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How well does routine work in your life?

I have a love-hate relationship with routine.

There’s so much buzz around the absolute necessity of having intentional routines and systems in your life — systems of organization, systems of wellness, systems of productivity, systems of success, systems of positive thought.

The truth is, most of the time “routines and systems” feel like the Pottery Barn catalog to me…I imagine how incredibly gorgeous my life would be if I lived with more of them in my life, but somehow I can’t seem to muster the upkeep they require.

Recently a woman in one of my courses felt frustrated because she found herself setting up detailed lists around how she wanted to care for herself daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. And it didn’t take long before she lost steam and hardly looked at the sheets again, let alone kept up with them.

Whenever I recognize a lot of resistance coming up around something in my life, I do my best to step back a bit and take a macro-lens view, put on some x-ray vision goggles, and ask what’s happening underneath.

As I thought about how this worked out in my own life, it occurred to me there was already so much fixed and firm about my schedule, if I was going to bring in systems and habits around my own personal growth- my well-being, my creativity, my nourishment, my productivity- I needed to have those systems hugely flexible in nature.

I need categories of goals that have lots of ways to meet them.

For example, if my goal was to eat a healthy breakfast each day, I’d write out a list of 2 or 3 healthy breakfast ideas so that in the morning depending on my own preference and energy level I could grab the breakfast that felt best to me. I’ve never worked well with a pre-determined menu for all my meals, but I also don’t work well with no thought-out options either.

In fact, this is how we do dinner in my home. My meal planning has evolved into a process where each week, I choose five meals I’ll make during the week. I make sure we have the ingredients for those meals from the store. Then each day I choose which meal I want to make that evening. It’s the sweet spot between systems and freedom that really work for me.

This translates into other areas of my life, too.

It’s important for me to have elements of creativity and self expression woven in my days. Trying to write that into my schedule in pen just didn’t work. I often don’t know when small cracks of time will open up.

So I stocked a “Lisa” bag with a couple journals, some colored pencils, my iPod loaded with my favorite music, and whatever book I was reading. Now I’m prepared to steal away 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there, as they open up, to fill my creative tank. The fact that I have the bag ready to go is a huge motivator to take those small chunks of time and make them meaningful.

I think many of us are naturally drawn in to the idea of living a life that is polished and organized; a life where we can schedule and control things down to the minute. But, I also believe, the majority of us simply don’t have a life that works that way at all.

Our lives are a little bit crazy, a whole lot messy, and utterly beautiful.

The way to keep them moving forward in the ways we want them to be moving is often to find the sweet spot between routine and responsiveness, between systems and flexibility.

If there is an area of your life where you want positive change but previous attempts have failed, try to identify the core element of what you want more of in your life. Then brainstorm a handful of ways you could get more of that in your life; make a list of options, rather than a firm schedule.

Now consider riding the wave of your life and allowing your present moment to determine which of the options is best to choose. You may be surprised at how fast you meet and exceed your goals this way!

What works for you with routine and systems? Are you more of a rigid schedule follower or do you need more flow and flexibility in your days?

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  1. rebekah

    I need to give myself options too, based on how I feel…for dinner, for the day, etc. I can totally relate to your way of being productive…am going to subscribe to your blog. 🙂

    • Lisa Grace Byrne

      Looking forward to having you over at the WellGrounded Life ‘hood, Rebekah!

  2. Katelyn

    People seem to view “routine” as a bad word. To me the word already has flexibility built it but implies a predictable flow to an event/day/week/month. I’m coming from the perspective of a stay at home mother of a three year old. We have daily and weekly routines we follow – library for storytime on Wednesdays, grocery shopping on Thursday mornings, outside time during the warmth of the day during the winter (early in the morning and late afternoon during the summer,) breakfast and kitchen cleanup changing clothes and brushing teeth every morning. Most of us have routines we follow, whether they actually work well for us is the real issue. I think it’s important to have a strong framework of routine but flexibility in the middle when needed. I still eat dinner at the dining room table with my 3 year old the nights my husband isn’t home for dinner. However, dinner for the two of us may be something simple like yogurt, fruit and a muffin whereas dinner that includes my husband is more hearty/involved with the whole cooking thing.

    • Lisa Grace Byrne

      Love how you distinguish what about routine works and what about it doesn’t- when it gives you a framework to build a solid day- it stays…when it needs to shift and bring in variety it does- wonderful!

