I Used to Struggle With Routines Until I Figured This Out

The people who know me would scoff at this, but for a long time I believed it to be true: I am horrible at sticking to routines.

I have things I like to do and stuff I’ve accomplished, for sure. I’ve run a few marathons and work out regularly. I’m in a job I like and have traveled. Friends and family are abundant. My life is good and I do things I enjoy.

But the story I’ve always told myself is that most of this came out of spontaneous luck and situational stuff, not because I dedicated myself in any way to it. And in a way, I really believe this is true. I have a knack for sensing opportunities and connecting with people who may have a meaningful effect down the road in my life, and while I don’t exploit that consciously, I think it’s been a big driver in my life and any success I have.

Meaningful routines, though, have eluded me. Or at least that’s what I’ve always thought. And this drove me crazy, because it felt like a huge personal failure not to be able to stick to any routine.

Part of this is because approximately 30 trillion blogs and self advice books tell you that sticking to routine is the backbone of any success you will have in life. Part of it has been because it felt awful and sad that I couldn’t come up with the willpower to stick to things I knew would benefit me.

“Oh well,” I’d think, sleeping in late another morning instead of getting up to run or write or meditate, “this is just who I am, better accept it!”

This has been a convenient narrative for me, something that allows me to escape attempting routines or doing things on a regular basis that I know would benefit me. A while back, in an attempt to understand more about what I saw to be a personal failing, and wanting to create more stable routines in my life, I took Gretchen Rubin’s quiz about the four tendencies. You see, she believes that most people fall into four different kind of categories that speak to the kind of way they are most likely to form habits: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels.

Her belief is that if you can understand what motivates you best, what makes you stay accountable, you can develop habits and ways of sticking to them that will last. Upholders meet expectations they set for themselves as well as ones that others set for them. Obligers can easily meet expectations demanded of them by others, but often can’t set and stick to their own personal goals. Questioners only do something because they want to, and because they’ve decided it makes really good sense. And Rebels basically do nothing; being told to do something by somebody is an anathema to them, and they won’t often stick to their own goals because they feel defiant and don’t want to be bound to obligation.

I took the quiz, and not to my surprise, I was a Questioner. To me, this means I’m able to stick to habits, but only after I truly believe and have proof that they make sense and benefit me personally. This is true; once it struck me that every time after I meditated I genuinely felt better, I started meditating daily. I understand exercise as a habit — its effects and benefits are quite clear — so it’s no struggle for me to do that on a regular basis.

But what about other stuff? I realized where I wanted more routines and accountability was in my creative projects. I knew and felt so deeply in my heart that I wanted to write and read more, and I just couldn’t get it done. Every time I’d flip open a Microsoft word document, waiting for inspiration to strike, I’d just click over to Twitter and resign myself to the fact that I didn’t really have anything to say.

The thing is, I totally logically understood that if I could set up a daily routine where I made myself write more, it would probably work.

But I could not get it done. And I chalked it up, once again, to an inherent failing on my part. “Guess I’m just lazy and not meant to be a writer!” I’d tell myself, flicking mindlessly through the internet for the billionth time. “If I were meant to be I’d have created to and stuck to a routine by now. Too bad I’m not good at routines, so I guess this will never happen.”

What a sad story to sell yourself. But I suspect it’s more common than not.

Things started to change for me within a week of doing the morning pages exercise (read more at that link; I hope to write down the road about the effect the exercise has had on my creative mind later on). The morning pages in and of itself are a habit — you must arise every morning and give yourself 30–45 minutes to write out three pages of longhand stream of consciousness.

The truth is, I had tried and failed at doing morning pages routine about a year ago, chalking up my failure to stick to it again to the story that I was just bad at routines.

This time around, I had circumstances helping me out. I had been waking up very early to exercise most mornings, but the past week I’d been sick, so I was skipping the workouts but still waking up early. I had also read yet another convincing article about morning pages, so decided to use the extra time I found myself with to give it another shot.

Well, they work. And one day this past week I was writing about how horrible I was at sticking to routines and how frustrating that was to me as I was trying to write more and be more creative.

Then I looked around at myself, having gotten up for the 10th day in a row at 5:30am, simply to scribble in a notebook, and said… huh.

A spark lit in me. I decided to write down all of the things I do do as routine, but don’t necessarily think about as such.

It turns out, I am very good at routines. I just hadn’t been pinpointing them as that. I go therapy weekly. I work out several times a week, often arising very early to do so. I walk to work at the same time every morning, and always stop to chat with the guy at the Dunkin Donuts coffee shop. I help run a cookbook club every six weeks or so; I check the same websites every morning. I mean, I brush my teeth twice a day and floss every night, and also embark on an extensive skincare regimen every evening. I take medication once a day, and am good about my vitamins.

