Health & Wellbeing

Is routine the enemy of happiness?

Meditation, exercise, reading and journaling, finished off with a cold shower are common ingredients in morning routines. We look to the morning routines of objectively successful people in an attempt to produce similar levels of accomplishment for ourselves. But how many people actually follow their own list of morning activities every day? Is routine the enemy of happiness or does it help us optimise our days in the right way?

What are the benefits of routine?

There’s no doubt that routine can help establish a level of consistency and discipline that aids productivity. However, this can be dependent on the type of work being completed. It can be useful when completing repetitive administrative tasks for example, but less so for non-routine processes that require more nuance. Routine is synonymous with repetition and monotony but creating process around certain tasks frees head space for tasks requiring greater mental focus.

Outside work, this structure can be beneficial for reducing uncertainty or anxiety. Among children, establishing routine is important for consistency and providing a sense of security and control over their environment. Researchers have found that routine can also have wide-ranging psychological benefits for those living with bipolar disorder, ADHD and insomnia. For example, regulating the daily routines of bipolar sufferers, who often have more sensitive circadian rhythms, helped reduce disruptions to their sleep which in turn reduced episodes of mania or depression.

What do we lose with routine?

If too highly prioritised, routines can become a chore, feeling overwhelming and allowing no room for flexibility. Often, joy lies in spontaneity and freedom which we can lose if we over-emphasise the importance of routine in achieving success.

Generally speaking, much of our lives are lived unconsciously. Particularly in today’s society when so much already demands our time and energy, it’s all too easy to revert to routine. We get ready each morning in the same way as the day before, take the same journey to work, have the same conversations, return home for dinner, then spend the evening on the sofa, only to rinse and repeat the same thing the next day. Without different activities to break this pattern, we lose our sense of time and the days blur into one.

Joe Dispenza discusses this pattern in Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself. When we follow the same routines, we move and interact with others in the same ways each day. We can also be triggered by our environment in the same way and so think the same thoughts. This relentless repetition cements in our minds the sort of person we are and what we’re capable of. We need to break this habit of being ourselves by understanding and intercepting habitual patterns of thought and switching up our usual routines.

Should we create rituals instead?

If routine really was the enemy of happiness, how could we balance out its downfalls? One way to address habitual and unconscious living is by creating rituals around tasks. Rituals are repeated behaviours that are similar to routine but are imbued with deeper meaning beyond the series of actions. A kind of routine+, if you will.

Here’s a quick comparison between the two.

A routine might look like this:

  • Wake up
  • Make the bed
  • Drink some water
  • Go for a walk
  • Have a shower
  • Eat breakfast
  • Go to work

Whereas a ritual would look more like this:

  • Wake up and say a positive affirmation for the day
  • Make the bed while thinking about what you can look forward to that day
  • Drink some water thinking about how much better it makes you feel
  • Go for a walk and appreciate the beauty in the nature around you
  • Have a shower listening to your favourite song
  • Eat breakfast while engaging with family
  • Go to work listening to your favourite podcast

Focus on being mindful and considering the meaning of each activity as you do them. Rituals help us be more present in the day, focus on positive aspects of our lives and help us feel more connected to the world around. Ultimately, they are more enjoyable because they are done consciously and there is a sense of purpose to them. They allow room for variation within the routine making it more likely you’ll want to keep doing them without needing to force yourself.

Beyond rituals

While the structure of routines and rituals have their benefits, there is always scope to add greater excitement, spontaneity and variation into our lives. Challenging ourselves to try new things keeps us engaged, always learning and feeling more fulfilled through a greater sense of purpose.

  • Seek out different opinions by following different news channels or listening to a new podcast.
  • Take a different route on your commute or try communicating with your team in a different way, such as having walking meetings.
  • Talk to the person next to you in the coffee queue.
  • Challenge yourself to switch up your routine,
    • Sign up to a class you’ve always wanted to try
    • Visit a different coffee shop
    • Wear an item of clothing you’ve had hanging in your wardrobe for years.
  • Organise a day trip, city break or longer holiday to get out of your comfort zone, switch up routine and immerse yourself in a new place and culture.
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