It doesn’t mean your day is a series of monotony — it’s a collection of little gifts that gives you a reason for waking up.
Routines Can Be Really Good | 03
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This is The Good List — I’m Tsh Oxenreider.
This is a habit.
There’s a great movie from the 90s called “As Good As It Gets” — maybe you’ve seen it. Jack Nicholson plays this quirky slash jerky guy who thrives on routine to the point of unhealth; if his routine goes out of whack even just a little, his whole day is ruined, he has a panic attack, he needs to see his therapist. This is what happens when his favorite waitress, played by Helen Hunt, doesn’t work her shift one day because her kid is sick. The guy hangs onto routine like his life depends on it. In this case, routine is bad.
And there’s this short story published in The New Yorker in the 1940s about a guy named Walter Mitty; a few years ago they made a sorely underrated movie very loosely based on it, starring Ben Stiller. In it, we see Walter’s life slowly being drained out of him because of routine — he runs his life so much on autopilot that he no longer takes risks or does stuff outside the box, until one day, he runs out of his long-standing job and hops on a plane to Greenland. In this story, routine is also bad.
And when I first became a mom 15 years ago, those early newborn days about did me in. Not because of the lack of sleep, or all the mess, or the crying — it was the routine. The monotony of overseeing the eat, poop, sleep 24-hour cycle, the feeling of the loss of freedom — the inability to go anywhere because my day revolved around naps, the subtle feeling of ridiculousness that my life was now whittled down to a tiny human’s tedious, repetitive needs was so hard for me. (Never mind that I blinked, at that stage was suddenly insanely short, and I powered through it enough to be okay doing it two more times.) For me, routine was a curse word, a form of punishment, the opposite of what I wanted at the time. During this time, routine, too, was bad.
Our culture tends to easily pigeonhole the idea of routine as bad. I know it’s my tendency. And yet, I wanna make the case that routine can actually be good when it’s used well. And in this particular episode, I mean morning routines.
Now, before you skip to the next episode, I’m not here to make a case that you should be a morning person. Some people enjoy the mornings more than others, and people truly do have different circadian rhythms, making some people night owls, some people morning larks, and some people afternoon chickens. It’s all good, and I’m not here to judge. But at some point, we do all wake up, and most of us responsible adults do need to start our weekdays. It’s just part of life. And because of that, an established morning routine can make your whole day better. (In fact, this might be even more the case if you’re not a fan of the morning. Just a guess.)
Here’s what I mean: for the next few weeks, pick 3-5 things to do in the morning, first thing when you wake up, and do them every day, in the same order, as best as you can at the same time every day. And they can be small — in fact, you should make them small. Make them easy to do (remember that episode about small?). We’re talking things like: make coffee, drink a glass of water, take a shower, journal or read for 2 minutes, take a short walk around the block, do a quick yoga routine of a few stretches, read or say a familiar prayer, or even give yourself a quick splash of water on the face. Easy-peasy stuff. But it’s key to do it in the same order, because what you’re doing here is building a habit you want to eventually run on auto-pilor, but in order for that to happen, one needs to follow the other in the same pattern.
And here’s what’s also key: it needs to be a genuine treat for you, otherwise you’ll dread starting your day with it. It should be helpful for you (so, no pint of ice cream every 5 am), but also enjoyable. No need to go for a mile run if you hate the thought of it. Don’t bother emptying the dishwasher as part of it (unless doing so is giving a gift to yourself). Think of 3-5 short, doable, repeatable things you’d actually look forward to, and make a plan to repeat them, in order, every day for the next few weeks. Maybe even mark a deadline in the calendar for how long you intend to try this.
I’ll get into why this is a good idea in just a second, right after this short break.
Okay, so establish an easy, repeatable morning routine that’s just for you, that’s just for treating yourself. Why bother with this? Well, here’s why.
When you decide to start your day doing something specific, you’re waking up FOR your day versus waking up to your day. It’s a subtle difference: you’re saying you’re choosing to go from sleeping to waking because of something in particular. And that something particular is a series of things you enjoy.
You’re also employing the psychological game of fighting decision fatigue. It’s said the average adult makes 35,000 decisions in a day, and this subtly takes a toll on you all day long. When you start your first 5 to 45 minutes of your day in a series of habits, you’re giving your brain the gift of one less thing to think about, even if it’s tiny.
Also? There’s lots of studies out there that show how we spend our morning, and even more specific, the first few minutes of our day, determines our mood, energy level, and focus for the rest of our day. That may not be true for everyone, but that’s true for a lot of us, me included. I definitely know the difference between a day when I start with a haze or putting out a series of fires, versus starting it with just a few small tasks that are just for me.
Okay, so what does this idea of a “morning routine” look like, boots on the ground? There’s lots of talk on the internet about this, and a quick Google search will pull up all sorts of ideas on what it means to have the perfect morning routine. Look that stuff up if you want it, but it might mess with your head. It does me. It makes me start doubting what’s actually best for me, or that I’m not doing enough, or whatever. Look up people’s ideas of an ideal morning routine as long as it’s helpful for you, then stop whenever it’s no longer inspirational and has fallen over into FOMO.
We’re all in different seasons of life, and we all have different things on our plates. So, a working parent of a toddler will have a radically different ideal morning routine than an empty nester in retirement. That’s just reality. So, take this with a grain of salt, but here’s my current morning routine. Keep in mind that I’m in my early 40s, I work for myself from home, I’m married, I currently live in central Texas, I have 3 kids between ages 9 and 15, and I’m a morning person:
- I wake up sometime between 5:30 and 6:00, usually without an alarm (I set one on school days, just in case, but I almost never need it). After going to the bathroom, I splash cold water on my face, then drink 32 ounces of water (I filled my glass the night before).
