Routines Are Not the Enemy: 11 Ways To Make them Work for You

I've always balked at setting routines, considering them the death knell of the creative mind. Routines were for people who were boring, corporate, uptight, not for the free-spirited, like me! It took me a long time to realize: routines are actually freeing! When you know what has to be done and in what order, your mind performs the tasks automatically, freeing you up to mull over more important things.

Think about driving a car: your feet have learned which is the gas and which is the brake so your mind can do other tasks, like navigate and watch out for danger. Most of us have routines that we do unconciously. Once you harness their power, they can work for you and make your life much easier. Here's how to do that.

Start by observing: Like driving, the first task is to observe. Since morning and evening routines are the most important, let's start with those. What do you do between the time you open your eyes in the morning to the time that you sit down to work or leave the house? What happens between the time you get home from work (or in my case, stop work at the end of the day) and the time you go to bed? What about other tasks, like paying the bills or grocery shopping? Do you have a day for these things or do you run to the drugstore every other day? For the first few weeks, just observe what you do.

Time: How much time does it take you? How much time do you have? If you get up at 7 and have to leave the house by 8 and getting ready to get out of the door takes 45 minutes, you've got 15 minutes to play with. If it takes you an hour and a half, you're either going to have to get up earlier or streamline your routine.

Make a wish list: Are there things that you'd like to do — like checking your Instagram feed in the morning so you can catch up on what your friends are doing, or always having a full refrigerator so you can indulge your passion for cooking — but that you don't feel you have time for? Put these things on a list.

Record: Now that you've spent some time observing yourself, jot down your findings. What's your morning routine? What's your evening routine?

Break it down: Once you have your two lists, you can start to play. Move things around to incorporate the two lists. The key is to break down tasks into their component parts. For example, while I check my Twitter feed and take a look to see what's trending, and I also check my emails first thing, I don't engage or respond. This way I know what's going on and what may have shifted in priority overnight that may change the course of my day, but I don't get sucked into the vortex of reacting to other people's agendas. Responding and engaging are for other times in the day — maybe in the time between stopping one writing assignment and starting another.

Implement and play: Now that you've broken things down, start to move your routine around.

Automate tasks that are not priorities: While checking my Twitter feed is an important part of keeping abreast of what is going on in my profession, having a different breakfast every morning is not. So I have the same breakfast every morning. Once I set up my eggs to cook, I know that I have about three minutes before they're done. I use those three minutes to check my Twitter feed. Not only does my breakfast get cooked, but I'm forced to scroll quickly or eat overcooked eggs.

Act, don't react: I've found that I get tripped up when, instead of staying on course, I start responding to what's going on around me, whether to an email from someone (their urgent is not necessarily my urgent) or to the kid inside of me suggesting that it's "play with eyeshadow" time.

Time yourself: Now that you've set up a routine and know approximately how long it takes you, set a timer. There's something about a timer that kicks in the urge to "beat the clock". I've found that if I set the timer for half an hour, my 45 minute morning routine actually takes me half an hour. While it's nice to take my time in the morning, when I have a deadline, I set the timer and use those extra 15 minutes to sit down and give myself a breather before plunging into my day.

Keep tweaking: Now that you've set up a routine, play with it so that it works for you. Change the order, cut things out, swap out things that are important to you. For example, I love the feeling of a full refrigerator and I love being able to wander around Trader Joe's checking out the new products. But I don't like feeling rushed in the grocery store, or how much money I can spend on food every month. Once I decided that I was going to go grocery shopping once a week, not only did I save time — run into the grocery store "for a second" enough times in a month and those "seconds" turn into hours — but also money (yes, I was able to indulge my love of wandering around the grocery store, but my impulse purchases were confined to once a week and were a lot easier to control).

Use your routines: I have daily routines, weekly routines, monthly routines and yearly routines. You can make them for your car, for your office, for your garden. Do they change? Yes. Do I always follow them? No. But I've learned that when I feel stressed it's probably because I've fallen into my old haphazard ways. Within a few days of going back into a routine, the house looks cleaner, I look presentable, and I've once again found plenty of time to daydream and dawdle. Ironic, isn't it?

(Image: Holly Marsh from Holly's Vibrant, Personal Twist on Traditional)