What with lockdowns and homeschooling, health worries and endless Zoom calls, the last year or so has been a draining time for our energy and for mental resilience, but we got through it, and looking back it’s super clear to me that perhaps the most important thing that helped me to get through the days, and the year, were my routines. 

The science behind routines

Routines save a lot of mental energy simply by making things automatic. Getting things done without having to think about it allows us to use that mental energy on something else. They also give us stability and predictability, something that is often missing from our lives, especially in times that feel chaotic, uncontrollable, or scary. All the science points towards the fact that routines are good anxiety busters as well, freeing up the brain from worries which are bad for our health. And the benefits don’t stop with the mental and physical. Routines can be seen to have an effect on our sense of existential contentedness. One recent study concluded that: People who tend to engage in routines rate their lives as more meaningful (Heintzelman & King 2019)

“One aspect is a sense of coherence, of having structure and stability in daily life, that seems to help us make sense of the world around us,” Heintzelman says. “That helps us act in the best ways, the most adaptive ways.”

So it is about being attentive. In doing so, we become aware of all our daily habits – we experience them consciously and with presence in every action, in every movement, in every word. A well-known Zen saying sums it up perfectly: “Make every moment the best moment of your life.” This is the path to success and leads to a fundamental feeling of happiness and ease.

So routines save energy, keep us calm, allow us to practice and improve ourselves, and bring our lives structure and even meaning, but how do we get more of this goodness into our lives?

You already have routines – practice PIGGYBACKING!

morning brushing teeth

Whether we recognise it or not, we’ve all got routines. They’re unthinking behaviours that we perform in sequence every day. Often they look like this: 

  • Lights on
  • Pee
  • Brush teeth
  • Wash face
  • Look at self in mirror

OR

  • Coffee machine on
  • Feed the cat
  • Glass of water
  • Pour coffee
  • Drink coffee

We don’t really think about them, because there’s nothing really to think about… and that’s the point. We get stuff done without having to put in ANY effort. There’s a huge opportunity in that. We can hijack it to supercharge our personal development. If we can take what we do already, and add in a couple of extra beneficial steps, we can make a real difference to how we feel day-to-day. 

The simple inclusion of a couple of affirmations when washing your face, or some gratitude practice while the coffee drips out of the machine turn your everyday actions into happiness routines. And since happiness is a practice, every little bit of work moves us forward in the right direction.

“We are what we repeatedly do”

It’s a phrase often misattributed to Aristotle, but it’s something that people interested in personal development have known for millennia. Repetition is the key to growth. Shakespeare didn’t just decide to sit down and bang out a play, Picasso painted every day, Eric Clapton probably spent his teenage years strumming in his bedroom. Whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, doing it over and over again is the key. 

If you want to get big muscles, then you lift weights, repetitively.

If you want to be happier, practice gratitude, repetitively

If you want to get more comfortable with your feelings, you sit with them, repetitively.

Repetition builds thought superhighways

Repetition works because when our brains do the same things, over and over again, the neural links between the areas of the brain involved develop a sort of insulation around them called myelin, kind of like the rubber around an electric wire, which allow signals to pass more easily, and with less resistance and interference along their way. Essentially, the more you do something, the less resistance there is in the brain to that sort of thought in the future, and the more naturally that behaviour will come to you.

REDUCING RESISTANCE

Ultimately the secret to creating routines that work for you, and making them stick, lies in reducing resistance. To truly work, a routine needs to happen without thinking, just like brushing your teeth. These are our top tips on how to make your routines stick:

  1. Start really really small – micro action is better than no action. It’ll generate momentum and pride.
  2. Tie the action to something you already do routinely at around the same time. Affirmations as you brush your teeth, journaling with your coffee, gratitude at the train station etc.
  3. Write a “To Be” list – What kind of person do you want to be? What would that person put in  their routine? Put those things in yours and fake it till you make it.
  4. Celebrate small wins – did you nail your gratitude practice today? Give yourself a pat on the back. It’ll make it more likely you’ll do it again tomorrow if you show yourself some gratitude.
  5. Make it fun. Most of us are really just like kids inside, and as my school psychologist cousin told me (WAY too late in lockdown) “Kids aren’t motivated by consequences, they’re motivated by fun”. If it’s fun to do, we’ll do it more.

To save you the trouble of coming up with all the ingredients of your own routine, we’ve developed 16 fully functional routines working on everything from gratitude to mindfulness to productivity. You’ll find them in the brand new ROUTINES section of the app, and we’re so convinced they work, we’ve decided to make them all free, for everyone forever! Choose one, or do them all, it’s up to you. After all… it’s your routine.


Download the Mindshine app (iOS or Android) for additional mindfulness and happiness exercises. Start your mornings with “Mighty Mornings” “Morning Journaling” and “Morning Affirmation”.

Check out how Mindfulness can help you achieve happiness at work, or how to turn positive stress into personal growth.