing routines to try to smooth things is beneficial for the newborn and stress relieving for young parents. As Dane Jensen notes in The Power of Pressure, “When we are teaching newborn babies how to sleep, one of the most consistent pieces of parenting advice is to establish a sleep routine—something their brains begin to recognize as the signal to begin preparing for sleep—and it works for adults too.” Our routines help us accomplish the things that need to be done. They cue us as to what to do and when. Our routines subtly support our biology. We can influence our digestive, sleep, and other patterns by maintaining consistent behaviors. Routines create rhythms which soothe and serve. They become well worn paths that we can pursue without investing too much thinking figuring out what to do.
Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz note in The Power of Full Engagement that, “A growing body of research suggests that as little as 5 percent of our behaviors are consciously self-directed. We are creatures of habit and as much as 95 percent of what we do occurs automatically or in reaction to a demand or an anxiety.” Those in the surveillance business like private investigators refer to our “patterns of life.” These are the day to day behaviors and routines with which we each engage. Much of what we do daily is done at the same time in the same way. Researchers may observe with permission behaviors of individuals or groups to get a sense of their daily patterns. These observations are then used to make predictions as to future behaviors. Predictions which can be remarkably accurate. As Shakespeare suggested in his play The Tempest, “Past is prologue.” Whether we like it or not, we’re creatures of habit. As author Gretchen Rubin wrote in Better Than Before, “When I ask myself, ‘Why is my life the way it is today?’ I see that it has been shaped, to a great degree, by my habits.” We have go to responses in our day to day lives as well as under stress. We can bellyache all we want about how routines stifle, but if we’re not creating our own routines we’re just falling into repetitive behaviors which aren’t consciously created. If we don’t have clear routines or a plan for our day, our day is taken away from us. No matter how capable we are, we become at the mercy of what’s in front of us. We become incapable of making decisions or charting direction. This isn’t helpful. We may as well work to craft routines which will help serve us.
As John Maxwell noted, “The secret to your success is found in your daily routine.” Maxwell’s idea is supported by legendary mixed martial arts coach, John Danaher, who Georges St. Pierres quotes in The Way of the Fight, “I have a belief that all human greatness is founded upon routine, that truly great human behavior is impossible without this central part of your life being set up and governed by routine. All greatness comes out of an investment in time and the perfection of skills that render you great. And so, show me almost any truly great person in the world who exhibits some kind of extraordinary skills, and I’ll show you a person whose life is largely governed by routine.” Unfortunately, we dismiss routines and ignore the importance of what they reveal. We assume the greats in any field are so because of some special event, exposure to a secret, or that their path crossed a master somewhere along the way. We don’t see that their expertise evolved from embracing a reliable routine. We struggle to grasp that the path to excellence isn’t remarkable in any way. It’s about majoring in minors. It’s about choosing consistency over intensity. It’s about investing in proven practices day after day. Greatness isn’t created in a magical flash. It’s sculpted slowly with tedious and tireless effort. As former NBA coach and executive, Kevin Eastman writes in Why The Best Are The Best, “are you disciplined enough to do the work on the days you don’t feel up to it? The great ones do. And one of the most important disciplines they have is their daily routine. They have a practice routine. They have a game day routine. They have a sleep routine. They eat at the same time on game day. They read at the same time. Routine is the daily discipline that is needed for success. The discipline is the inner push that serves as the reminder to get the routine done.”
Do you have a routine? As we’ve already observed, whether we realize it or not, we have patterns of behavior that mark our lives. We’re doing similar things every day. Whether 95% of our activities are on automatic or another number, the point is a lot of what we’re doing is routinized. The real question isn’t whether you have a routine, but do you know what your routine is? More importantly, did you choose your routine in order to serve you? We’re encouraging you to see routines as a way to automate advancement. Just like companies are using technology to automate workflows, you can do the same in your own life. One way to give yourself a chance is to put actions which will move you forward in key areas on automatic. For example, savings and investing. Put savings on automatic. Automate a withholding from a pay cheque to be directed to an investment account each pay period. Once set up, the decision to save is out of sight and out of mind. It’s one less thing to worry about and, yet, voila your future will be improved. By automating our savings we reduce the need to worry about it. In what other areas of our lives can we work to set it and forget it?
We can work to create a routine that starts from the moment we wake. One of the first things we’ll do daily is get dressed. Michael Easter in The Comfort Crisis points out that the stuff in our closets has grown considerably over the years. Less than a hundred years ago, in the 1930s, the average women had 36 pieces of clothing. Today, the average is four times that. Women have in the neighborhood of 150 pieces of clothing cluttering closets. Sure, men may have less, but it’s still a lot more than we used to have. Chances are if you compare your closet with that of a parent, your closet likely contains more choice than did your parents. With more stuff from which to choose, does a daily decision of what to wear become more tedious? Sometimes, looking at the chaos in our closet can make the decision on how to dress overwhelming.
