Can a hare become a tortoise?
August 9, 2010 6:35 PM   Subscribe

How can I train myself to do [anything] every day? Help me to re-calibrate my routine-resistant brain.

I've been successful in life (career, family, etc.) despite my inability to keep a routine for anything.

I've coasted successfully through high school, college, grad school, and the beginnings of a career on intelligence, talent, and the very occasional spurt of miracle-working nose-to-the-grindstone effort.

This approach has taken me as far as it's going to take me. Real success and mastery--at least the kind I strive for--takes diligent, daily effort.

My brain does not seem to be wired for diligent, daily effort.
In 30+ years I have never been able to keep to a routine for anything. I don't even brush my teeth every day.

I've tried plenty of productivity/time-management books and systems, to-do-list software and reminder systems, checklists, incentives and consequences, ADHD medications (prescribed), accountability to myself and others, and sheer force of will, but no system has managed keep me on a regular routine (even for things I love and want to do). I'm aware that "just do it" is the answer but it's eluded my best efforts for my whole life.

I'm not really looking for more books to read or systems to try. I'm looking for advice from like-minded people who have managed to overcome (or partially overcome) a similar routine-resistance. Any thoughts?
posted by Alabaster to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 96 users marked this as a favorite
I am doing this right now. What I have found to be helpful to is to start small. And when I say small, I mean ridiculously, stupidly-easy small.

Pick one thing that represents a trivial effort, but that you don't consistently do. Commit to do doing that one thing every day for a week. Or maybe even a month.

This requires a small amount of Forcing Yourself (a.k.a. "willpower"), but because it is such a small thing, it shouldn't exhaust your reserves. There has been some motivational research showing that people have a finite amount of "willpower" and that's why, when a stressful life situation demanding more willpower, like a family emergency requiring emotional control and responsibility, can derail personal projects dependent on flexing a large amount of willpower (like diets, exercise routines, etc.) See the book Why We Do What We Do by Edward Deci for more info on this kind of research.

Anyway, for me, the trick is to add one tiny new habit at a slow enough pace that the previous habits become effortless through repetition, thus never totally taxing my available willpower.

I'm not sure if I've explained this well, but this is what I'm learning to do. I took one week to train myself to run the dishwasher every night before bed. Now I'm taking another week to train myself to get dressed first thing in the morning. Previously, I would have been too impatient to bother with taking so much time to do things that seem so trivial. I used to make up a complete daily routine and then try to enforce it all at once. It would always break down after a day or two. As a result, for a long time, I did neither of the "trivial" things that I now do consistently.
posted by Ouisch at 6:49 PM on August 9, 2010 [11 favorites]

I'm pretty good at sticking to routines, after having worked at it for years. I even brush and floss every day.

My secret is to keep a notebook where I write down my routine tasks for every single day and then I make sure to check them all off. That's it -- that's all. But it has to be done every day.

The only caveat I would add is don't get too ambitious. "Brush your teeth every day" = easy, doable. "Write one novel every day" = not so easy, not so doable.

Ok, that last example is on the extreme side, but you'd be surprised... it's easy to get carried away and try to put too many big routines on your daily plate. That can sap your inspiration pretty quickly. To start out, stick to simply one "big" project at a time to focus your daily effort on.
posted by Theloupgarou at 6:55 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

The wisest thing I've ever read about prioritizing these type of routine tasks is that they are a type of self-care.

This matters because the root of your problem isn't that you can't remember to do these things and need a better system, but rather that they don't become priorities. If you recast it as a determination that you're worth the time that it takes to be organized, to brush your teeth, and do other life maintenance, it feels totally different.

For me, it totally changed a lifelong habit viewing cleaning and straightening as a miserable chore, to viewing it as being worthwhile to provide myself a nice place to live.
posted by mercredi at 6:58 PM on August 9, 2010 [8 favorites]

Go google Flylady.

Yes, it's true her systems are aimed at housework, but the principles apply to pert near anything worth doing.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:08 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Jerry Seinfeld don't break the chain. It works until you break the chain and then it doesn't work.
posted by notned at 7:39 PM on August 9, 2010

There has to be a benefit in it for you that motivates you to keep doing it even when you don't want to. You aren't going to adopt a habit without finding that the benefit.

