The concept of routine appears to be vastly misunderstood, perceived as something greatly negative in the collective imaginary. This notion is assimilated to the ordinary, the boring moments of life : people don’t want to appear ordinary (yet, they want others to be more like them) so they resort to cheap getaways, to run away from their routine : shallow travels, drugs, easy sex, empty entertainment etc. Still, fleeing remains but a temporary fix to the core problem issued by a bad routine.
The word “routine” originates from french, meaning literally “the small road”, the one you take “out of habit”. It is a neutral word : a routine can be bad, or good. More broadly speaking, routine can be defined as a sum of good or bad habits. Our everyday life can be seen as a succession of habits. Routine is a necessary part of life.
Running away from routine, is no different than running away from life, from reality. Instead, routine needs to be shaped so that our habits become powerful tools, to guide our successes. A daily routine defines, to some extent, its individual - its motives, its dreams, its passion : "We are what we repeatedly do". Most people believe that routine is dehumanizing. I propose that routine is liberating.
The first time I consciously defined a routine, I was about to be 19. At that time I just got expelled from engineering school. I had to move from Lyon to another university and start again. In France, engineering schools and universities are distinct school systems. Engineering schools are highly selective, harder to get in. The workload is a lot heavier as well. I went straight to second year, in the department of Computer Sciences at Bordeaux University. Yet, I was pissed off. I was dreaming of becoming a software engineer since my thirteenth birthday. The title of engineer being only delivered by official french engineering schools, my dream was being denied. Dreams are not easily forgotten : I needed to get back in.
Up until the end of high school, I was a top student. When I reached college, I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t know how to optimize my work, and I thought that, with time, I would eventually get it. Yet, no matter my efforts, my professors ended up showing me the door. At 19, I was left out without receiving any guidance. I had no mentor to turn to, so I made my own mentor, with books, blogs and online articles.
I started looking for answers on how to better perform at exams. I read a lot of so-called “personal development” books. I dislike the term. I prefer to see it as a personal discovery, an introspective quest. I learnt about Cornell notes, SQ5R5, mind mapping and other study techniques. I went out less. I worked out and ate well to get some extra energy. Eventually, I developed studying habits.
At the end of the first semester, I applied to the very same engineering school that expelled me a year earlier. The entrance selection was based on the academic ranking. I was among the best students of my promotion. I barely passed, but it didn’t mattered to me : I didn’t lose a single year. I felt like I broke all of their rules. Overcoming my fate, I was making my comeback. Success is the sweetest rebellion.
After this event, I stopped relying on external motivation (professors, fellow students, motivational videos, “inspiration”), for the benefits of routine. Waiting for motivation is a dangerous thing : it is inconsistent and difficult to channel, unlike routine, which is largely unconscious, triggered without conscious thoughts. Thus, routine assists a professional in performing at peak productivity on a regular basis, without the need for external factors to come in. Additionally, a good routine always serves a personal purpose.
It is an enabler that helps you reach your own priorities in life. It gives you a structure to perform in the best mental conditions. It is the psychological lifeline that keeps you afloat throughout the toughest times and the storming feelings. Routine offers the stability needed to get things done. It saves your willpower so that you can spend it where it matters most.
A bad routine is like a trap : it is easy to get in, yet hard to escape from in a meaningful fashion. It also doesn't help you work toward your vision. If your habits are not aligned with your goals, and if you are serious about reaching them, it is only natural to change it. When your everyday life is aligned with your long-term goals, it feels both good and right. The desire to run away, fades away. In this sense, routine is liberating.
More importantly, routine is inherent to the path toward mastery. Mastery is a key concept. In today’s economy, Cal Newport, in his book “Deep Work” argues that two core skills are necessary to succeed : 1) being able to “quickly master hard things”, and 2), the capacity to “produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed”. Mastery implies both. In order to become a master, you have to practice at peak productivity deliberately and consistently : “practice makes perfect”. Simply put, routine is necessary to mastery. A good one helps you ship on a near-daily basis.
What does a good routine contain ? There is no better routine than the one you find for yourself. I say ‘find’, because it is something you stumble upon, after many experiments, the ultimate journey for personal discovery. Routine is perfected over many years.
Most of the routines you can read about in the self-development sphere are pretty absurd. Whenever you read an article describing self-proclaimed successful routines, it is just a long list of scheduled bullet points. They make me yawn, because they are mechanical and generic. An healthy routine is inherently organic. It must go along with the goals it supports. It is a paradox, but routine is meant to change. I would add, routine is meant to include the entropy of everyday life. A healthy routine is a routine of controlled chaos, a chaos routine.
After years of consciously adapting my habits, I came to the conclusion that the best routine is a routine of non-routine. I call it the chaos routine.
A traditional routine is a succession of scheduled habits, each habit having a starting time and an ending time, filling up the entire time available.
A chaos routine is composed of atomic habits (also called micro-routines or micro-habits) that can fit in anytime of the day or the night. Those habits are measurable, so that it is easy to follow up on them. They are also defined by a lower-bound : getting started with a minimal objective (e.g. writing 200 words per day) gives the cognitive momentum to eventually surpass it. The amount of time spent is meaningless, its quality is what matters. Sometimes I feel like working 14 hours straight, some days my work can be summed up in one hour. The proposition here is that sustained short periods of focused work beat long sessions of shallow work. It is widely approved that the unconscious mind plays a major part in the creative process. How many times did I have to go out of bed in the middle of the nights because I found a solution to a problem or a new idea ? Far too many. Thus, a chaos routine rests on the principle that busyness is detrimental to productivity. Instead, boredom should be cultivated. Being bored feels good. It’s the natural meditative state that allows your mind to wander and wonder.
Another thing to consider is that life is chaos. It is like a house of cards : if you try to give too much structure to life, you might end up disappointed. Routine should give room to the spontaneous opportunities that present themselves, the unexpected aspect inherent to life. I would go further by stating it should include a habit of discomfort : “Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged—what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings.”
Work, and mastery, are deeply intertwined with life : securing time to try out new things and new experiences favors creativity, innovation and self-reinvention. Innovation is another essential concept of mastery. A master not only copies, it creates with his own style, by merging skills and experiences alike.
In conclusion, a chaos routine is a routine taking into account the creation process by acknowledging the need for downtime and introspection in addition to a focused practice.
A well thought out routine is part of an authentic life. One must strive to align its habits with its needs and desires. Imagine routine as the small road leading to a bigger life.
- Etymology of routine : https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/routine#French
- From The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant
- On routine is liberating : https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/12/27/chuck-close-on-creativity/
- On Cornell notes : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornell_Notes
- On SQ5R : https://www.quora.com/What-is-SQ5R-reading-strategy
- On mind mapping : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map
- Deep Work, Cal Newport - summary : https://www.samuelthomasdavies.com/book-summaries/business/deep-work/
- Mastery, Robert Greene - summary : https://www.nateliason.com/lessons/mastery-robert-greene/
- On micro habits : https://hackernoon.com/micro-habits-changed-my-life-47f572bfc153
- From Ego is the enemy, Ryan Holiday