How to create a routine that works for YOU

Sometimes I feel like a cross between a three year old and an old lady. Routines are veeeeeery important to me. I have a strict bedtime and I have been eating the same things for breakfast every single week for the last four years. I do not fit the model of the free-wheeling creative who stays up all night painting (or binge-drinking) and forgets to eat. A few weeks ago I got excited because I got lost in a drawing and forgot about breakfast for 30 whole minutes. Woohoo! Getting crazy in this art studio!

The thing is, my desire for (you might even say obsession with) routine is what helps me thrive as a creative. Because it’s easy to feel like the everyday activities that keep me alive and sane (sleeping, eating, washing the dishes) get in the way of my creativity. If only I didn’t have to cut my toenails and wash my towels! Then I could be the famous artist I know I have inside!

But these necessary activities aren’t going away and so it’s in my best interest to find ways to do  them efficiently and joyfully, in a way that leaves plenty of time and energy for the creative work. This is where the routines come in.

I think of my routines as happy little boxes where I can snugly pack away my necessary activities like a drawer of KonMari’d socks, leaving the rest of my time open and free. For example: I used to get groceries whenever the mood struck and then I would spend part of every day in a mild panic about what I would eat that day. Did I have time to go the store? Should I just finish those questionable leftovers? Maybe I could make something creative out of spaghetti and mung beans?

Now, I put my grocery shopping into a happy little box on Sundays. I spend 30-60 minutes meal planning for the week, then head out to all the places (farmer’s market, regular grocery store, organic grocery store, giant grocery store) where I might need to get everything on the list. Shopping itself is easy since I just follow my list, and I save a ton of effort every day trying to figure out how to feed myself.

Another routine that has saved me countless hours of anxiety? My hour-long bedtime. I remember when I used to race around at bedtime, trying to finish just one more thing before I turned out the lights. Inevitably I would feel stressed and wouldn’t be able to sleep and I was a mess. Now, I put my bedtime into a rock-solid box: 60 minutes before bed, I put down whatever I’m doing, walk away from the television, and brush my teeth. I spend the last part of my day in a dim, cool room without my phone, journaling and reading. I keep my bullet journal on the bedside table in case any last minute “must do this!” thoughts arise. I write them down, and then close the book. Voila! I ease into sleep gently, with a decided lack of panic. And when the to do list does stretch a little too long, I have a buffer that means that I always turn out the light at the right time.

(Disclaimer: Please don’t take this to mean that I have my life perfectly sorted. I do not. There are many occasions when my happy little boxes crumble or explode and I need to get out the emotional steam cleaner.)

Of course, these are the routines that I have developed after years of trial and error. They work for me, but they might not work for you. You might feel morally opposed to starting bedtime at 8:30pm (yep. Three days/week I am the oldest of old ladies.) And that’s okay. You just need to figure out what works for you. Here are some ideas on how you can do that:

Identify the areas of greatest chaos/stress in your life and make that your priority.

Like I said above, groceries and sleep were two things that continuously stressed me out. I knew I wasn’t getting enough sleep but couldn’t figure out how to change it. It seemed like everything in my life was more important. Finally I decided that I would get enough sleep, no matter what it took. And I started making changes. For you it might be that your home or work space is too much of a disaster for you to concentrate, or you're constantly arriving late to everything. Choose ONE thing to focus on at first. 

Make small changes instead of trying to overhaul your whole life.

I’m sure we’ve all fallen into the trap of listing a page’s worth of new years resolutions, or deciding that from this moment, everything will be different! And then watching our efforts falter and crumble on every single count. The trick is to tackle one little thing at a time, rather than everything all at once.

Once you’ve figured out which area of your life is stressing you out, think about one small change that you could make on a weekly or daily basis. You might set an alarm on your phone to remind you to do a daily tidy, or start leaving the house five minutes earlier every day. A friend told me about an app called The Fabulous that’s supposed to help with just that. Might be worth checking out!

Keep experimenting and iterating.

Don’t expect to get a perfect routine figured out on the first try. You might but chances are it will take some tweaking to figure out what works best. Don't beat your head against a wall trying to get a habit to stick. If it's  not working, try something else. Chances are there's something that will feel easier to you. 

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Use some system of tracking.

As you experiment, you’ll want to keep track of what’s working and what isn’t so that you can do more of the first and less of the second.

You might create a goal tracking chart (here's one you can download, or make your own like I did!) or use your calendar or an app. I write in my journal every night about what I did that made me feel good, what I was grateful for that day, and what I can improve on. I try to do a recap each week where I read my entries, highlight anything important that I learned, and set intentions for the following week. I also do a monthly recap. This helps me remember what I’m working on and want to change.

Figure out what your non-negotiables are.

These are the things that you must do daily or weekly to keep you feeling at your best. For me, the biggest one is 8.5 hours of sleep. I also try to get at least 10 minutes of exercise every day, I eat three meals per day, and I write in my journal every night.

Don’t do what everyone says you should do if it doesn’t work.

The best advice out there won’t help if it’s not suited to your rhythms, schedules, work loads, etc. If you like a little chaos in your life you might find most routines restrictive, except for that one thing you do every morning to help get focused. Experiment and let your body be your guide. Do you feel a sense of relief when you wash the dishes after every meal? Or do you feel restricted and frustrated and wish you could just do it once a day? Follow your feelings to find the routine that’s just right for you.

Most importantly, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get your life perfectly organized. Routines help but they don’t erase the messiness of life, and expecting them to can end up making you feel more stressed if you’re not careful. Things will probably still feel out of balance and occasionally out of control and that’s normal. The goal is to diminish the chaos, not eliminate it.

What routine are you going to work on implementing this week? Leave a comment below!