Jan Stanley, MAPP '10, was a director of learning systems and leadership development before leaving the corporate world to create her own map of a road less taken. Jan's focus is now squarely on her passion of applying positive psychology through the use of poetry, mindfulness, collaboration, and ritual, woven together into ceremonies of well-being. Jan served as a facilitator for the U.S. Army Master Resilience Training program. She is a faculty member of the Celebrant Foundation and Institute, where she teaches others about the beauty and benefits of ceremony. Full bio. Jan's articles are here.
A new year is here! With the turn of the calendar page comes a fresh start and new hope for achieving our dreams. Yet each year only about eight percent of us successfully follow through with our New Year’s resolutions. With the odds apparently stacked against us, why not change it up? This year, instead of a resolution, try a New Year’s routine.
Resolution versus Routine
In 2014, I had resolved to learn a poem by heart each week. This is not everyone’s cup of tea, I know. Like most resolvers, I started strong, learning a favorite David Whyte poem easily in week 1. Week 2 I learned Hafiz, also easily. By week 5, I had forgotten most of poems from weeks 3 and 4, and by week 6, I gave myself permission to adjust my goal to a more reasonable poem per month. Alas, I didn’t stick to this relaxed goal either. At the end of the year, I had committed only a few meaningful poems to memory.In January of 2015, I resolved to connect more deeply with my local community and to do more volunteering. I didn’t set out to create a New Year’s routine, but that is what happened. What a difference it made in my success rate! I joined the Threshold Singers, a local chapter of an international choir, whose mission is to sing to those on the threshold between life and death. One membership requirement is to attend two rehearsals and at least one bedside sing per month. On each first and third Wednesday evening throughout the year I made my way to our practice space in a skilled nursing facility. Each month, I sang at least one time to local residents in need of our song. Because I am not a polished vocalist, I practiced our songs each day to be better prepared to carry my part when singing in our group.
Instead of a somewhat haphazard approach to learning poems, I found myself committing to a routine of rehearsals, bedside sings, and daily practice. Instead of a handful of poems, I learned dozens of songs, connected closely with my community, and provided a most humbling form of volunteer service. I had benefited from the unexpected power of a routine.
But aren’t routines boring and repetitive? How can we possibly mobilize around a New Year’s routine?
What is a Routine?
A routine is a block of time containing an established pattern of activities. We’re unaware of many of our routines. Have you ever arrived at work only to realize, aghast, that you forgot to brush your teeth? Probably your regular pattern of activities was interrupted by something more urgent, causing you to swerve off the path of your morning hygiene routine. But that probably happens rarely.
Benefits of Routines
Danish industrial psychologist Markus Becker points out that routines narrow the choices available to us at any given time. This narrowing of choices limits the potential for distraction, indecision, and veering off course. Even as a routine serves to constrain our choices in a positive way, it also provides forward momentum toward our goals. While I had many choices and distractions that kept me from upholding my poetry resolution of 2014, the regularity and choice-limiting nature of a Wednesday night routine kept me firmly on course in 2015.Can we retain some psychological autonomy while employing a routine? This would be a great question for more research. What we already know is that too many choices can prevent us from making a decision or achieving a goal. The newness in the idea of a New Year’s routine is to use our autonomy in the design of the routine. If we design self-motivating elements into our routines, we’ve retained autonomy on the front end and leveraged the power of narrowed choices and limited distractions when we put our routines into action.
Becker also found that routines are both stable and mutable, meaning that if our lives are relatively stable, our routines remain so, too. But our routines can be adapted to new circumstances. We can design a new routine or adapt a current routine to meet our New Year intentions and then let the power of repetition take over.
Routine as a Source of CoherencePsychologists Samantha Heintzelman, Jason Trent, and Laura King found that routines also contribute to coherence in our lives. Coherence involves seeing our lives as unified wholes. Psychologists theorize that meaning in life has three major elements, coherence, significance, and purpose. Coherence helps us to see that the activities we are doing add up to something greater. Coherence gained from routines can help us to connect the dots in our lives. A routine designed around something we value might add an element of purpose to the coherence, a double dose of meaning.