So ask yourself, what's in it for me? And make sure it's not what you think the answer to that question should be, but what about the task truly means something to you. Then focus on those things when you are talking yourself out of doing the habit you are trying to adopt. In the tooth brushing example, do you value keeping your teeth? Avoiding the dental drill? Fresh breath? White teeth? Blood-free dental hygienist visits? What's in tooth brushing for you (not just that you're "supposed to")?

My tooth brushing motivator is to not be embarrassed at the dental hygienist. Nothing worse than being lectured about flossing/brushing properly while your gums bleed in front of a stranger! So my aim is to have a better check up each time I go. This time, my goal is to be able to tell the hygienist that I didn't miss a day of flossing since my last visit. That keeps me going because I don't want to screw up my current run.
posted by cecic at 8:18 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also wanted to stress the Jerry Seinfeld dont break the chain, its pretty inspirational.

And also for me when I start to get lazy and procrastinate its because i feel i'm not really accountable for it. The idea that nobody cares if i delay my work and so forth. So i'd suggest a possible Life Coach that you would have to report to every week and answer for your actions. If you have a friend serious enough, you could do it for each other too.
posted by BurN_ at 8:22 PM on August 9, 2010

Not sure it's exactly what you're looking for, and I haven't actually tried any of his programs, but this guy seems to spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of problem.
posted by SuperNova at 9:33 PM on August 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the suggestions.

@cecic -- good insight, in considering your questions I've stumbled upon a key issue:

I have trouble staying mindful of the cumulative effects of daily effort. For example: If I practice a musical instrument for an hour today I will not--for practical purposes--be any better than I was yesterday. I think my internal time-manager unconsciously tells me "There are only so many hours in the day, why invest this one into something that will yield such a negligible result?"

Intellectually I understand that these hours add up over time. But when faced with an hour to fill, I almost always gravitate to an activity that will yield more noticeable results in the forseeable future. I think this is the crux of my problem. Unfortunately I have had little success translating this knowledge into practice.

I think my question here is essentially "how can I re-train my instincts to see the value in incremental progress?"
posted by Alabaster at 9:38 PM on August 9, 2010

Reading this was scary because I really couldn't believe I wasn't reading about myself. This is me right down to the "coasted successfully" part.

On the outside I actually might look diligent but people on the inside (my husband and parents) know the truth. There is a lot of potential wasted when you can't control your willpower.

I'm really proud of you for admitting all of of this because it's not an easy thing to accept about yourself.

I really can't give you any concrete answers except that the few times in life I've been able to commit to something I've used the Seinfeld "don't break the chain" method.

Keep working on it and I'll keep following this thread! (or at least try to)
posted by yfatah at 9:53 PM on August 9, 2010

I just wanted to chime in because, like the poster above stated, I too felt like this could have been written, word for word, by me about myself. This sort of thing has really been eating at me for the last couple years. I think about it all the time, like many, many times a day. At work I get all this backslapping: "Josh, your so busy I don't see how you do it." and "Josh, thats great, we're looking into getting you such and such software so you can really do such and such because your so talented/knowledgeable/have an eye for [enter thing here]" and the whole time I'm thinking "Are you kidding, its miracle I can even sit still for 5 minutes. I'm a fraud and its only a matter of time before I'm found out" If I got serious and really stuck to it, everyday, I think it would be amazing. I get 90% of my work done (both at work and at home) in the bursts then nothing. I have tried several things to get that Twyla Tharp/Stanley Kubrick style of legendary discipline but I always end up flaking. Even now I'm goofing around on Metafilter when I should be working on my shot list. Anyway, I like that Sienfield idea, the big cold calendar looming over me might be the stern reminder I need.
posted by senseofsurreal at 10:34 PM on August 9, 2010

Second the dontbreakthechain website. Set it as your homepage for ultimate accountability.
posted by chinabound at 11:25 PM on August 9, 2010

It helps me to be accountable to someone else, at least until I have the habit ingrained. For example:

- I started going to the gym regularly because I needed some extra credits at school to get financial aid. My school had a gym and grades are based on how much you show up. So I showed up, because I needed to for my GPA and aid. Eventually, I got the habit of going. Now I still go to the gym, even though school is over.

- A therapist and I worked out a deal where I'd call and leave her a message every day to tell her I'd meditated. It was really, really annoying and embarrassing, but it gave me an external motivator for long enough to get in the habit. Now I have the habit (if not every day, at least several times a week).

- I lived in group houses where I had to cook a certain number of nights a week. I learned to cook, and it became my habit. This is long ago now, and for the last 5 years or so, I've been cooking about 5 nights a week. Learning to clean has worked the same way.

