The challenge of developing and maintaining routines. It takes a lot of cognitive effort and executive function.
Since everyone has at least a few well developed routines, we can look to these pre-existing routines to find the key components to building new ones: context/cues, motivation, the routine itself, and a sense of reward or accomplishment.
Cues tell us that it’s time to initiate a routine, and the best ones are clear, consistent, and happen in a place and time you can actually act on them. They can be time-based, but events also make great cues.
Beware of the ambition trap; the more we care about the outcome of a routine, the more likely we are to make it too large to easily maintain. The steps of the routine itself need to be smaller than you think are small.
Rewards make it more likely the routine will happen again. Internal, and instantaneous rewards are especially good, but the best rewards are the ones that are available and work for you.
No routine is forever. As your context, cues, motivations, and reward changes, the routine is going to need to change too. Don’t be afraid to rebuild.
The Challenge of Developing and Maintaining Routines
Developing and maintaining routines takes a lot of cognitive effort and executive functioning. Even for people who don’t regularly struggle with executive function, this makes starting new routines incredibly difficult. We often know we’d benefit from a specific routine, but we just can’t seem to make it stick. So let’s talk about why that happens, how routines work, and what might make developing a routine easier.
Before we go any further, it’s important to point out that everyone has routines. No matter how bad we are at developing new ones, everyone has at least a few well developed routines. Essentially, any series of actions we regularly do in the same way is a routine. This obviously means a consistent skincare or gym routine (if you’re a better person than me). However, it also means your commute to school or work, the way that you make your favourite meal, or even your morning trip to the bathroom after waking up, also count as a routine.
Building New Routines using the Habit Loop Model
While these successful routines don’t make us experts at developing new ones, they do offer us insight into the essential components for building them, at least according to one model, the habit loop. Learning from these examples shows us that they often happen in a specific context (such as on our way to work) or in response to an environmental cue (such as an alarm or event), and this is the first essential component of a successful routine: a specific context or cue
The best cue for initiating a routine is one which is clear, consistent, and happens in a place and time you can actually act on it. While a lot of people immediately think about linking routines to specific times (such as “everyday at 3pm, I…”), the most powerful cues are usually regular events that require a response. These events could be environmental (such as the lights shutting off), a bodily sensation or need, or even the ending of another routine (such as brushing your teeth directly after washing your face). When completing the last habit or routine is the cue for starting the next one, this is known as habit stacking. This is a particularly powerful way of expanding on existing habits or directing them towards bigger goals.
What is the Habit Loop Model? The Habit Loop Model is a cycle of cue, behavior, and reward that drives the repetition of habits. A cue prompts a habit, the routine is the habit itself, and the reward reinforces the habit, forming a loop that drives repeated behavior.
The "Why" Behind Routine BehaviorThe second essential component of a successful routine is the “why,” or motivation, behind doing it in the first place. This motivation could be as straightforward as meeting an immediate bodily need or as abstract as supporting our core values or sense of identity. While having a good reason for completing the routine isn’t enough to guarantee that the routine will happen, not having a good reason can be enough to guarantee it doesn’t. After all, if you don’t believe the reason that you’re doing the routine, or you don’t find the reason to be meaningful or valuable to you, you aren’t going to do it.
Crafting Clear and Feasible StepsNow let’s talk about the routine itself, or more specifically, about having clear steps for the routine that are the right level of difficulty. If you are anything like me, you just rolled your eyes upon reading that sentence, because surely this is the easy part, right? You’d be surprised.
One of the most frequent reasons my clients end up struggling with a routine is being far too ambitious. You are almost certainly going to make the routine far too complicated at first. And the more you want the reward at the end, the more likely you are to fall into this ambition trap (and this goes double for folks who struggle with executive dysfunction, by the way). So, even if you don’t think you need to, make the steps of your routine simpler. Then, make them simpler again. In the end, the steps of your routine should feel like they’d be a gentle walk in the park. This is essential, because successful routines need to be possible even when you aren’t as interested, don’t have as much energy, or when it’s a bad executive function day.
I know this probably feels deflating, but fret not. There’s plenty of time to make sure that you get to all the steps that you want to soon enough. Starting smaller than you think is small just makes it less likely that you’ll fall off the routine and end up avoiding due to an overwhelming sense of guilt. (Trust me, I definitely am speaking from personal experience on this one).
The 'Reward' ComponentFinally, the last core component of developing a successful routine is the reward for doing it. This reward can be a tangible, extrinsic benefit, such as giving yourself a treat or gift, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, intrinsic rewards—such as an internal sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, an aesthetic benefit, or increased sense of peace—tend to be better at preserving motivation for a routine or habit over the long-term.
Short-term rewards work generally better than long-term ones, especially if you can only access them by completing the routine. This means that the long-term motivations for starting the routine in the first place usually aren’t the best rewards for making sure that we keep doing the routine. These motivations, such as learning a skill, or building better relationships, are valuable outcomes, but they are simply too abstract and gradual for most people to meaningfully connect with after each use of a habit or routine. However, short-term rewards that connect with your motivation for doing the routine in the first place, and especially those that offer visible markers of progress can also be quite powerful. All that being said, the best rewards are the ones that are available to you and work for you, so try different options and find what works for you.