There are several notable examples of high achievers that have set their wardrobe on automatic by creating their own consistent outfit. They wear either the same thing or something similar each day. Their closets are efficiently organized and the decision to dress reduced to as close to automaticity as they can find. They aren’t spending their limited brain bandwidth on clothing choices. For example, this Inc. magazine article highlights some examples of business leaders that have create routines around their wardrobes. Steve Jobs was renown for wearing the same style daily. His wardrobe consisted of turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers. He simply rotated through multiples of the same outfit over and over. Zero decision and minimal time spent on determining what to wear. He simply got up and got dressed the same way every day. Mark Zuckerberg similarly has a go to outfit. His consists of a certain brand t-shirt coupled with jeans and shoes. It’s not flashy, but seems to have worked and be working for these kinds of high achievers. Barrack Obama, as President, wore only grey and dark blue suits. Less complexity freed these high achievers to allocate their attention where it was most needed. In The Expectation Effect, David Robson writes “Obama is not alone in this energy-saving scheme. Arianna Huffington, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg are all said to have simplified their wardrobe as a way of preserving their brains for loftier tasks.” The benefit from a fixed fashion is that the routine affords efficiency. No time, no decision, just do. A separate benefit of presenting oneself consistently boosts assessments from others of one’s credibility and dependability. Moreover, one creates a personal brand by presenting themselves the same way day after day. Do you dress differently every day? How much time is spent deciding what to wear? What if your decision to dress was as automatic as brushing your teeth? Could you save time and mental anguish agonizing over what shirt to match with what pants and which socks to wear? By streamlining our style we can focus our mental energy on how we will make a difference today with our contributions instead of on what shall I wear.
Tanner Guzy helps men develop a personal style. He believes in the importance of appearance yet accepts that most men aren’t interested in navigating this arena. He recommends men develop a personal uniform that helps them display reliability and credibility in their appearance while reducing decision fatigue. Guzy helps men develop a style that allows them to be taken seriously with minimal effort. Instead of considering all elements of fashion, Guzy suggests just a couple. He recommends just five neutral colors which can all be mixed and matched. He suggests avoiding patterns and working with solid colors. The one area over which he emphasizes some initial effort should be made is with respect to fit. The second priority is texture. Focusing on properly fitting clothes that reflect high quality and can easily be pulled off the hanger and put into an outfit helps men accomplish the objectives of looking good without working at it. Guzy’s approach allows individual men to come up with their own application. They can find an outfit and simply repeat it day after day like some of the examples we’ve noted. Alternately, they can have several items of different colors which they know they can pair with confidence. The versatility of the wardrobe coupled with its ease of application makes Guzy’s approach appealing to men.
Guzy weans a wardrobe down to tops (t-shirts, golf shirts, and button downs), bottoms (jeans, shorts, possibly chinos if a guy really wants to get spicy), shoes (a casual pair and a slightly more formal pair), and a belt. Following his suggestions, one can pick any top to work with any bottom. One belt eliminates any decision making on this front. Shoes are selected based on what you’re doing. Casual or more formal. That’s it. The closet becomes easier to organize. Adopting Guzy’s program puts you in charge. You’re controlling your environment to make things easy for you to accomplish something that is important to you without burdening your brain with having to continuously revisit and think about what to do. It’s how rules can help us get what matters. Rules are a way of exerting control and acting with intention. Instead of spending your life following other people’s rules like we do through our younger years, set your own personal parameters and own your rules to create constructive tools. Our routines don’t need to be detailed, step by step processes, they can be more general like those of the late British poet, William Blake. Blake broke his days into buckets of activities which allowed him to accomplish the prolific creative output he was able to manage. Blake wrote of his days, “Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.” Each part of the day had a purpose. If he pursued the proper purpose at the predetermined time of day, he knew he would be getting done the things he needed to do in order to produce.
How could you benefit from some saved time and reduced thinking? Routines are about applying systems thinking to ourselves. Our routines are simply systems for how to do something which we can reliably repeat. They are the opposite of restrictive. Routines build brain bandwidth to use on things that matter. We can focus on moving the needle instead of trivial to dos. Our routines can serve to free us to be more productive or to have more free time. Pursuit of a proven process is far more efficient than making things up as we go. Where we refuse to learn from past efforts and don’t adopt a routine to manage regular tasks, we move along haphazardly, clumsily, and without direction. Early psychologist, William James noted the negative consequences of not having a routine upon which to rely, “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.” As Ryan Holiday notes in Stillness Is the Key, “The truth is that a good routine is not only a source of great comfort and stability, it’s the platform from which stimulating and fulfilling work is possible.” We can’t bring our best by winging it. Without structure, things collapse. Routines create order from chaos. Where we create our routines we may first rely on discipline to develop them. With time, however, we depend less on discipline as the routines become automatic. As we develop routines which accelerate automatic behaviors, we free up bandwidth to think about other things. The philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, noted that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” It’s true for individuals, businesses, organizations, and communities. The more we can set it and forget it, the more we can expand our efforts into new areas. In what ways can you advance by trying to perform a few more things without thinking about them?