  3. Rachael

    Sarah of the Yes&Yes blog shared her method of an “Every D*** Day” list with her five or so things she feels she needs to do every day to stay a productive member of society, (she’s self employed, so says she can easily fall down the black hole of yoga pants and cat videos), which is something I’ve started to implement in my own life, at this point when I don’t have a built in structure to my day. When I’m working, I do just fine (get up, eat toast, get ready for work, work, come home, dinner, etc), but I’ve recently been laid off and find myself going “oh I can take care of that later” and never getting to it. So my Every D*** Day list looks something like this “1, put on real clothes. 2, apply for x number of jobs. 3, dishes clean. 4, take a walk and/or practice yoga. 5, one thing on the master to-do list (household chores, projects, etc). 6, journal and meditation.” I find once I’m off the couch and out of my pajamas, routine/productivity comes a little bit more naturally (surprise! Today I cleaned the bathroom AND finished a sewing project today AND made the cookies my hudband’s been asking for!), and I’m not binging on netflix because my to-do list is so huge I don’t know where to start, or so short I put it off for another day. My list naturally looks different than Sarah’s, and my priorities are different, as they would be with anyone’s, but I feel like this method gives me the options I need to not feel restricted, with just enough structure to keep me motivated. It’s a delicate balance.

    • Lisa Grace Byrne

      Such a good point- sometimes routine’s job is to get us moving forward and once forward movement is achieved, life can take its own a positive momentum forward 🙂

  4. Jill @ I Rather Quilt

    Agree totally. Personally, a routine can be productive and calming. But when it becomes structure, I find it to be stressful. Your meal planning is similar to mine and it has worked for me for many years. One day at a time. Like the idea about a bag for some bonus free time.

  5. Robin from Frugal Family Timez

    I am the best at developing routines – with lists and spreadsheets – but the worst at following them. That part just isn’t as inspiring. What I have found that works is pairing a likely behaviour with an unlikely one. An example, I love a hot shower. I need to exercise. A simple combo: before a nice hot shower I need to work up a bit of a sweat. It’s simple and works for me. 🙂

  6. Elizabeth

    Great post! I love routines for the basics (meals, rest time, bed time, outside time, etc.) but need a lot of flow and flexibility when it comes to our schedule, dinner plans and my self-care. When we have too many or too few outside activities, we all suffer. My 5, almost 6, year-old son is extremely sociable and is in 1/2 day kindergarten so we started the school year out with no extra activities but now we’ve added on activities for him on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I like having the 3 other afternoons free for us to be home, have down time and time together. My 3 year old is more content at home and still likes to nap a few times a week. I struggle with finding the right amount of activity & home time for everybody. I sort of do the same for dinner – I shop for a few meals but change my mind a lot about when I want to cook them. My husband gets home very late so I eat with the kids earlier and keep something warm for him. I find I do my best cooking on Mondays and Tuesdays after a more refreshing weekend and then we can have leftovers a couple of nights as I’m getting wearier. Fridays for us are usually scrambled eggs and a frozen veggie (my kids love frozen squash doctored up with maple syrup, salt and butter). Self-care is so dependent on so many factors so I need a lot of flexibility around that and to be creative about it. I love the idea about the “Lisa bag” and the other ideas in your book are great!

  7. Anna Hettick

    I love this. This is pretty much how I work. I love routines and schedules but life is not the same way every day or even minute. I have started approaching menu planning and even my daily/weekly routines and schedules with much more flexibility written into them.

  8. Aimee Mulligan

    Thanks for this post!! So encouraging to my “plan-resisting” heart. I like to live in the moment, but it is much harder to do that with little ones and so much that just needs to get done. I love the idea of a creativity bag. Also your idea of brainstorming what you want more of in your life and then making a list of things to help you along that path. Brilliant! Maybe just thinking of my “list” as more of a brainstorm and less of a “to do” list will help my attitude about it.

  9. iyas

    I find a need for a mix of the two. Using routines to do the things that need to be done allows me the gift of doing unstructured things without the associated guilt of doing them. Or at least, that’s what it used to be like until the list of things that needed to be done got to 28 hours a day.
    Your piece about giving yourself options is actually the scientifically tested way for people to actually get goals done. People who make the goals easier by thinking through what actually needs to happen and making THAT a part of their routine succeed far more than people who just set goals.
    Nice post. Thank you!

  10. Helena Alkhas

    Lisa, I love your “Lisa bag” stocked up with your favorite things to express your creative juices. Having that bag ready and knowing that life gets busy and how we don’t know when we’ll 1. have time for a break, and 2. when we’ll feel creative and in the mood to write or sketch something is part of being flexible. I will work on my favorite things! Thank you for the post.

  11. Faigie

    Wow! I felt like you were talking directly to me. I bounce back and forth between needing those routines but, feeling stifled if I have too much of them.You had a good point of how to hone in on the core of what we need.

