Before I launch into 30 days of trying to sort out my evening routine, I wanted to explain how I understand this is all supposed to work. The idea behind having a regular predictable routine is basically that, because you have everything lined up to do one after the other, you’ll do the first thing and go into autopilot, doing everything else in order and slide easily into bed at your pre-determined bedtime.
Obviously this takes some time to set up and get working smoothly, but the way I understand it is, if you have a fixed schedule that you repeat until it becomes ingrained, it takes having to make a decision about “what to do now” out of the picture, so that you do what you need to do rather than getting caught up in “bad” habits that keep you up too late.
There’s been a lot written about this, and some of the resources I’ve looked at include Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, James Clear’s website (jamesclear.com) and his (free) booklet Transform Your Habits, Dr BJ Fogg’s work, and Asian Efficiency’s posts, podcasts and webinars on rituals.
The first thing you need is a “trigger” or a marker that starts you off on the routine. This can be a time, something you do or something that happens.
For example, in the morning my alarm goes off, I get up, get dressed and drink water and so on through my morning routine. When my phone beeps, I pick it up and check it. When the pedestrian light goes green, I make sure the traffic has stopped and I start to cross the road. After I’ve finished a glass of water I do a shoulder stretch (this is one I’m working on) – you get the idea.
A trigger leads to an action, which can become quiet ingrained, sometimes very quickly (I walk past the bakery I go in and get a peppermint slice), sometimes very slowly (the shoulder stretch one). For some reason the habits that are quickest to become ingrained seem to be the ones I really don’t want. (Also I don’t do the bakery one any more. That was a while ago when I fell off the no-sugar bandwagon.)
I mentioned in my first post on evening routines that I have three routines I want to put in place:
1. Get home from work routine.
2. After dinner routine
3. Bedtime routine.
They’re all important for me to get right, because doing the things I want to do at the times I want to do them will make sure that I don’t have to do them later, which would stuff up the next routine. Getting my clothes out at night for the next day means I don’t have to stumble around in the dark looking for them when everyone else is asleep. Taking my contacts out early in the evening means I don’t use not wanting to do that as an excuse for not getting ready for bed.
If you read James Clear’s booklet, or BJ Fogg’s work (which James quotes in his book), you’ll find that the best way to “stack” a new habit onto the trigger is to make the habit so easy that you can’t say no to doing it. The classic example is BJ Fogg’s advice on if you want to build a habit of flossing your teeth. What you do first is commit to flossing just one tooth. As James explains it, what you do doesn’t matter. What actually matters is becoming the type of person who always sticks to the habit – and you “build up to the level of performance you want once the behaviour becomes consistent”.
Gretchen Rubin says a similar thing in her book Better than Before. You need to start as small as you need to, in order to actually start. “By doing so, [you] gain the habit of the habit and the feeling of mastery,” she says. But the key is to start.
The other important thing here is that the action must be specific. That is, I need to set out exactly what I’m going to do. At least at the start, when it’s all new. Right now, I know when I say “I will go for a walk” on a weekday morning means that I’ll go for a 20 minute/2 km walk over the same route I always go. But if I just said “I will exercise” that could mean anything. “Pack up” isn’t specific. “Back up my computer, put all loose papers away or in the bin, close all browser windows and shut the computer down” is. (That might be the end goal; it’s probably too big a habit to start with when it’s not something I’m currently doing consistently now.)
So putting these three things together, my plan is first to loosely sketch out what I need to do in the evening (not necessarily specific actions at this stage) and then to work out which of the routines each task would work best in. I don’t want to be washing the dishes right before I go to bed, so that’s probably best suited to the after dinner routine.
A lot of it I already do, but I want to use this month to make sure each action is part of the best routine, refine the action so I know exactly what I need to do (some of the things I try to do are fairly vague so I tend not to do them, or not finish them) and then put them into an order that works for me.
As I work my way through the plans, the second step will be for me to start to define actual actions I need to take, if I haven’t already done this. Because I already do a lot of this stuff, I don’t think I necessarily have to start small. In some cases that would be going backwards. “Wash one cup” would be silly, as I’m already in the habit of washing up after dinner. I’ll be using that strategy more for anything new that I want to introduce.
And the next step will be to identify the trigger.
I’m laughing at all this right now, because I used to resist planning and scheduling and routines of any sort. If you know anything about Myers Briggs, I was a very strong P-preference (the appearance to the outside world of having a preference for a more flexible and adaptable lifestyle). I don’t know if my transformation into someone with a J-preference (the appearance to the outside world of preferring a structured and ordered lifestyle) is my true self surfacing as I’ve got older, whether years of working in the public service has eliminated my spontaneity, or whether I truly am my father’s daughter.
Anyway I’m going to give this a go, to see if it will help me (a) get more sleep, (b) feel more in control of what I do during the evening and (c) give me a balance between relaxing and getting things that I have to do done.
I don’t know if it will work, or if my stomped-upon spontaneity will resist the control freak that has emerged. It’s all a big experiment!
Here’s another holiday photo while I’m thinking.