In 1961, Maxwell Maltz, M.D., published a little book called Psycho-Cybernetics, based on a term he defined as, “steering your mind to a productive, useful goal so you can reach the greatest port in the world, peace of mind.” In that book, Maltz discussed the importance of routine and habit as crucial to productivity, writing, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena, tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.”
Out of that innocuous sentence, which he loosely based on observational studies of himself and his patients, was born what is now widely accepted as fact: It takes 21 days to make or break a habit. In reality, research has proven that there really isn’t a magic number here, and that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a habit to become automatic. If that sounds vague, it should. Habit-building and routine-forming are extremely personal actions.
Habit vs. Routine: What’s the Difference?
Habit-forming is a popular research topic, more so than routines. And it’s important to understand their differences. Habits require a cue, and after time, form a piece of a routine. For example, a habit is washing your hands after you use the bathroom. Using the bathroom is the cue to wash your hands. It’s habitual because it’s an unconscious behavior set in motion by parents, teachers and signs posted in public restrooms.
On its own, hand-washing is a habit. It can also be part of a habit cluster; this is a routine. For example, maybe your morning routine begins with the first cue: an alarm clock. Next is coffee, morning reading, shower, bathroom (with hand-washing), getting dressed, and getting in the car to drive to work. Each of those activities are habits on their own. Together they form a routine.
Why You Should Be Purposeful About Your Routine
Whether purposeful, you have a daily routine. There are certain habits that you’ve picked up, good and bad, that make up your daily routine. For example, I crave sweets after a meal—any meal. Sure, I have a sweet tooth, but the habit has become attached to the cue of mealtime. Over the years, it’s become a nearly automatic act.
My goal, then, is to reconfigure my routine to aid in all the ways I want to grow: productivity, restful sleep, overall health and well-being… the list goes on. That also means developing ways to eliminate the habits I don’t want, like sweets after mealtime. This requires a daily, purposeful attention to my actions. Once I build a healthy routine, my brain power is freed up to work on the big stuff: my goals.
Aren’t Morning Routines More Important?
Morning routines are a popular topic, but I like to think of my evening routine as a crucial foundation to my morning routine—a way to hack my mornings to be their absolute best. The better my night, the better my morning. Think about it: If you spend your evenings crashing in front of the TV with sugary snacks, how do you think you’ll feel the next morning? What about if you spent your evenings with a little meditation, a little journaling, and a little time spent talking with loved ones?
All this to say that your morning and night routines are interdependent on each other, and neither is better than the other. For the sake of this piece, we’ll stick to night routines.
11 Steps to Build an Evening Routine
The most important thing to remember here is that a routine is intimately personal and endlessly customizable. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to build a routine that wasn’t meant for you. As much as I want to be a night owl, I crash around 9 p.m. every night. Trying to force myself into a creative state at 10 p.m. will result only in feelings of frustration and failure. Keep that in mind as you move through these steps.
1. Identify your current routine.
This is crucial. You likely have a dozen daily habits you don’t even realize you’re doing. Start your routine overhaul by keeping a small notebook with you at all times. Write down every action that you remember doing. Always wake up two minutes before your alarm? Write it down. Always add one extra packet of sugar in your coffee on Monday mornings? Write it down. As innocuous as these actions seem, they’re tied to unconscious behaviors that shape who we are. Being aware of them is the first step in identifying those we want to keep or replace.
2. Make cues that work for you.
If you want to build a habit, give yourself a cue. That’s why daily reminders in popular diet and exercise apps are so effective. They force us out of automatic routines of our days and remind us of the action we’re trying to build into our new routines. Try to make the cue as natural as possible. For example, if you’re trying to eat fresh fruits and veggies for snacks instead of chips or cookies, set bowls of fresh produce on several tables throughout your house. Pre-cut snack-size bags of veggies to make them easy to grab when you’re in a hurry.
3. Make it your own.
Don’t try to adopt a lifestyle change that doesn’t fit your life. I have trouble eating breakfast and getting my daily servings of fruits and veggies. So, for me, a big hearty smoothie is easy and natural for me. Part of my evening routine is setting the blender out on the counter (habit cue) and having all the smoothie components frozen in single-serving containers. If I didn’t do that, I probably wouldn’t take the time to cut the produce or get the blender down from the cabinet shelf at 7 a.m.
