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How to build new routines

Marble bathroom counter with two robes, a plant, soap and a white hanging mirror.

Discipline. I’ve never liked that word. In my book, discipline exists to suck the fun and spontaneity out of life. It means forfeiting the benefits of an unforeseen opportunity for the sake of following the rules. Just thinking about “being more disciplined” actually stresses me out.

My biggest problem with discipline, though, is that as soon as I’m supposed to do something, I don’t want to do it at all. The little kid in me gets scared off and wants to rebel.

For many years, this distaste for discipline resulted in a fear of all routine and structure in my personal life. When I wasn’t working, I wanted – no, I needed – the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted.

This coping mechanism helped me manage social anxiety and FOMO in my 20s. I didn’t envy people who seemed to be slaves to their workout routines, diets or hobbies. I didn’t want to trade my freedom in for anything.

That is, until I didn’t feel so free anymore. I began to realize that waiting until the last minute to make plans meant I was forfeiting any opportunity that required advanced commitment. Pressing the snooze button on my alarm five times made me feel rushed and harried in the morning. Failing to floss my teeth meant I was racking up a mouthful of cavities.

It turned out that the lack of rhythm in my days wasn’t making me feel free at all – it was actually making me feel powerless.

Honestly, the cavities were the straw that broke this camel’s back. My typically kind and patient dentist reached his limit with my excuses and had a firm sit down with me. This wasn’t optional, he told me. If I wanted to avoid having a new cavity every time I showed up at his door, I needed to start flossing every night.

I had reached my limit with my excuses, too. I was ready. I wanted to floss my teeth. And you know what? I have, nearly every night, for the past 4 years.

This may sound trivial if you’re already a champion flosser, but for me, beginning this new habit was a big deal. This nightly routine showed me that I was capable of changing my behavior in a way that had previously felt impossible. If I could floss my freaking teeth every night, what else might I be capable of?

Since then, I’ve transformed my daily life, bit by bit, with dozens of healthy habits that support my sleep, nutrition, hydration, mood and hygiene. For me, practicing these routines isn’t about “being disciplined”; it’s about making choices from a pool of vetted options that help me feel my very best.

If, like me, you’ve been wanting to create a new routine that seems impossible, here are the five steps I recommend for getting started.

1. Choose a routine that you actually want to do

Not something you supposed to do or that someone else wants you to do. What’s a small routine that you know would bring joy to your day? What’s the one thing you’re longing to do but just haven’t figured out how to make the time for it? Give yourself permission to start here.

2. Make it dead simple

This is the hardest step for most people – especially Type-A overachievers. We’re hardwired to want to sign ourselves up for ambitious, challenging tasks. But that’s exactly what leads to most failure with behavior change.

Instead, try to break down your desired habit into a laughably small chunk. If you want to play the piano for 30 minutes every evening, start by simply sitting down at the piano every night. If you want to start eating breakfast every morning, buy a pre-made option so you don’t have to cook a thing.

What we’re doing here is decoupling the creation of the routine with the complexity of the finished product. You can always fold in more steps once you’ve nailed the daily routine. Hold yourself back from pursuing the stretch goal until you’ve built a firm foundation.

3. Set up reminders

Once your routine is an ingrained part of your day, you may not need reminders anymore. But in the beginning, we all need as much help as we can get with the simple act of remembering to follow through. Personally, I stick Post-it notes where I’ll see them and I set calendar reminders that trigger a notification on my phone.

4. Track your progress for one week

In addition to setting up a reminder, create a place to track your progress for the first week. A simple note with a Y or N next to the date may suffice. Tracking your progress will provide another point of reinforcement for the routine, and will give you a tangible result for your effort.

Here’s a little secret – you’re allowed to miss a day. It’s not a big deal. Anticipate the fact that you’ll miss days as you learn to integrate the routine into your daily life. The goal is progress, not perfection.

5. Check in on your progress and celebrate

After practicing your routine for a week, check in with yourself. How did you like incorporating this new routine? Do you want to continue doing it? You don’t have to, you know. Let yourself off the hook if you don’t actually want to continue building a particular habit. How could you know without giving it a shot?

If you do want to continue building this routine, give it another week, following the same steps. If it feels easy, great. You’re on the right track. Once it becomes second nature, go ahead and fold in additional steps or routines on top of the foundation you’ve laid.

Make sure to give yourself a pat on the back for putting yourself out there and trying something new. Brag to your partner, sister or BFF. Small, consistent action is what leads to the big results. Remembering to relish in the experience will make the journey a lot more fun and help you create the daily routines of your dreams.

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