January 19, 2020

The Tyranny of a Morning Routine

“nless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve been repeatedly told – including by me – that if you want to be productive, creative and sane, you’ll need a routine, especially a morning routine. Frankly, even if you have been living under a rock, you’ve probably been forwarded several blogposts by twentysomething Silicon Valley guys who also live under rocks, explaining how they emerge from under the rock no later than 5.30am every day for some yoga poses and a green smoothie, followed by a spot of journalling. “The one thing more difficult than following a regimen is not imposing it on others,” wrote Marcel Proust, but these days almost nobody even bothers attempting the latter. And, certainly, nobody seems to find time between their yoga stretches and their gratitude meditation to ask a forbidden question: what if you don’t need a routine – or might even be better off without one?

This is, of course, a matter of balance. Routines are good. It’s easier to make something a habit if you plan it in advance and do it daily; plus there’s the (controversial) phenomenon of “decision fatigue”, which implies that you should “routinise” as many choices as possible – such as when to get up and what to do first each day – to save energy for others. Some people are so disorganised that a strict routine is a lifesaver. But speaking as a recovering rigid-schedules addict, trust me: if you click excitedly on each new article promising the perfect morning routine, you’re almost certainly not one of those people. You’re one of the other kind – people who’d benefit from struggling less to control their day, responding a bit more intuitively to the needs of the moment. This is the self-help principle you might call the law of unwelcome advice: if you love the idea of implementing a new technique, it’s likely to be the opposite of what you need.

There’s support for this perspective in a new study of the writing habits of academics, conducted by the consultancy Prolifiko. Among those who dispense advice on writing, it’s an article of faith that you should write every day – but the survey of about 600 academics found that this didn’t lead to more output. (“Timeboxing”, where you schedule chunks of writing in advance, but not necessarily daily, worked better.) One reason may be the pitfall that afflicts any overly rigid routine: when you fail to adhere to it – which you will, because it’s so rigid – your motivation takes a nosedive, resulting in less productivity than if you’d followed a more forgiving system.”

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