4. Ignore the magic number—it’s a lifestyle.
Purposeful routines are lifestyle changes. Note the word “life” in that sentence. This isn’t a 30-day fix to your best, most productive self. Building a habit can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days. That number is broad for a reason. It’s a different number not only for each person, but also for each habit. Drinking eight glasses of water a day is probably easier than, say, sitting down to write 1,000 words of a book each day.
Implementing my daily smoothies is pretty easy, and it took me about 30 days for that to become part of my routine. But I’m more resistant to physical habits, such as daily exercise. That requires several more cues and a whole lot of talking myself into it—I have a long way to go on that habit.
5. Reduce your decisions.
Routines are hard to build because habits are hard to build. Part of the evening routine I’m trying to build is to cut out TV time to read for an hour before bed. During sleep, our minds process and untangle our thoughts. “Sleeping on a problem” came about because researchers discovered that our brains work to untangle and solve our big problems and complex thoughts while we sleep. My theory: If I read something thought-provoking before bed, my brain will be working through meaningful thoughts that will improve my life. And as much as I love a good episode of Bloodline, it’s not exactly the type of fuel I want to give my brain.
I reduce my decision (watch TV or read?) by “hiding” the remote control in a drawer and placing my e-reader or current read out in an obvious place like the coffee table. This serves both as a habit cue and a decision reducer.
6. Reduce temptations that lead to former habits.
This one might seem obvious, but it’s a powerful tip to remember. Habits are formed through cues. If you have a habit of reaching for a can of soda around 3 p.m., replace those cans with bottles of water or even cans of soda water.
7. Set a technology cut-off time.
A growing body of research shows that technology can negatively impact us at night. Blue lights in the screen keep our minds engaged and can impact restful sleep. Social media dopamine hits have a coming-down effect, which can negatively impact our moods and even our physical state. Not to mention the majority of what we watch on TV isn’t exactly goal-oriented. That’s not to say you need to sell your TV and go off the grid, but it does mean you can regain some control by setting a hard cut-off time each night. This allows you to wind down naturally and devote your evening hours to beneficial things, like connection time in your relationship or gratitude lists in your journal.
8. Have a wind-down activity.
Sometimes my brain has trouble shutting off at night. I’ve found some simple stretches or a quick restorative yoga session helps me feel grounded and naturally fall into a pre-sleep state. For some, a quick chapter in their favorite novel is enough to do the trick. Just remember that the activity shouldn’t be strenuous as that can make your body and brain come alive, which is not what we’re looking for at this hour.
9. Don’t freak out if you miss a day.
Another interesting facet of research found that habit-building isn’t as dichotomous as we thought. A 2010 study reported that participants who missed a day didn’t have more long-term resistance to habit-building than participants who completed the action each day.
This is a lifestyle change, and that means that this isn’t the time to beat yourself up for a missed day here and there. In fact, that kind of negative response can make us feel more resistant to the change overall. Accept your missed day and get right back to it.
10. Plan your next morning.
In my experience, the best part of my evening routine is planning out the following morning. It’s part of my wind-down activity that helps give my day a “closing feel.” Much like you might close a restaurant or store, I take stock of the day’s events: what went well, what I accomplished, and what’s still left to do. That helps me make a game plan for the next morning. Then, when I get out of bed, I can attack the day with purpose, rather than spending the first few hours (which I’ve found are my best hours of the day) doing meaningless or distracted tasks.
11. Track your progress.
Similar to the journal of your tasks at the beginning of your routine overhaul, keep a journal as you build new habit clusters. Identify what’s working, what comes easily, and what you’re most resistant to. This allows you to continue customizing your new routine with what makes the most sense for you. Remember, a routine isn’t a punishment or a 30-day challenge that will solve your problems; it’s a way to bring purpose, productivity and peace of mind to your day.
Photo by @Prostock-studio/Shutterstock
This article was published in August 202 and has been updated.