  12. kimmie

    Routines don’t get very far at our house especially now that the kids are older. We get up at the same time every morning. Dress. Breakfast. Teeth. Bus. Dinner is around 5pm every night. Showers by 7pm. Bed by 10pm unless there’s some kind of homework crisis. Housework gets done when it needs to be done. Grocery store trips are when we have a good sized list and I have a couple of supper plans in mind. I HAVE been keeping a calendar of suppers I’ve already made. I plan to use it as a guide for December. Things I didn’t make. Things I shouldn’t make again any time soon.

  13. Breanne

    I love the idea of a schedule and a weekly routine! And I also like your Pottery Barn analogy because that is exactly where our life is right now. It’s all over all the place and no rigid routine works. Instead we have weekly things that always happen (church, ballet class, family time and community group) and then other goals we aim for. I try to be aware of the deeper needs of myself and our family and the rhythms that naturally occur- snack time after nap time, mid-morning story time, family time in the evening etc and build my routine around those. I have two little girls, 3 and 2, and my husband is student/orchestral sub so it works well for us in this season. =)

  14. Doña

    I love the idea of a creativity bag! I’m stealing that!

  15. Jo@simplybeingmum

    I’ve already outted myself as a bit of a routine rebel, here. But one area of my life that has really benefited from routine is my No Waste Tastes Great Friday Routine. It’s a combination of meal planning, grocery shopping, fridge cleaning and using up potential food-waste. It did take effort initially but 3 years on I have minimal food waste, spend less effort deciding what to feed the family and have reduced my grocery bill by 50%.

    • Bren

      “No Waste Tastes Great” routine – I love that! May have to borrow that idea & phrase … thanks for sharing. And great post, Lisa! 🙂

    • Lisa Grace Byrne

      Love this idea- make it a bang up day that sets the tone for the whole week!

  16. Dawn

    Hey, I resemble this post! I’m so glad to know I am NOT the only one who needs the flexibility in a routine or schedule. I have no desire to be planned down to the minute, nor do I think it’s necessary for me, but I completely do need some sort of structure. Thanks so much for your post, time to rethink & revise.

  17. Dee

    This is really good advice!

  18. Melro Azul

    Oh it feels SO good to read these words! Thank you (:

    I feel kind of guilty for not being able to organize myself more. I tried a whole bunch of things – from smatphone apps to a family organizer where I write the meals for the week.
    Yes, it is easier when things are a bit organized, but somehow it turns quite difficult to follow rules, specially because my husband works on shifts, so no routine at all…

    Setting strick goals and routines is the best way to fail, in my personal and empirical opinion. I prefer to focus on what really matters, and try to adapt to what I have on the moment.

    Want to know a great resource? These mindmaps are fabulous and gives us the flexibility we need:

  19. Katrina

    Like many others, I felt you were writing TO ME! I struggle with schedules. I have them and then I try to hone them further. It works for a day or two and then it blows all to pieces – either by happenstance or my own version of sabotage. Your admitting that you have a love/hate relationship with schedules helps me feel so much better about my tug of war with it. I’m doing the same approach as you re with breakfast, lunch and dinner. I need a similar approach to exercise and work. Thanks for the post. It is affirming!

  20. Shalini

    Dear Lisa, Thank you so very much for writing this article. It has given me much food for thought. Feels like I will need some time to really digest it. You can so many nuggets in there, I will print it and have it up as a wonderful reminder.

    For me after both kids started at school 2 years ago a lot of free time opened up. So I joined Ballet, and Zumba and at one point an art class too. But then got caught up on Facebook and blogs which meant I did not get cooking done or laundry done before I got to these classes and was too tired after to get things done in time before the kids got back.

    Also meal planning has been difficult for me, not sure why it just has (maybe it’s having the perfect balanced meal). Having said that in the last few months, I am finding my way with this. Its slow but there is some forward movement, even if it means at night spending five minutes to think what I will offer tomorrow, and then soaking grains or defrosting something in the fridge.

    Importantly my daughter who is quite organized has spurred me into the forward direction as she likes to know what she is getting for lunch. Embarrassing but also heart warming how our children are our best teachers.

    Thanks again, I also love the No Waste Tastes Great, and the mind maps. I think for me colour and visuals will work well when brainstorming and planning. 😀

  21. Liza Jones

    I have a love/hate relationship with routines, too. Rather, I tend to be TOO structured in my routine – finding weeks going by eating the same thing, following the same process, being annoyed if things aren’t exactly in their place. I try to work on “letting go” just a bit, and loosening the reins.

    It’s definitely a give a take battle every day. I find when I let go a little I actually have more fun – and yet the routine comforts me.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m glad we’re all in this together.

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