turned 35 a few weeks ago, which caused me to take a hard look at all the things I want to accomplish before 36, like writing creatively on a consistent basis and hitting the gym four times a week — goals I’d set but never reached in my 34 years prior.
I assumed that to achieve these seemingly life-altering objectives, I needed to approach them with all-or-nothing fervor. I decided I would run and write every day without question; I believed this was the only way to create a functioning and productive routine. I was transfixed by the idea that I would write in the morning, before I did anything else, like the author Salman Rushdie. I thought the most worthwhile people stuck to these kind of hard-to-fathom and tough routines, like the women I used to interview for The Cut’s How I Get It Done series. I liked the idea of doing something creative, like writing, bound by discipline. There had to be some sense of freedom and ease that eventually comes from following a strict routine. Otherwise, why would creative people follow such rigid habits?
But within two weeks, I realized that I had turned these well-intentioned goals into baked-in failures. I didn’t write creatively every day, and my knees ached from hitting the treadmill too hard three days in a row. I was approaching these new habits with the same all-or-nothing loathing I feel when I get too tired and fall asleep in a full face of makeup.
Almost instantly I thought, “Routines are the enemy.” But of course, that isn’t the whole truth. After some reflection, I realized my attempt at consistency was creating blocks. By setting unreachable targets — i.e., running and writing every damn day — for the sake of goal-setting, rather than thinking about my goals and chipping away at them, I was setting myself up for disappointment and ultimately, a sense of loss. But if that’s the case, I wondered, how does one make a successful, helpful routine as an adult? Do habits have to be strict? All-or-nothing? How do you even stick with a habit?
And, if not me, who is successful at this kind of scheduled regularity? I turned to the experts, Ryder Carroll, creator of the much talked about Bullet Journal; Erin Falconer, author of “How to Get Sh*t Done: Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything so They Can Achieve Anything”; and author and time management/productivity expert Laura Vanderkam. Ahead, their advice.
Make Your Routine as Small as Possible
Start a habit with something that is actually doable, says Laura Vanderkam. “The expectation has to be low enough that you feel no resistance,” she says. “If you want to write a novel, commit to writing 100 words a day. You’ll probably do more, since 100 words is nothing, but that low expectation gets you to your computer even on days when you don’t want to be there. The same could be said for running: Commit to one mile. You’ll most likely run more, but if you don’t, you still did your mile.”
Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People
According to Ryder Carroll, one of the worst things a person can do is appropriate someone else’s routine. “A lot of people co-opt habits, goals and routines because they promise something, like ‘meditate 40 minutes a day and you will feel X.’ People take that and say that what they want is X, to be like that other person or to feel the way they do, and I think that’s where people start off on the wrong foot,” he says.
Sometimes we aspire to routines because they are shiny and new, even though they have very little to do with our lived experience. Vanderkam agrees with that sentiment: “Take the parts of the things that interest you from others and apply them to your own life. Ultimately, a habit has to be personal and make sense for you.”
Approach a Routine Through Trial and Error
Carroll, a creative person himself, recognizes how easy it is to get into all-or-nothing territory when it comes to habits. Instead, he suggests a more iterative approach. “I strongly believe we highly underestimate the space between all and nothing,” he says. “We pretend we know what the outcome is going to be, but that’s something that’s completely out of our control.” With writing, for instance, Carroll suggests that perhaps the reason I’m not writing every day is because I’m not really a morning person and that I have massive brain fog in the early hours of the day (I do). “Routines have to work for you — it’s not you working for the habit,” he says. So rather than waking up at 6:30 a.m. to write (the all), I’ve started blocking out two hours before and after lunch (the in-between) — it seems 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. are my most productive hours.
Do Your Homework
When it comes to bigger, long term goals, like becoming a vegetarian, Carroll suggests doing research beforehand. “Say you decide you want to be a vegetarian for the next 30 days, but day one rolls around and you have no idea what it means to be a vegetarian — your refrigerator is empty, you don’t know how to cook, you don’t have any recipes. Try to avoid that,” he says. “You can’t make a tremendous shift like that, so why not try for the next 30 days not eating meat on Mondays. Make a tiny change and build on it; the next month you can add Tuesdays, too. That makes a routine less burdensome in the long term.”
Try for A Month
Erin Falconer suggests trying a productive routine for a month. “A month is a good enough time to see if something works or not,” she says. Life happens — you may have to travel for work, or you may have a bad week. “You can’t wait till everything is perfect. A pre-set amount of time allows you to look at the last month and think about what you learned from the experience.”
Get Over the Fear
For creatives especially, habits or routines can feel like the death of creativity, says Falconer. But her experiences tell a different story. “Having a good routine in place allows you to take care of the business of life,” she says. “You don’t need freedom in every aspect of your day, so when you are able to take care of some things in a productive manner, like your bills or emails, your mind will be so much freer when inspiration does strike.”
Schedule Your Routine
“Stop living in your head,” says Falconer. “There is nothing more effective than putting pen to paper or making a plan. Scheduling underscores making good habits.” Vanderkam agrees: “If it’s a habit that is difficult to make or takes some effort — not like ‘grabbing a donut on your way into work every morning’ — scheduling helps. It practically guarantees you are going to get something done.”
Be Fluid up to a Point
“So much of routines are being conscious and aware of what you are doing, so if life changes and you go on vacation and you get out of your habits, that’s okay, but don’t let it be an excuse to get rid of the routine altogether,” says Vanderkam. “The marker is really to be reasonable with yourself. People don’t do things they don’t want to do in the long term, so try to do what you can and want to do now.”
Treat Yourself With Kindness
It’s hard when starting a good habit to nail it right away, but the way you react is very, very important, says Falconer. “Be kind to yourself, especially at the beginning, so you’re not like, ‘God, why isn’t this morning routine working for me and it’s working for everybody else!’ Setting yourself up with a whole list of psychological problems and feelings of self-doubt will only take you away from the goals at hand,” she says.
In the end, I realized my attempts at writing and running every day right out of the gate felt like death sentences. Yes, I wanted to work toward my goals, which were trying to write fiction and get healthier, but just because I didn’t do it on the hour day after day, didn’t mean I wasn’t making progress. Now, I try to schedule in advance three or four days a week to do the above with the option to do more. Writing it down so I’m not living in my head certainly has helped. My once idealistic commitments don’t have to feel so binding, like I previously thought; rather, they are helpful guides to getting what I want.
Illustrations by Ana Leovy.