I'm pretty sure this is a big part of how 12 step programs work.
posted by serazin at 11:29 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

"how can I re-train my instincts to see the value in incremental progress?"

What about taking photos, making recordings, or otherwise documenting yourself once a week at whatever task you're trying to get in the habit of. Then you can see your progress. For added external motivation, blog about it using your documentation. Then you'll feel obligated.
posted by serazin at 11:32 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

This could be written about me, too, but I never would have thought of it as a flaw. I just figured some people are strivers and some people are dabblers, and me, I dabble. You probably have flexibility, adaptability and the ability to multitask, qualities that don't always come easy to the uber-disciplined. Different working styles, different strengths. Instead of going against your nature and feeling like a failure because you don't measure up to some teen gymnast level of self-discipline, try finding ways to work with what you got.

I'm not good at following schedules, so I looked for work that gives me a lot of control over how my time is spent. That way I can set goals for the day and adjust based on priorities, rather than having to set times for every little thing and stressing out when I fall behind.

I find I get bored with tasks easily, so I break projects down into blocks that can be accomplished within my attention span. So instead of, let's say, sitting down to write for 3 hours, I'll commit to writing a specific argument and let myself move on once that's done, knowing I'll come back to it when I get bored with some other thing.

I also feel a little underachiever guilt sometimes, but I try to capitalize on that feeling. If, at the end of the day, I feel like I was not as productive as I should have been, I write down my goals for the next day or two. I also keep a list of little tasks I'm procrastinating on (paying bills, odd bits of research, playing fetch with the dog) next to my computer, that way if I get bored or feel disgusted with my slacking I can pick a quick task to check off for a boost of accomplishment.
posted by Freyja at 11:46 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

I know you're not really looking for more books, but this is a good one that doesn't seem to get a lot of attention: Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement.

One of the things he recommends is similar to what Ouisch said above. Pick a project and commit to working on it for 15 minutes a day, every day. Set a timer, then don't work any longer or any less. If you miss a day, start right back up the next day.

The best sort of project to start with is going to be something where the effort will become visible relatively quickly, like within days... maybe slogging through a pile of back filing, cleaning out a packed closet, decluttering a room.

15 minutes of effort is going to seem stupid and pointless at first, but once you begin seeing the tangible results it may reset your brain to appreciate how little efforts add up over time.

If you want a quicker illustration of the results of tiny efforts, you can work in smaller snatches of time over the course of a day. For example, sometimes over a weekend I'll make it my goal to clean for 10 minutes of every hour I'm home and awake. It sounds like such a tiny amount of time, but doing this for six hours a day on Saturday and Sunday means I get two hours of cleaning done completely painlessly.

Oh, and this reminds me of another book that really digs into the concept of what you can accomplish in short stretches over time, if you need more motivation: The Vigorous Mind.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:32 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you go the "don't break the chain route", try Joe's Goals. I found it useful, and easier than remembering to write on a calendar.
posted by Solomon at 4:56 AM on August 10, 2010

You sound very similar to me in temperament, though I have found a lot of success with routines over the past seven years or so and have never had trouble brushing my teeth and showering every day so take my advice with that in mind. For me, it started with coffee. I was the kind of person who slept until the very last minute I could and then stumbled to work a little late and maybe got coffee sometime in the morning. But I got tired of spending money on it (I made very little money at the time), and wanted to make it at home.

That led to getting a coffee maker (from a friend who had a new one), which led to... not getting up early enough to make coffee. Which eventually seemed so ridiculous to me that I started managing to get up early enough. I'd make coffee. Since I was up, I would also have breakfast. I started primping a little more and stopped going to work with soaking wet hair. I started getting up even earlier. I believe that my coffee habit eventually led me to do things like go to the gym at 6:00 AM (though let me not imply that I still do that, tragically,though I periodically work on it). I still like my mornings, though, and these days I floss every day and, well, do a lot of other daily things like bed making and litter scooping that make my life much more pleasant than it would be otherwise. Almost all of those things get done first thing in the morning, because it gets stuck to the act of getting out of bed and making my morning drink (which is tea, these days). I adore my little routines, though sometimes I still get carried away and try to do that thing that someone else described where I try to plan the whole day and look this will be my whole new perfectly scheduled and regular life!, and oh, what a bad idea.

