My father-in-law is a man of steadfast routines. He’s 80 years old, and for at least half a century he’s been doing things like wearing flip-flops in the shower, reading the newspaper cover to cover and taking daily 15-minute walks on his treadmill. These routines work for him. They help him stay organized, productive, and generally keen on life. This is why I often hold him up as a shining example of how operating on rituals can be the key to getting more done in the day. And this is also why I’ve followed his lead in many areas of my life as I endeavor to balance a career, a family, and my own well-being.
It started with breakfast. I already knew the many benefits of having breakfast every morning, so I never skipped it. But about five years ago I began automating my breakfast. I’d have the same thing—a toasted English muffin, peppermint tea and a banana—every morning, except Sundays (because I’m sure it’s written in stone somewhere that the seventh day was designed specifically for homemade French toast or pancakes with real maple syrup). This small adjustment to my mornings made a significant difference to the rest of my day. I noticed that my transition into work mode became smoother, easier, all because what to eat for breakfast was no longer on the docket of things to consider; I would hit up breakfast literally without thinking and seamlessly move on to whatever was next on my agenda.
Mulling over what to eat for breakfast, trying to figure out if you should wake up at 5:30 a.m. or whether to go on a run now vs. after work—these are micro-decisions that essentially clog up your brain. They occupy valuable space in your mind and take your focus away from where it should be: on bigger, more complex and important things. Trapped under too many of these little choices, you can often feel immobilized, drained and useless.
The good news is there’s a smarter way to approach all of this. Research shows that routines and habits let us access the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that runs on autopilot. It’s essentially the habit center, where procedural learning and patterned behaviors develop. It also controls things like breathing, eye movement, and swallowing. By making tiny tweaks to things like your diet, fitness routine, and bedtime rituals, and by subsequently programming the basal ganglia with these new, healthy habits, you can actually help boost your productivity at work, at home, and in your life.
Healthy habits can be built, repeated, and learned. As they become locked into routines, they flex their undeniable power. They are able to change, influence, and improve our lives and how we move through this world. By choosing to embark on new habits, like the five listed below, not only are we edging toward being more productive but also happier. Here’s to a half century (or more) of good habits!
Take a break every hour. According to sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Work and Home, you can accomplish more by slacking off, strategically. “We don’t work or create at the same rate throughout the day,” she writes in a post for Psychology Today. She suggests getting in the habit of taking a recess at designated times during the day. It gives your mind a breather so you can return to tasks with a sharper focus. Carter even cites a UK study that shows how taking a 17-minute break every 52 minutes of working to have a snack or do something carefree and fun (hello, cat videos!) can increase productivity by 12 percent.
Enforce a “lights out” rule. One guaranteed way to get a jump on a productive day is by getting enough sleep the night before. New research from the University of Rochester shows a direct link between sleep and your brain’s ability to think. Skimping on a good night’s rest impairs your overall brain function, slowing your ability to process information and problem-solve as well as kicking stress levels up and putting a damper on creativity. And no amount of Starbucks can remedy it. You have to cultivate the healthy sleep habit—and stick to it—in order to reap the brain benefits. Most recently, I started setting an alarm on my iPhone at 10 p.m. to signal that bedtime is near. Something about the chimes going off at night makes me sit up and take action: shutting down my tech devices, heading to the bedroom and actually winding down for bed.
Make the most of your morning. Behavioral economist and the New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions Dan Ariely says that most people hit peak productivity in the first two hours of the morning. So if you wake up at 7 a.m., Ariely says you’ll be most effective between 8 and 10:30 a.m. Other studies extend those golden hours further, showing that your brain is typically sharpest 2.5 to 4 hours after waking up.
Make your routine worthwhile. When it comes to developing a fitness habit or refining an inconsistent routine, try pairing it with something else that doesn’t gobble up a lot of brain space and that you enjoy doing. For example, turn your slow-binge streaming of The Walking Dead or Orange Is the New Black into workout time. Plan to watch only an episode when you’re at the gym getting in your cardio on the machines. Or if you’re at home watching Hannibal, move to plank position on the floor and hold it for five unhurried breaths during the commercial breaks. Do it consistently, and soon enough not only will you have a new healthy habit on its way to being locked in, but also a clear, effective use of your time. Plus, as Charles Duhigg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, writes “Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”
Put down your smartphone. Instead of checking emails or hopping on social media, spend those early a.m. hours getting yourself centered before you launch into the world. Set an intention for the day, meditate, do a gratitude roll call, visualize the week’s goals, or decide on the three things from your to-do list that you will get done. I’ve gotten into a new routine of reading a book for an hour. As a writer, I find doing this sets my mood and warms up my creative engines; it’s fast becoming an essential part of my day.