Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Routines: Comforting or Confining?

For health and sanity, build good routines. But disrupt them now and then, too.

Image by Pxhere, CCO.
Source: Image by Pxhere, CCO.

An artist friend recently told me that she was taking part of September off to travel, rest her brain, and "get out of my routines." Her comment made me think about the value of routines--and when they wear out their welcome.

A routine is a series of habits. If you've got a good routine set up--say a morning routine of breakfast-exercise-shower-dress-commute, you've freed yourself from a lot of small decisions that could slow you down or capture valuable brain-space that you'd prefer to use for something else. You can now go on autopilot and still accomplish your goals. In this way, paradoxically, a good routine can be freeing. No need for constant decision-making about what's coming next or what you should do. You're gonna brush your teeth before you leave the house, and that's that!

Along with your routines, maybe you have a ritual--a routine to which you've attached some meaning. Many people, for example, might meditate, exercise, or pray as a daily ritual to remind them to be present, be grateful, or for simple restoration after a stressful day. If a ritual like this is part of your routine, you've taken a giant step toward good self-care.

Of course, an unhealthy routine--stay up too late, press snooze button 5 times, think about what to wear, shower, think some more about what to wear, get dressed, skip breakfast because you must get going--slows you down, is hazardous to your health, and wears you out before you can even begin. Many addicts have negative rituals surrounding their drug use or cutting; they find false comfort in a series of familiar acts that disguise the treacherous nature of their habits.

Good routines can provide structure to your day, and they also can save lives and sanity. Witness the story of the 33 trapped miners in Chile who waited for months underground before they could be rescued. Older and experienced leaders organized work assignments for the men, since the miners needed to contribute to their own rescue by clearing away 3-4,000 tons of rock as the escape hatch was dug. The leaders also brought order and discipline to the men's lives by insisting that everyone wait to eat until food for all could make its way down small boreholes. One leader created a makeshift chapel for the men and organized a buddy system.

Though your life is probably not at stake, you, too, can benefit from a set of daily routines. Do you have a disciplined and humane routine that can:

• Free your creativity by putting some daily tasks on autopilot?
• Protect you from your more self-destructive impulses?
• Bring order and predictability to your life?
• Promote your health?
• Give you a few daily doses of R & R?

If not, you could choose to break the old routine and consciously create a new one. Or you could update the old routine and polish it up until it shines again. Maybe you could insert more "unwind" times into the daily grind, for example, so you can periodically jump off the treadmill of routine and get a fresh take on things.

So routines are great! Until they're not. The disadvantages of an unhealthy routine are obvious. But even good, healthy routines can drag us down if we don't break them and re-form them from time to time. Is your routine so pleasant and comforting that you:

• Don't get creative ideas any more?
• Forget the values and goals behind your routine?
• Feel your mind closing down?
• Realize you've lost your balance between work, relationships, and play?

What's helpful about the ritual of New Year's resolutions is that we have a specific time of year to reconsider our habits and routines and make a conscious change. Still, any time is a good time to re-evaluate your routines when they begin to smell a bit stale.

So, whether a good routine is comforting or constricting may depend on what you need in your life right now--a firm scaffolding to hold you up and nourish your creativity or a renewed sense of self from opening up to new experiences. For me, daily routines help sustain me and make me more productive; but every now and then it's fun to jog my mind with a creative disruption. Routines are like the old song--know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

(c) Meg Selig, 2010

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter.


"Trapped Chilean Miners Forge Refuge," by Alexei Barrionuevo, New York Times, Aug. 31, 2010…

"Trapped," by Jeffrey Kluger, Time, Sept. 20, 2010, p. 60 ff.

For a view of the trapped miners from the leadership perspective, see a terrific blog by PT blogger, Robert I. Sutton:…

More from Meg Selig
More from Psychology Today
More from Meg Selig
More from Psychology Today