You might associate the word “routine” with boring, rote, and repetitive. But routines can be incredibly powerful. Whatever you’re trying to maximize, whether it’s health, productivity, or even meaning, a daily routine can make-or-break your goals.
Researchers in one paper defined a routine as a “repeated behavior involving a momentary time commitment to a task that requires little conscious thought.” This post will walk you through the seven major benefits of establishing and maintaining healthy daily routines and offer tips on how to harness your routines for a better life.
1. Better mental health
Researchers have found that sustainable daily routines can markedly improve your mental health. The right routines can make you happier and can help decrease or even eliminate the symptoms of several mood disorders.
Dan Brennan, MD cited a study showing that people with dysregulated circadian rhythms were more likely to suffer from depression and mood disorders and were more likely to be lonely and less likely to be happy.
Routines have been shown to benefit people in addiction recovery, people with bipolar disorder, and those who struggle with other mental health challenges.
How to use routines to improve your mental health
Researchers from the Department of Psychology, Centre for Psychosocial Health, The Education University of Hong Kong, the School of Social Work, Ariel University, Ariel, Israel, and the Department of Psychology, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK described two types of daily routines: Primary and secondary. Primary routines are less-negotiable things like eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, and maintaining personal hygiene. Secondary routines are things like hobbies, leisure and social activities, exercising, and work/study. Both are important to maintaining a healthy life and positive mental health. But if you run into constraints, whether they be money, time, or energy, prioritize your primary habits over your secondary ones.
2. Less frequent illnesses
A small study of college students found that students who engaged in “healthy” daily routines like regular exercise and getting an average of seven hours of sleep per night were less likely to get sick during the study than students who did not. Other studies have found that family routines are associated with better outcomes for patients with chronic illnesses and their families.
How to use routines to get sick less often
The same study also showed that students who regularly shook hands as a greeting and shared food and/or drinks were more likely to get sick during the study than students who didn’t.
When establishing routines, think about the habits that promote health and those that diminish it.
3. Better outcomes for kids
Healthy daily routines benefit kids in multiple, tangible ways. Researchers at the Department of Health and Human Performance, University of Houston, Houston, Texas point to research showing that kids with more family routines develop better social skills and enjoy more academic success. They also have more resilience in the face of crisis. Kids with a nightly bedtime routine have better family functioning and sleep habits. “Having a family routine can help children feel safe and secure,” writes Dan Brennan, MD.
Dr. Brennan also points to research showing that kids in families with routines are less likely to exhibit symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and other behavioral disorders. He cites one study that links low levels of family routine to oppositional defiant disorder, which manifests in kids who are hostile and resentful. “Researchers say that problem behavior is more common among children who don't have consistent morning routines, mealtimes, bedtime, and homework time,” Dr. Brennan writes.
How to use routines to benefit your kids
Establishing healthy daily routines doesn’t just benefit you in the seven ways outlined in this post. It also benefits your kids, directly and indirectly. Directly, it helps them feel safe and secure. Indirectly, you’re modeling behaviors that they can use in their lives to reap the same benefits.
4. Less stress
Researchers at Northwestern find that daily routines decrease stress. “Creating predictable scenarios through habits allows your mind to adjust, understand what to expect, and alleviate anxiety over the unknown,” writes Brad Brenner, Ph.D.
The Northwestern researchers point to the fact that not implementing healthy stress management techniques can put you at greater risk for heart disease and negatively impact your overall health.
How to use routines to lower your stress
Dr. Brenner recommends starting a daily journaling routine, especially for those who struggle with anxiety. “Journaling at the same time every day can help you start a routine of mental restoration and wellness,” Dr. Brenner writes. He also suggests scheduling time to be alone and keeping a daily gratitude journal.
5. Better overall health
Daily routines also measurably improve sleep. Great sleep in turn reduces stress, improves overall health, increases productivity, and helps you get sick less often. “Your sleep schedule and bedtime habits affect your mental sharpness, performance, emotional well-being and energy level,” Researchers at Northwestern write. A daily routine means you spend less time playing catch-up with yesterday’s to-do list. “If you’re always behind on what should have been done the day before, you’re likely also staying awake worrying about what didn’t.”
Researchers at Northwestern also find that daily routines improve your diet. Without routines around grocery shopping and preparing healthy meals at home, you’re more likely to default to highly processed foods like packaged foods, fast food, and unhealthy snacks.
Lastly, daily routines make you more likely to work out on a regular basis according to Northwestern researchers. The CDC recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or at least 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. Research shows this can offer an amazing assortment of benefits, including better memory and cognition, reduced anxiety, a lower risk of dementia, heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers.
How to use routines to improve your overall health
Routines can revolutionize your sleep. Consider doing one or all of the following:
Implement a nightly bedtime routine to prepare your brain and body for sleep. This might involve stopping the use of electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime, taking a hot bath, turning down the temperature in your bedroom, eliminating sources of blue light, and reading something that isn’t too exciting or emotionally intense. It’s also helpful to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends, to restore your body’s natural circadian rhythms.
