Routines or Chaos… or both?

Have you ever been on a vacation or a summer break and thought to yourself “I can’t wait to get back into a routine again”? For many, this is the case, after periods of inconsistency, or chaos, we start to crave a habitual routine. Everyone talks about the power of routines and the power of habit, others talk about the power of rest and vacations, but what about the power of planned ambiguity and chaos. As humans, it is clear that we thrive on routine and the power of habits, but a new routine is challenging to get into as an adult and quite frankly, overwhelming. What if routines are only possibly, only beneficial when used intermittently, when used with periods of ambiguity or perhaps even chaos.  What if the only way to get into a routine, to crave routine, to thrive off of routine, is to intentionally plan periods of ambiguity and chaos between periods of routine. I don’t mean plan vacations all the time, but more periods of leniency from the routine.

As children we go to school following a strict routine and have a laid back summer break and even small breaks throughout the year. As young athletes we may learn to get into a training routine in the proper season, and then we have an off season, a break. In college we find routines of going to classes, but that routine ends on holidays and terminates once we graduate. These breaks aren’t full-on vacations, but they are a break from the stricter routine, athletes still have off season training, kids still have summer camps and still need to brush their teeth. Yet as adults, it’s like we’re striving for this one massive routine and the minute we are “off” the routine we get hard on ourselves and quit the new routine. I hear all the time “I need to get into the routine of… [insert exercising more, reading more, skin care regime, etc. …]. Over the years I’ve noticed that a new routine feels only bearable, only possible, only successfully implemented when taken in increments. Based on my personal experience and observation of successful people, perhaps the only way to get into a routine, is to intentionally plan periods of ambiguity and chaos between periods of routine. How about instead of a life routine, we strive for a 3 month routine followed by 1 month of chaos, and repeat the cycle.

She stuck to a routine &thenShe achieved more than she ever thought, &thenShe found contentment in the pattern of habits, &thenShe

Routine or Chaos… or both?

The Power of Routine

First, let’s acknowledge the power of routine. Routine is shown in research to be very beneficial for adults and children, we thrive on routine. Based on NCBI published research by Katherine R. Arlinghaus, MS, RD and Dr. Craig A. Johnston in their study called “The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine”, we learn the real benefits of finding a routine. Here’s a valuable snippet from their research:

“Routine is consistently found to be important for children. A bedtime routine is associated with increased family functioning and improved sleep habits. Family routines have been linked to the development of social skills and academic success, and adherence to family routines has been identified as important for family resilience during times of crisis. However, the importance of routine is not unique to children. Observational research indicates that individuals in good health engage in highly routine health behaviors. For example, those successful at maintaining weight loss often eat the same foods, engage in consistent exercise, and do not skip meals.”

The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine
Katherine R. Arlinghaus, MS, RD and Craig A. Johnston, PhD

So yes, routine is incredibly helpful to us and we should take advantage of this primal need for routine to reach the goals we want. The study, however, also found that “Occasional nonadherence to a behavior will not derail progress made to creating the routine, and perfect adherence does not need to be a goal or expectation.” This statement cant help me but wonder if I am onto something, that taking a break will not ruin your chance to make a habit or routine and possibly could even enhance your likelihood to stick to a routine and maybe even lead to a habit one day. Research shows that on average it takes 66 days before habits become automatic. Basically, do something for 66 days, and it will become a habit, something you don’t even consciously have to think about, like brushing your teeth. However, I used to work in a gym and exercise every day for at least 2 years straight… yet… I still do not automatically just put my running shoes on. It’s a daily decision that I feel I have to make. I actually take my training in increments and that’s what gave me the idea of this blog. I was training for a 10 mile running event, and I realized I only run if I have a race and know that I get to stop running for at least a month after the race before I get back into it. I typically plan periods of “exercise freedom” where instead of sticking to a strict training routine, I get to do what I want when I want to. This freedom allows me to swim, bike, walk, hike, kayak, rock climb, run, do yoga, or weights at any time of the day without a strict “I must run 4 times a week for X amount of miles”. I look forward to my month of exercise ambiguity, but after about a month of “exercise freedom” I start to get bored of having to think of new stuff and I crave my strict training plan again. So I’ve decided to do this in other areas of my life, a 3 month routine with a 1 month break.

The Three Month Routine Approach

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

My method is a 3 month routine, 1 month of chaos approach. You set any routine you want to get into and do it for three months. This is different from the whole if you do this for 60 days and it becomes a habit thing. I am not trying to make habits here, instead we are just helping get you motivated for three months at a time to start a routine, and if it eventually becomes a habit, then awesome.  So for three months you follow your routine, read on Monday mornings, jog on Tuesday and Thursdays during lunch, Wednesday and Fridays do the morning skin care routine and Saturdays are for family and gardening. Whatever it is, just write it down somewhere you can see it and make sure they are specific. Think about your goals for the year and see if you can align your routine with things you hope to achieve. If you want to start a blog this year, perhaps your routine is to spend an hour on Monday and Wednesday evenings at 5pm to write. Check out my article called Setting Goals that Stick and learn about how to make your goals and routines SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely). 

