Become more productive using routines

What we can learn from cleaning our teeth to become more productive

As the days blur together during the months of lockdown, it can become hard to even keep a track of your calendar. Calendars are the tool that we most commonly use to keep a track of our time and fit things together into the schedule that becomes our lives.

When you’re trying a new diet, trying to build a habit of exercise, or trying to squeeze more family time into a packed schedule, the calendar is often the place we turn. We look at our work hours, the early meetings, the networking events, the social occasions, and our regular commitments. We look for those precious blank spaces on the calendar and add a recurring event. “Go to gym”. “Meal prep”. “Family time”. “Do this chore”. “Online course”. “Morning routine”. “Me time”.

We walk away feeling one step closer to our goal. But then the next day starts. We snooze the alarm one time too many. We have an unplanned interruption or request for help. Suddenly that gap on the calendar where we put the new goal has been squeezed out of existence. We rush from one thing to the next and get home too tired for extra family time, too tired for the gym, too tired to look at that online course.

Is there another way?

Have you ever noticed there are somethings that seldom get pushed out of our calendar?

Take cleaning our teeth for example. When is the last time you didn’t clean your teeth before work? And again before going to bed?

What makes these things special? Certainly, the benefits of doing this activity regularly is one motivator. Cleaning your teeth keeps them healthy and prevents bad breath in meetings (although Zoom might allow us to get away with that for now). But there are health benefits and financial benefits to some of the habits in the example above but yet we let them get pushed out of our schedule. What makes teeth cleaning so special?


What makes the habit of cleaning our teeth so automatic? (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

The power of routines

Part of the reason we so seldom forget to clean our teeth is that most of us have been doing this every night and morning since a very young age. We have built this habit over the course of our life and we aren’t relying on an external stimulus or calendar notification to make it happen.

If you have anything but the most rigid of schedules, I am guessing you don’t clean your teeth at 6.35 pm every morning and 10.22 pm every night. I’m guessing you brush your teeth somewhere between waking up, eating and leaving the house, or doing your make up for the day. At the end of the day, I suspect you clean your teeth somewhere between finishing dinner and climbing into bed. And I’ll bet it happens in the same sequence with those same activities every day. If you clean your teeth last thing before bed, I’m guessing you don’t often change that up and clean them immediately after dinner.

This is because cleaning our teeth is part of a routine. I’m not talking about a complex morning ritual here. This routine is much more like the process your laptop goes through to run anti-virus software at the same time every week or the way a dancer trains a dance routine until one move comes almost automatically after the other.

These routines use the power of linking one activity to another activity in order to initiate action. Much of procrastination has to do with the process of getting started. Routines provide us a way of ‘hacking’ this step to make starting a postive habit or activity almost automatic.

How to build routines

Once you understand this little secret, you can start to build on your existing routines to start embedding all the positive habits and value-adding life projects into your days and weeks.

1. Start with a small activity you want to introduce on a regular basis.

2. Identify how often you want to do this: daily, weekly, monthly?

3. Reflect on your activity pattern over that period of time. Remember this is not based on your schedule, but the things you do regularly on that same time frame, for example:

4. Daily rhythm: cleaning teeth (or even more basic: getting out of bed)

5. Weekly rhythm: going to the grocery store

6. Monthly rhythm: your monthly board meeting or paying a particular bill

7. Identify something you do almost automatically within that timeframe that fits well with the activity you are trying to introduce

8. Next time that rhythm comes around, initiate your new activity

The first few times you may still miss a few but the trick here is to do it more often. If you’re trying to do something daily, you might do it 3 times the first week, 4 the next and then eventually 7 days a week.

Tips and tricks

Don’t beat yourself up for times you miss because that will create a negative feedback loop. Instead, make plans to make it even easier to do next time. Didn’t stretch first thing after getting out of bed? Try going to sleep in your favourite (comfortable) activewear or putting a yoga mat beside the bed the night before.

The more unavoidable your base activity is the more often you will be triggered to start your new activity. For example, getting out of bed is a totally unavoidable part of the day for most of us. Linking an activity to this will happen more frequently than linking an activity that is less automatic, such as going for a walk, until that process of going for a walk is a well-embedded routine of its own.

Start your routine building with an activity that takes a manageable amount of time and is also within your control to determine the exact timing. Adding a whole 1-hour gym class that has to start at a specific time via routine is a hard place to start. Adding 15 minutes of morning stretches is much more achievable. This is effective because it is not too long and procrastination-inducing, it isn’t on a fixed schedule, and you are also in control of the length and can vary it if needed. Snoozed the alarm too many times for 15 minutes of stretching? Try 5 minutes or even 2 minutes of stretching instead.

Building routines for bigger activities

Although I recommend starting with a small activity to build your new routine, you can use this method with larger activities like your gym class as well. The trick here is to pick your linking activity well. Make sure it’s associated with a sufficient chunk of time or follows on from an activity of a similar nature. For example, linking your gym class to driving home from work (when we’re all doing that again) is a good idea because you’re already travelling and don’t have to overcome the friction of getting into the car.

Secondly, try identifying a smaller version of what you are trying to achieve in order to build up the routine gradually. If a gym class is your goal, start with habitually putting on your gym clothes before you leave work whether or not you’re going to the gym. If you miss the class start time or don’t have the full hour available, do a small YouTube workout when you get home before doing anything else.

As you start to build these routines, the intrinsic value of these activities will become more tangible and the momentum to keep going will build. Before long, your new activities will be second nature.

#habits #productivity #routines