Some of these are routines to be proud of; some are just routines that I’ve picked up without realizing; some are just, you know, basic hygiene.

But in that entire moment of brainstorming everything i actually do on a regular basis, I had a mini epiphany. And that mini epiphany was…. Fuck. I am actually REALLY GOOD AT ROUTINES!

This may sound like an obvious, banal observation, but to me, it was truly an empowering reframing of a story I have told myself for a long time: that I have no willpower, that I’m lazy, that my creative work isn’t worth investing in because it probably wouldn’t be good enough anyways, and anyways, if I really wanted to do it, I would have figured out a way to do it, so guess I didn’t want it that bad anyways.

I see now that that was all a lie to myself — a protection, if you will. Because, you see, the truth about routines is that they are actually an investment in yourself and an act of self love. And I wasn’t believing — for a variety of reasons, mostly fear I wouldn’t be good enough, I think — that my creative aspirations deserved to become a routine.

Again, this may be obvious to others, but to me this was eye-opening, the concept of routines as an act of investment in something you care about, as a real investment in yourself. And that you might not be doing the routines you want because you’re lazy or lack willpower, which is a very convenient narrative for most of us to fall back on, because, you know, you can just say, I was born without willpower! Can’t do much about this! This isn’t really my fault, just gonna blame the universe for this one!

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you have problems sticking to routines, it is not because you are lazy or lack willpower. It is because you are afraid of something, or don’t believe in yourself.

I realized that for me, the story I told myself about being lazy and not good at routines — that was the fear speaking. The fear that if I invested in routines that supported my writing or creative work, then I’d have to share that work, and that work would be found wanting.

But by naming all the ways I actually was succeeding at routines, I moved myself towards the realization that I actually have kind of a weird crap ton of willpower (seriously I wake up at 5am like three times a week to work out). I just wasn’t putting that willpower towards a vulnerable area in which I was afraid of failing.

So what does this mean for you? Well, if you’re stuck on creating and sticking to a routine, I can’t recommend enough the writing exercise I did which named and called out all the ways in which I was actually sticking to routines. Give it a shot; I’m going to guess you’ll be surprised in all the routines you actually may participate in, whether consciously or not. And I genuinely count, like, toothbrushing as a routine. Showering is, too. Listen to the same podcast at the same time every week? That’s a routine. Meet for happy hour at the same place every week with the same friend? Yup, routine!

The truth is, you probably have an enormous amount of willpower that you’re not giving yourself credit for. It takes effort to do any number of things that you do every day; it’s just that those acts may not have been granted the glorious mantle of ‘routine’ because they may not be all about conscious self-improvement. But routines they are.

So after you’ve brainstormed all the ways in which you do invest in habits and routines in your life, hopefully, for you, much like for me, a lightbulb will click on, and you will understand that you are in fact quite capable of creating any new routine you want to. You do have that willpower. You are able to invest in yourself. You can do things that will benefit you.

The next important step though, is to ask yourself, “Why is it that I so badly want to create a routine around one area, but have been unable to do it?”

Again, I believe the root of that will be fear or that you may not believe in your ability to do that one thing. I have no problem creating routines around working out because I fucking love working out and know I’m strong and good at physical things.

It was simply the writing that I was shying away from, because my fear was located in my ability to succeed there, in my ability to put my work out in front of the world.

Where is your fear located? Imagine yourself six months from now, having invested in a routine that matters to you. Again, I suggest writing about it longhand. (And this isn’t just for writers — it’s simply that writing things out longhand, stream of consciousness style, often allows for a deeper connection with the words and the thought process. I don’t care if your goal routine involves building robots on a daily basis and the last time you held a pen or pencil was in 6th grade, I think this still applies.)

Let yourself go wild in this written brainstorm scenario. Imagine all the horrible things that could happen. You fail, or someone makes fun of you. Your project that results from the routine doesn’t work. You want to meditate, but you just can’t do it, and being alone with your thoughts has proved true torture, and you’re frustrated with yourself.

Now imagine all the wonderful things that could happen. Write about yourself having woken up for the umpteenth day in a row to go running, and feel, as you write, the sweat on your brow and your tired but stronger legs. Think about the routine of having cooked every Sunday — all the delicious meals that have resulted, the dinner parties that have taken place, the wine stains on your tablecloth and the sense of happiness as you pull out a perfectly roasted dish. Sit and bask in that satisfaction that you do this act that makes you so deeply happy now on a regular basis.

Now know this: that feeling doesn’t have to be imagined. You simply need to reframe your story. Work to understand that you are capable of an enormous amount of willpower, and try to dig deep to unearth the root of fear that may be keeping you from moving forward.

You can it. I believe in you. And I believe in me, now, too.

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Teaching awakening + healing through vulnerability + self-compassion. Finding hope in a messy world. Author of the Sunday Soother. http://catherinedandrews.com

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