Beware of the Power of Your Routine


We are creatures of habit. We build out schedules for our lives, find our groove, and generally feel most comfortable when sticking to our familiar patterns.

And there’s a very good reason for this: Routines can be extremely beneficial. Having a solid routine in place can help you:

  • instill good habits,

  • avoid procrastination,

  • increase efficiency & productivity,

  • improve at various tasks (by engaging in them consistently),

  • relieve anxiety & eliminate the stress associated with making decisions, and

  • add an element of control to your life.

If you look at the most successful people in the world, they all tend to have routines that they adhere to.

So, in light of all of this, yes - you should probably seek to incorporate routines into your life if you haven’t done so already. But despite their many virtues, something about routines often gets overlooked:

When you make anything a part of your routine, you’re making it a part of your identity.

When you set a daily routine for yourself, you’re consciously making time for the things you care about. Oftentimes, these are things you’d like to improve at, such as writing or a sport of some kind. But sometimes they involve another person. Routines can be established around things like a long-term relationship or marriage, for instance.

As you begin to consistently perform your routine, you start to forge new neural pathways in your brain and develop regular patterns and habits around those things. And those habits, in turn, begin to interweave with and become integrated into your identity.

An event like moving in with your partner can lead to all sorts of new routines taking shape for you with respect to that other person. And those patterns can start to become something that give you comfort and that you come to identify with on a more personal level.

In the context of a relationship, as your routines solidify, you begin to see yourself as something more than just yourself. You adopt a new sort of identity. You’re a partner, a spouse, a half of a whole.

And, while there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that process of identification, it can have some interesting side-effects. Namely, it can become difficult - sometimes even anxiety-inducing - to take breaks from that routine once you’ve established it...particularly if those breaks are not a conscious desire or choice on your part.

Further, the more deeply that you come to identify with that activity around which you’ve established a routine, the increasingly difficult or anxiety-inducing it can be to take unwanted or imposed breaks from it. Because it can feel like you’re being forced to stop doing something that’s a part of you.

And that, in turn, can pose a problem. Because sometimes it can be healthy to take a break. Sometimes a break is even necessary in order for you to heal or grow.

I experienced this issue firsthand with respect to running.

[I thought I was going to say “with respect to my divorce,” right? But I feel like I’ve already touched on that topic a lot lately, and although the example of how my marriage ended certainly applies here, I thought I’d keep things fresh for you. I know - you’re welcome. So, back to what I was saying about running--]

When I was going through my divorce, I found that going for long runs was therapeutic for me. Running helped me think things through, get perspective, and gain some semblance of control over my life. Before long, I had established a routine around it and began going for a run everyday before work.

After a couple months of instilling these morning runs as a habit, I ran my first half marathon and completed it in an hour and forty minutes. I had challenged myself to do something I’d never done before, and I was happy with my time.

Gradually, I began to adopt a new identity and started to consider myself “a runner.” And the more races that I participated in, and the more finishing times I took pride in, the more that new identity solidified in me.

Then, of course, something shitty happened.

One day, I was running on a trail up in the mountains just outside of Aspen when I turned my ankle, as we all do occasionally. Only, I did it so badly and with such force that I managed to break mine.

My newfound identity of “runner” was about to be seriously challenged. Because I wouldn’t even be able to walk (much less run) on my ankle for quite some time without suffering from excruciating pain.

You would not believe the anxiety this triggered in me. I logically knew that I needed to rest my ankle in order for it to heal. But as each new day passed without me being able to get in my routine daily run, my anxiety mounted.

A current of horrible, ridiculous, panicked thoughts began coursing through my mind. If I couldn’t exercise for weeks, my body was going to get flabby and out of shape. My muscles were going to atrophy. My running times would get slower if I wasn’t able to train or do regular speed drills.

These nagging fears were relentless. But what was even harder for me was the sense that I was losing a part of myself - the identity I’d adopted that had been helping me get through my divorce.

So I had to learn how to come to terms with those feelings, and it wasn’t easy.

The thing is, even if you aren’t sidelined by an injury or more of a mental obstacle like writer’s block, it can be healthy to take breaks here and there from your own routine. Your body and brain both need periods of rest to reset, recover, repair, and improve.

If you find yourself in this sort of situation where you’re forced to take a break from a deeply-ingrained routine you’ve established for yourself and you begin to feel that sense of panic - that feeling that you’re “less of yourself” - here is what you can do:

1. Breathe through it

Your routine has likely become a habit for you - almost akin to a compulsion. So it’s natural to feel anxiety or have an emotional reaction when taking a break from it. Your brain is simply trying to take over and push you to get your “fix.”

In my case, my brain was craving its daily runner’s high, and without being able to run each day and get that release of endorphins, I grew irritable and depressed. It took me a little while to gain awareness that this was happening. But once I did, I learned to breathe through it.

Here’s a simple breathing exercise you can try if or when you experience those anxious or panicked feelings:

  • either lie down or assume a comfortable sitting position
  • pull your shoulders down and back

  • place your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your belly

  • slowly breathe in deeply through your nose for 2 seconds

    • try to breathe into your belly and fill up your lower lungs first, causing your right hand to move up as you inhale

    • then continue inhaling into your upper chest, causing your left hand to move up as well

  • finally, exhale slowly through your mouth and notice as first your left hand and then your right hand falls

  • practice breathing this way for several minutes, noticing the way that your chest and belly rise and fall like rolling ocean waves

If you can learn to release and let go of that anxiety or those negative emotions, you’ll be able to take control back from your brain, begin to trust the process, and give your body the break it needs.

2. Spend time with friends & socialize

Distract your brain and find other ways to feed it. Host a games night and have your friends come over. Maybe look into taking a community cooking class or trying something different and new (the idea being that something new/different might distract you more fully).

View this break from your routine as an opportunity to be taken advantage of and seize it. Meet new people, push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and challenge yourself to open up.

3. Focus on being in the present moment -- settle into it, relax, & enjoy it

This can be much harder than it sounds until you get good at it. Start a daily meditation practice if you don’t have one already. (Mediation apps such as Headspace or Calm can be helpful if you’re new to meditation). Read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. If you’re physically able, take a vinyasa yoga class a couple of times a week.  

Over time and with practice, you’ll get better at being in the present moment and letting go of focusing on past hang-ups or worrying about the future.

These three strategies have worked well for me, but if there are other approaches that you’ve found to be helpful, please share them with others in the comments to this post.

Remember that you are not your routines. You exist independently of what you do, and you are more than what you spend your time doing. The beautiful thing is, you’re capable of constantly redefining yourself and reshaping the person that you’d like to be. Never get so stuck in your routines that you lose sight of that.