The reason I think getting routine into my life worked is that I started with something pleasurable or fun, and then I stuck other things to it. I feel like getting one little routine thing in place makes it easier to do other little routine things, because you've carved out this space to do that one routine thing. Also, you get instant benefit from something pleasurable or fun, which helps with that whole long-term results issue, which I also recognize and with which I still struggle (my most stable daily things are mostly things that matter quickly, except for flossing, which is based in terror of the dentist and is the only thing I've ever kept motivated almost entirely by fear. And a little smugness.).

I think it's very important to not place too much weight on the first thing that you are trying to make routine. If it's heavy, you don't want to pick it up. If it's silly or pleasant, it's easier to fit it in. Start small, with one thing. Just to teach yourself that you actually can do something for a few days in a row. In fact, I'd set a goal of, like, five days of doing one particular thing. After that five days, you can quit if you want, but you might learn something from those five days. What you're looking for is habit so ingrained that it makes you feel weird if you don't do it, and that just takes time. Not as much time as you might think, though.

I also believe in tick marks or an x on a calendar. I like the whole Seinfeld thing, but I think it's important to know that you are not failing at your routine if you miss one day after you've been doing it for a while. If you miss 3 days, you worry. One day is normal.

This got super long. It's just that I really recognize what you're saying, here, and I still struggle with making certain things routine, but I feel like I've planted seeds in my life that have helped me tremendously with getting stuff done. And having good teeth.
posted by hought20 at 6:57 AM on August 10, 2010

I was you (albeit probably less successful) until a few months ago when I started a low carbohydrate diet. After an initial adjustment phase (about one week) my energy skyrocketed and I automagically began doing what needed to be done when it ought to be done. Obviously this is one anecdotal data point and your physiology might be different, but the change in my life has been so profound that I feel compelled to mention it.
posted by sockpup at 7:22 AM on August 10, 2010

There are a few things I need to do every day, and if I forget I have real difficulty.

I have a pill case with a clock and four timers. The pill case itself turned out not to be very useful, but the timers are great. I set them to go off at various times to remind me that there's something I'd like to be doing. Two of them go off at the same time every day; the others I change when the first one goes off in the morning, to whatever time I'd like to do the other things that day. So today, I had one set for 9 and one for 2:30, for example. Tomorrow it may be 11 and 5. It all depends on how my day is set up.

But this way I do have a reminder right here to go ahead and do the things I'd otherwise forget to do. I can't help with the appreciation of minute increments, but this works for my scatterbrained ADD self to keep me accomplishing the things I want to do daily.
posted by galadriel at 8:09 AM on August 10, 2010

I think one of the tricks to training yourself to appreciate incremental progress is to, rather than set the OUTCOME of the project as your goal, set the TIME SPENT working on your project as your goal.

This is something Fiore talks about in The Now Habit -- rather than setting a goal to get X task completed, set a goal to work X minutes on a task.

Then, and this is the important part, KEEP A RECORD of how much time you've spend. This record of time spent works kind of like a score in a video game. It becomes rewarding to see the numbers stacking up.

The whole idea of intrinsic motivation, however, (again, I'm referencing Deci here, which I mentioned in my first comment) is that setting a goal of accomplishment actually ROBS you of enjoyment and motivation. Real motivation is doing a task for its own sake, not because it's going to get you something in the end. You have to find a way to enjoy the process.

Training yourself to consider the time spent doing the process is one way. Another way is to figure out why the task is important to you on a personal level -- aside from the stated end goal, what are you getting out of it? Becoming a better sight reader? Getting a better ear for music? Better manual dexterity? More patience? What values matter to you personally?
posted by Ouisch at 1:41 PM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also...keep in mind that for any major accomplishment anyone has ever achieved in their life, doing it through incremental, and sometimes almost unnoticeable, progress is the only way it ever occurs.

It is literally impossible to sit down and achieve something significant in an hour, or a day. Even on days when it SEEMS like this is what happened, in reality, you've probably spent years doing something unappreciated that directly propelled you toward that achievement. It's the illusion of "overnight success" that discourages us. That's why it's a good idea to try and throw away the end goal as much as possible, and learn to enjoy the process itself.

Enjoying the process means being actively engaged, present, mindful, and aware. It's also called the flow state.

One of the conditions for flow is that the activity you're engaged in must give you "clear and immediate" feedback. If whatever you're working on doesn't do this naturally, you need to somehow build feedback into the activity to make it rewarding.
posted by Ouisch at 1:53 PM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

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