- I then start a French press of coffee, and while I’m waiting for the electric kettle to boil, I do the NYT crossword puzzle of the day on their app, followed by a daily reading from a book called Sacred Space, and an entry in my One Line a Day journal (I write about the day before the next morning, for several reasons I won’t get in to now).
- Then while the coffee brews in the French press, I do about 10 minutes of yoga — the goal is to wake up, not to get a major workout, so I keep this easy. I’m usually still in my pajamas, and I follow one of several short YouTube videos from my favorite yoga channel there.
- I start drinking my first cup of coffee while I write out my day’s to-do list (yes, this is a treat for me, because by now it’s all been rattling around in my brain, and it’s desperate to get on paper so it can think about something else).
- …If it’s a school day when I’m taking the kids to the train station, then that’s it — I now need to wake them up and start the day. If my husband, Kyle, is taking them, then I pause my routine to help them get out the door, then once they are, I take my dog, Ginny, on a walk. On this walk, I either listen to an audiobook, a podcast, or work-related voxes (as a solopreneur, Voxer is one of my primary ways of communicating with people in my work world).
…and that’s it! From start to finish, without the dog-walking, it takes about 30 minutes. With the dog, it’s 45 minutes to an hour. Again, sharing this with you is just in case it gives you any ideas for your own morning routine, not because it’s ideal for you. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive.
So yeah — try a simple, set morning routine for the next few weeks, and see if it gives you a little boost to your day, to help you feel more in control of the rest of it. It doesn’t mean the rest of your day has to depend on a series of monotonous routine. It’s just a series of little gifts that gives you a solid, predictable reason for waking up in the morning.
Tsh: Tell me what’s on your mind.
Seth: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about habits and habit formation and primarily because I drink a whole lot of coffee and feel always very jittery and quite dehydrated, and probably a little bit bombastic with my friends and family and coworkers. I have a pot of coffee habit before10 o’clock or 9:30 is probably not good. So I set out to sort of rejigger my habits so to speak. I wake up now every morning and make myself a cup of water. I put a little a hydration tablet in it and then to make sure that I could lock that habit into place, I’ve coupled it with something that I really love, which is writing. So every day I sit down in my chair with my computer and my water with my hydration tablet and I sip the water while I write the piece for the day. I don’t have my first cup of coffee until I’m finished with that. And that generally takes about an hour. So yes, it’s locked in a new habit in place, drinking more water.
Tsh: What is a hydration tablet? I have no idea.
Seth: Yeah. I don’t even know how to pronounce it, but it’s just Nuun, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a little thing that I bought on Amazon and the tablets. You put them in there and they have electrolytes and vitamins and things to make you feel happy. I don’t know. Anyway, I’m sure we need more water.
Tsh: Right. It’s fun to work. Yeah. It’s fun to do things because I’m a longtime coffee drinker. I drink it every morning and as I’ve gotten into my forties, I feel the effects so much more. Has that been true for you?
Seth: Oh my gosh. Yes. Now I can drink coffee all day and it doesn’t affect my sleep, my anxiety and my heart rate. Oh my gosh. Totally. If I drink coffee all morning by the afternoon, I’m just wigging out.
Tsh: Yeah. Okay. So this water thing, how long have you been doing it?
Seth: I think hopefully a little bit over a month now. And it really, I tried at first to just drink more water, like I’m going to drink two bottles of water, Nalgene bottles. But what I found was if it’s not actionable, measurable and concrete habit or goal, I just don’t do it. And so I needed to couple it with something that I really loved to do and that’s why I coupled drinking my morning water with writing. And then for some reason when I do that throughout the rest of the day, I’m just more cognizant of how much water I drink.
Tsh: Sure. Do you know the book Atomic Habits? Have you read that?
Seth: Yes. I love that book and I’m a little bit of a habit literature junkie. Yeah. I’ve read that I’m about to The Power of Habit and I’m currently reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before.
Tsh: Okay. Well what you said reminds me of his idea of habit stacking. That whole coupling something you already do fairly automatic or that you enjoy with this habit you want to implement. And so for you, that’s the writing with the water. It feels a little bit like that, like you would write anyway so might as well do the thing that you’re trying to do better with the thing that you’re doing.
Seth: Yeah, that’s right. I was already writing every day and I had begun the habit of writing a piece every day just to get back into the rhythm of the writing. It was really interesting just when I started doing that, when I coupled it with water, it locked both habits in and yeah, probably clear as book was the first sort of inclination to stack the habits that way.
Tsh: Yeah. That’s very cool. I like that.
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I also hang out online every now and then. I’m mostly on twitter @tsh, but you can also find me some on IG @tshoxenreider. I’d love you to say hi, and to tell me what’s on your good list right now.
And while we’re at it — I’d love to feature what’s on your good list with the listeners of this show! Simply record yourself from your phone, stating your name, where you’re from, and what idea, work of art, habit, or thing is making your life just a bit better. Then email the voice file to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call and leave a voicemail at (401) 684-GOOD, and I promise it goes straight to voicemail; you won’t have to talk to anyone. Again, reminders on how to do all this at thegoodlistshow.com, so just head there, and you’ll get squared away.
Thanks so much to Seth Haines for sharing his habit with us that’s making his Good List. And hey, fun fact: he’s actually one of my favorite writers and he has a new book out called the Book of Waking Up — at the time of this recording it’s still early in the new year, but I have to say, I can tell it might already be one of my favorite books of 2020. I’m savoring it slowly because it’s one of those books where you don’t want to miss a sentence. I’ve got the book fo waking up linked in the show notes of this episode, #3, or you can also check it out directly on seth’s website at sethhaines.com. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, and thanks, as always, to Caroline TeSelle for her help, as well as my furry intern, Ginny. I’m Tsh Oxenreider — thanks for listening to The Good List.
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