For better nutrition, pack a healthy lunch each night rather than deciding what to eat during the day.
The key to a daily workout routine lies in the previous night. Lay out or pack up everything you need to work out, including your clothing, shoes, and any gear. "Pack your gym bag and leave it in the car, that way no matter where you go it’s always with you," says Amoila Cesar, celebrity trainer, NBA private strength coach and creator of the fitness program, 6 Weeks of The Work.
6. Higher productivity
Researchers at Northwestern find that daily routines make you more likely to effectively use your time. “Often, no routine means you simply run out of time, leaving things undone and not making the most of your time.”
Rituals help ensure you’re productive even when you’re not particularly inspired. Having to go back-and-forth about when you’re going to start, what you’re going to do, or how long you’ll work saps your mental energy and willpower. To save time and energy, make a plan and stick with it every day.
How to use routines to increase your productivity
Make a habit of prioritizing your tasks using a tool like the Eisenhower matrix every week, and then time block your calendar to limit decision-fatigue and keep yourself focused on what’s really going to move the ball forward. Do this weekly, but then do it every day as well to account for new tasks and changes in priorities.
Another productivity routine to try: Build Focus Time into your daily schedule. It’s really hard to get anything challenging done when you’re only able to work in 15- or 30-minute blocks between interruptions. To ensure you have enough uninterrupted time to get real work done, use a tool like Clockwise, which automatically creates two-hour or longer blocks of uninterrupted time to focus.
Also, make time for fun. A full life isn’t all productivity. Dan Brennan, MD recommends establishing playtime routines as well. “Yes, adults need playtime, too,” Dr. Brennan writes. “Whether it's reading, playing a video game, or watching birds at a feeder, downtime is good for your mental health. Without a plan, you may come to the end of the day without having spent time on pleasure.”
7. A more meaningful life
Daily routines mean you spend less time and energy on making last-minute decisions and working on low-value tasks. This is time you can put towards what really matters in life. We don’t find meaning in deciding what to eat or whether to work out. We find it in connecting with others, working toward our big goals, and being of service. We’re not on this Earth to serve our routines. Our routines should serve us, eliminating needless back-and-forth and making it as effortless as possible to make the choices that make us happier and healthier.
How to use routines to find more meaning in the everyday
Think through all of your routines, big and small, positive and negative. Consider whether and to what extent they’re contributing to how meaningful your life feels to you. Is your daily TV habit helping you connect with others or separating you from your family and community? Does your workout routine give you more or less energy to play with your kids? Identify where you can implement or tweak your routines to have more time, money, and energy to the things you find more meaningful in life.
Tips for establishing and sticking to a new routine
When it comes to establishing and maintaining healthy routines, I can’t recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear highly enough. (If you’re short on time or unsure whether you want to read it, check out our summary.)
Clear’s insight is that we form “good” habits and “bad” habits (or routines) in the exact same way.
Something happens. You do something in response. You experience a reward as a result of your behavior.
For example, the clock strikes a particular time or your show ends and it’s time to go to bed. You brush your teeth. Your mouth feels clean and you feel good about yourself.
Or another example. Your boss says something disparaging and you feel stressed. You smoke a cigarette. You feel calmer.
One key to establishing a new healthy routine is to modify an existing routine.
Pick an existing routine, and then hook your new habit onto that routine. For example, let’s say you want to spend 30 minutes reading a book every day. Start to read for 30 minutes after you do something you’re going to do every day regardless, such as brushing your teeth, eating lunch, or taking the trash out. This way, you already have the cue to perform the habit, aka the “stimulus.” Then you just have to modify the behavior and the reward.
Another tip from Clear: True behavior change is identity change. Change happens when you see yourself as the kind of person who has a particular routine and you’re proud to be that kind of person. So if you want to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, start to think of yourself as someone who takes great pains to prioritize sleep. Make the goal to be a healthy person, rather than to work out every day. The daily workout is what you do. The healthy person is who you are.
Your habits shape your identity. They give you evidence about who you are. And your identity drives your habits.
Another tip from Clear and others is to be careful not to try to implement or change too many routines at the same time. Maybe pick one or two keystone habits to change at first. And give those routines time to gel. Brad Brenner, Ph.D. points to research showing that it takes 21 days to form a new habit or routine. “If you set and stick to a new plan for three weeks, there’s a good chance you’ll stick to the routine for a long time,” Dr. Brenner writes.
Onward and upward
Daily routines don’t have to be boring or stale. In fact, daily routines can help you build the most productive, interesting, meaningful life possible. In addition, they are shown to help you be happier, get sick less often, and experience less unnecessary stress. Your habits even help your kids.
Implementing and maintaining daily routines like going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, exercising for 30 minutes every day, planning your meals the night before, and gratitude journaling might seem insignificant on their own. But over time and in combination, they can make a huge difference.