Meaning in life is important to our well-being because a flourishing life depends, in part, on our connections to things beyond ourselves. For some this is work, for others family, community, or volunteer activities. In 2015, I committed to a routine that connected me to my community. Can you imagine a routine that could connect you more deeply to something you value?
This is not to suggest that we spend all of our time in one routine after another. There are clear benefits to downtime, especially when it comes to creativity and rejuvenation. Still, the wise use of good routines can align us more closely with life priorities and help us accomplish our goals. A well-designed routine could form a bridge between our wildest dreams and what we’ll do when we wake up tomorrow morning.
This year, why not try to design a routine? In contrast to focusing solely on the intended goal, such as being healthy, getting organized, or building relationships, conscious design of a routine allows us to focus on the steps to achieving the goal. Let’s set aside the sense that routines are monotonous and keep us stuck in a rut. Routines can be designed into our days to keep us on track with our values and priorities.Imagine the face of a big round clock. Now imagine a slim piece of pie around the time that you wake up. Imagine another slim slice of pie mid-morning and another around noon. These slivers of time could be seen as placeholders for new routines. Think of the whole of your 24-hour day. What slivers of time are ripe for a new routine in your life?
Here are a few examples of conscious design of routines.
Example 1: A New Year’s Nutrition Routine
Suppose your intended goal is to eat more nutritious food. What morning routine could help you improve your nutrition? Perhaps a routine centered on eating a nutritious breakfast or packing a nutritious lunch.Or maybe you do pretty well during the day but struggle with nutrition after a long day’s work. If so, you could design a morning routine of setting out a dinner recipe, its non-perishable ingredients, and the equipment needed to make it. This morning routine might be just the thing to help you over your tired indecision and temptation to order carry-out food for dinner. What evening routines could help? One healthy friend recommends placing a glass of water on the nightstand to be consumed upon waking. Starting the day with water triggers other healthy behaviors. Think beyond what could be done in a single day to what weekly or bi-weekly routines could help you eat more nutritiously. Perhaps you could plan a regular shopping trip to the farmer’s market.
Example 2: A New Year’s Be-Organized Routine
Suppose your goal is to become more organized. What are the areas of your life most in need of organization? What sliver of time during the day would be most useful in helping you to add organization? What small task could you perform every day to keep better organized? As author Gretchen Rubin so beautifully points out about change, “What you do every day is more important than what you do once in awhile.”Example 3: A New Year’s Strengthen-Relationship Routine
Maybe this is the year to design a relationship-centered routine. You could design a routine to strengthen one of your primary relationships, for example with a spouse. You might try a weekly date night or signing up for a dance class that meets regularly to build in a routine of time spent together. If you’d like to feel a closer connection with your partner, you could design a dinner conversation routine using the popular 36 Questions to Fall in Love research by Arthur Aron and colleagues. Three questions at a monthly candlelight dinner would get you nicely through the year.
Routines Supported by Habits, Practices, and Rituals
There are many actions and elements that could be designed into a routine. In part 2 of New Year’s Routines, I’ll describe three important design elements: habits, practices, and rituals.
Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363-377.
Becker, Markus. (2004). Organizational routines: A review of the literature. Industrial and Corporate Change, Volume 13, #4, pp 643-677.
Hafiz (1999). The Gift – Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. New York: Penguin.
Hutson, M. (2015, July 1). Everyday routines make life feel more meaningful. Scientific American. Report on the work of Heintzelman, Trent, and King.
Whyte, David (2003). Everything is waiting for you. Seattle: Many Rivers Press.
Heintzelman, S.J., Trent, J., & King, L.A. (2013). Encounters with objective coherence and the experience of meaning in life. Psychological Science, 24, 991-998. Abstract.
Rubin, Gretchen, (2015). Secrets of Adulthood retrieved from gretchenrubin.com, My experiments in the pursuit of happiness and good habits. website.
New Years Resolution Data retrieved from Statistical Brain