Think about all the athletes, writers, artists, dancers, singers that you know. You know these people because they stand out from the crowd. There are only a few of them, the people who excel at what they do. They might be the ones you look up to, the people whom you respect or the ones who you aspire to be. They set the standards for the rest of humanity.
What is the common denominator that connects them; despite their success and achievements? What is the secret sauce of their success?
While success is a personal metric, there exists a public perception of what success looks like! Success with a capital S. And when we look at the lives of the people who have attained it, we find the secret sauce. The presence of a routine throughout their life.
This week, we dive into the transformative powers of having a Routine in your life.
What exactly is a "Routine"?
According to dictionary.com, a routine is "a customary or regular course of procedure".
That is such a tedious and boring definition! Surely, there is more to it than this archaic description.
We add a lot of negative connotations to the word routine by default. For most of us, the word reminds of the drudgery that exists in life. It represents the work we do in our offices day after day waiting for a monthly paycheck. At one end of this spectrum, Routine feels like a vestige element from the industrial era.
Industrial routines can get the job done, at least in most cases. But you hate it. This hate comes from the simple fact that it is not the routine that you chose for yourself.
But there exists an opposite spectrum of routines as well. The routines that prolific achievers have created for themselves. The routines that let them do the things that they love, day after day, like clockwork. Their routines are a part of what they are and what they do.
These are the routines that fascinate me. They come in many forms and sizes. They can be a morning routine, a daily routine or even a weekly routine. The time frame at which it is practised does not matter, but the periodicity of activities involved make all the differences.
Then the right way to think about routine will be something like this: "It is the discipline that we lack, but our favourite artists have."
Routines are the systematic effort put in by people towards something they deeply care about.
It is important to specify with clarity, what routines can do for us in life. I think of routines in two ways:
A way to automate parts of your life to focus and perform the work that you deem most important.
A way to systematically connect with your creative potential.
While these two statements represent the same results, I felt it was necessary to express them as two separate ideas. Routines are the kind of discipline that gives joy and meaning to your life. It is the only reliable shortcut we have towards mastery and long term success.
Transformation starts from Routines
Why do we need to create routines? What is the transformation we seek? These are the two fundamental questions that we answer before we can understand what makes routines so powerful and transformational.
A common answer to both of these questions is a person's desire to be good at something they love; to upgrade their skills or make something out of life.
The next logical question is how does a person get good at something? The answer is "through practice". And it is not any practice but consistent deliberate practice. In other words, to improve a skill we have to do the work.
The problem is that it is hard for human beings to stay consistent. Especially when the brain considers the activity we want to do as "tedious". Our biology works against us here - we have our limitations.
No matter how intelligent and decisive we think we are, the truth is we do not have much control over the decisions we make on a daily basis. As surprising as it is 95% percent of our decisions are taken by the not so conscious part of our brain.
So if we want to make our brain perform consistent work, we will have to force it, in a way that it doesn't feel forced. I know, we are trying to cheat our biology. Routines are our wild card to do this type of cheating.
Now we will more into our brain's limitations:
Motivation and willpower
As we discovered earlier 95% of the decisions we take are almost automatic. Our collective struggles with procrastination, laziness, lack of focus or concentration are all part of this automatic behaviour.
Our brain is wired to work smart, and that involves a lot of optimisations. "Concentrated work" goes against its optimisations.
We rely on willpower and motivation to overcome our automatic behaviours. That is how we finish the work that we must do. Sadly, studies have shown us that willpower is a limited resource. And Motivation is not a reliable agent to do work that spans over longer periods of time.
Because we rely fully on our motivation and willpower so much,
it is hard to stay consistent when the work we do is forced. This happens even when the work or activity is something that we hold close to our hearts.
Remember the time you wanted to learn Calligraphy or Coding? You were all excited and practising hard for the first few days when the motivation was high. Unfortunately, you stopped doing it after the first few days. It was as if the motivation had suddenly disappeared.
Motivation is unreliable as a catalyst for work because it relies too much on visible progress and instant gratification. When we are trying to improve a skill, progress isn't linear and growth is incremental. There won't be any visible feedback. As a result, motivation exits as fast as it had arrived.
We never struggle with motivation for scrolling through the Instagram feed or Youtube shorts. The brain prefers instant gratification from Instagram more than your work because that is how our lazy organic machine is wired.
Another limitation we have is our tendency to overestimate ourselves in terms of what we can do. Often we end up promising ourselves multiple things, banking on the motivation level at the time of commitment. This creates a complicated set of expectations for ourselves when we sit down to do the work.
A complicated set of expectations of what to achieve pulls you into a decision making spiral. As you try to do the work you don't really know which activity to pursue. You have to decide what you "wish" to do at that moment.
Try to picture the last time you had multiple important tasks to do and how hard it was to make decisions then.
Like willpower, decision making also takes mental effort. It is a limited resource. When you spend it haphazardly you hinder your ability to do the work.
Lost thinking is another activity we do so often. Since we all have dreams and goals we like thinking about them. While it may not seem like a problem, we end up thinking about all the things we could do instead of actually doing it.
Daydreaming about the things we can do when we have made success is also an extension of lost thinking.
It is from the premises of these organic limitations we must embrace routines as a way to transform the way we live.
Routines circumvents biological limitations
So far we have explored how our brain limits our ability to work and the challenges before us in the path of success. We now know that decision making spirals exist and how unreliable willpower and motivation is.
Now we will look at how routines can do something about this.
When we create a routine for ourselves they are some core principles we need to follow.
- The activities under a routine aren't random, it is the most important work for you. You must attach great personal value to that work.
- Make the routine as simple as possible.
- Commit to it. Commit with a definition of what a successful routine looks like. What you commit should be the minimum amount of work that you can do no matter whatever the excuse for the day is. Example: You can make it a routine to write every day for 1 hour and set the success criteria as five minutes of writing at the scheduled time.
What such a routine does for you is nothing short of magic.
By selecting one activity to pursue day after day, the routine takes away the need for decision making. That is the end of the decision-making spiral.
By committing to a repeatable simple task, you don't need the willpower to get started. The simplicity of the routine makes it easy for you to come back to it consistently. Since your definition of success is something you can manage or attain easily, you won't have to depend on motivation anymore. "It is just five minutes of writing."
As we engage with our routine continuously for more than thirty days, our brain gets conditioned and ready for it. The routine becomes a part of us after ninety days. You will realise, a routine is only an extended collection of habits.
Routines gradually aid us to connect with our creative state. We will be able to be more deliberate with our creative potential. What happens here is that our brains that love optimisations, get optimised to accept the routine as a part of it. The brain stops seeing the work as work anymore. This will always be the case as long as we make the routines in line with our desires and wants.
By providing the structural support we need to do consistent work, routines act as the catalyst for our long term growth. That is how we can transform ourselves using the power of routines.
People who want to play the longer game must not rely on something as fragile as motivation and willpower for their success.
Success is not a sprint, but a marathon.
Routines are your training centres to face this marathon. By eliminating ad-hoc decision making and unclear, complicated goals, routines help deliver consistent work over longer periods of time. Routine removes the friction from our lives that stop us from doing our best work.
There are a lot of people out there who attribute their success and accolades to routines. There is no such thing as a perfect routine nor there is one size for all solution. If you look at the routines of the people who we might call successful, you can find all sorts of routines - polar opposites, weird and even unhealthy ones.
The key takeaway is that routines can change you for good. Find the routine that works well for you to carve your success.