Now, once you have your routine written down and perfected, stick to it for three months. In the beginning we tend to be a little ambitious, so feel free to make some adjustments to the schedule in the first few weeks if it really isn’t working out. But then, be strict, hold yourself accountable and stick to it! Put in reward systems for sticking to your routine and discipline yourself for not sticking to your routine. An example would be, if you were supposed to journal this morning and missed it, maybe you don’t get to eat out at lunch this week. I am not reinforcing being “hard on yourself”, be gracious and understanding to yourself, but hold yourself accountable in the ways you know that work for you. You will be so much more motivated knowing you only have to do this for 12 weeks. And once you get through 12 weeks, it’s break time!

Now you take a 1 month break from your routine. Take this time to embrace ambiguity and chaos, don’t want to jog on Thursdays… don’t, you rebel! Maybe you will be crazy and ride the bike instead, or maybe just watch some TV. You do whatever you want! Here’s the catch, your “break” is not a vacation, it’s not that you don’t do anything, but that you have leniency, that you can bend the rules on your day to day routine. The idea is that you don’t ever “fall” out of routine, but instead you intentionally plan ambiguity and lack of routines during that month. Allow yourself to explore what Taco Tuesdays could look like, and hey maybe you will want to incorporate it in your next cycle of routine.

Tips for Planning your Routine Breaks:

Plan your “breaks” around months or times that you know you would like a little more freedom. I love fall activities, so I want my fall months to be a wild card, to do whatever I want, go to festivals, decorate the house, take fall walks, and go camping, so I may plan my routine break around fall. Breaks could also be built around children’s school break schedules. 

Although your “break” is not a vacation, I do recommend planning a vacation or getaway around the end of your routine breaks, even if it’s just a long weekend. There is something about a long break from a routine followed by a vacation that leaves you craving for routine and normalcy. Once your one month routine break is over, you will be ready to jump back into your routine again (or new routine).

Tips for Planning your next Routine Cycle:

The other benefit of this 3 month on – 1 month off approach, is that it gives you time to reassess your routine, make changes and re align yourself. Maybe you really didn’t enjoy your routine, maybe it exhausted you, maybe you need to better align your routine with your goals for the year. During your routine “break”, I suggest taking a look at your routine, maybe write a whole new one. Maybe you jog on Monday and Wednesdays just to change it up, or maybe you switch it entirely to biking. Whatever it is, feel free to take the time to adjust your routine and write one that will get you excited to start up again! You can also just pick back up where you left off with your old routine.

At the end of the day, I find that it’s basically all a mind game. Our brains are powerful things and they will do whatever it takes to find shortcuts and easy way outs. A three month routine is something your brain can deal with, so just keep pushing when the going gets rough! 

New Routine Ideas

If you need help with ideas of new routines to try, check out some examples below to get you started. Just remember, there is no “right” routine, do the ones that work for you and inspire you!

  • Journaling – daily or weekly
  • Exercise – daily
    • Walking 
    • Jogging
    • Weights
    • Fitness classes
    • Yoga/Stretching
    • Cardio Other – Swimming, Biking, Hiking, etc.
  • Get outdoors regularly – walk around the neighborhood, go to parks, etc.
  • A skin care routine
  • Reading weekly
  • Eating a big breakfast
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day
  • Stay on top of finances – set weekly spend limits
  • Cleaning routine
  • Maintain a weekly social schedule
  • Meditate regularly
  • Schedule “Me” days
  • Dress for success – invest time into my hair, makeup, or fashion daily
  • Practice daily gratitude – journaling, during family dinner time, etc.
  • Positive self talk regularly
  • Be organized – look ahead, plan ahead, stay on top of things
  • Get 8 hours of sleep every night
  • Wake up at the same time every day
  • Go to bed at the same time every day
  • Do the dishes right after dinner
  • Schedule weekly date nights
  • Maintain work-life balance (check out my article called “Work-Life Balance and Toxic Work”)
  • Invest in a bi-weekly therapist/mentor/coach
  • Cook meals – two times a week, etc.
  • Commit to a diet – juicing, smoothies, etc.

There are so many routines that people say “just do this and you will be successful”. There are definitely things that will improve your health such as a good night’s sleep and drinking plenty of water, but there is no one size fits all. People say waking up early is a routine you should get into, but I don’t believe that is a healthy routine for everyone. Everyone’s circadian rhythm is different and you may be more successful sleeping in. Find routines that align with what you want to do, where you want to be in life and what keeps you motivated. If you pick a new routine based on what some expert says or the newest trend is, you will probably hate it. Go be you!

What do you think about this new approach to routines? Leave me a message or drop a comment below.

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