The Atlas

Routine as a Brain-Hack

My knee-jerk reaction has always been to balk at the idea of routine. Just as a concept, it sounds so conformist -- something 180 degrees from the way in which I like to think of myself -- that I have historically resisted the idea that I was better off with them.

But both science and age/experience have gradually convinced me. And on Sunday night, I was listening to a conversation about the mental health challenges people are facing as a result of Covid-19, and the topic of routines came up again. But it was couched in a way that struck me a little different than I'd thought of it before:

The human brain doesn't make a distinction between big decisions and little decisions. So using energy on little decisions depletes energy we could use for other decisions. And, in a time where so many of us are feeling emotionally taxed, this strikes me as a very useful place to re-evaluate. So, I'll start with mine:

  • Bedtime - As a morning person, I rarely stay up late. But the last couple of months have made it easy to get sloppy on this front. Add in a partner who (sometimes) snores and a puppy in the midst of house-breaking, and my sleep has largely been a crap shoot from one night to the next.
  • Wake-up time - This, of course, is the real reason that a consistent bedtime is useful. Late to bed -- or frequent to rise in the middle of the night -- makes getting up and starting my day with consistency incredibly tough. And the fewer outside pressures and expectations there are on my early morning hours, the more I have to rely on my own discipline (not my strong suit!) to force this habit. Though, the puppy's internal clock is starting to settle into a bit of a forcing function on this front, too. (Thankfully? Not sure. Maybe.)
  • Mealtime - The near 15 pounds I've put on since St. Patrick's Day -- which I'll not-so-affectionately call my "Covid 15" -- are certainly not helped by my limited workout options (and even lower workout motivation), home confinement, and lack of social interaction. But more than anything else, it's also been my schedule. One of the reasons that I relished intermittent fasting as a way to manage my weight when I was in Colombia and first arrived in Miami was because it was the first solution I've encountered that allowed me to give up nearly 20-years of low carb eating -- which is something I have absolutely come to loathe. And the schedule being binary offloads the decision consideration of what I can/can't eat entirely.
  • Uniform - As a bit (!) of a clothes horse, I've always scoffed at the Jobs and Zuckerberg 'uniform' notion (I'm sure the mostly dormant Catholic school girl who burned her uniform in the fireplace at the end of senior year has some role in this, too). But, as a long-time highly reluctant work-from-home expert, I also know that sweats and yoga pants (or my personal version: sarongs) are the easiest ways to pack on more weight than you realize, and that much faster than you ever thought possible. I've also been watching (and envying) my partner get up in the morning and throw on his "uniform" and be ready to walk out the door in less than 5 minutes.
  • Food - For me, binary options on this front can be a lot easier than measured ones -- which includes things that it's time for me to start ratcheting back again: sugar, alcohol, processed foods and meat. But, because I'm also not a zealot, this is where managing the when is easier than the what. Things that I'm not eager to forego entirely -- like alcohol and meat -- can become "after 6:00" items that I limit by timing rather than selection.
  • Work Transitions - Commutes are always a double-edged sword. Most people hate them, but until they are gone, they rarely realize the valuable function they provide. They create a bridge between your work day and your home life. Working from home can totally blow these up, so finding ways to re-introduce a bridge can be extremely helpful. Whether it's changing your clothes, taking a walk, listening to your favorite commute-time podcast, meditating or emptying the dishwasher, finding something consistent that helps tell your body and your subconscious that you are shifting from Mode A to Mode B (and then back) can help enormously.

One of the things I like about neuro-psychology is that the more we understand how our brains work, the easier it is to find hacks that can actually be effective, rather than just trying to muscle our way through. Most of us don't have the sheer will power to force ourselves. So we have to coax ourselves instead.

What routines do you have -- or could you have -- that help offload your psychological burden on a daily basis? And what different ones are worth exploring?

It's a tough time for that right now, but after last night, I am reminded that I already know a lot of what I need to be doing. And since our new normal is going to look a lot more like today than January, it's time to get back to it.

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