If you found yourself saying, “Well that’s just not me I like to be spontaneous, that’s the spice of life, I need variety.” Then you are much like I am. I’m not suggesting you get rid of variety, I merely suggest you stop going out of your way to be disorganized.
Many people seek counseling or therapy when they are at their wits end. Perhaps something tragic is happening or has happened. Periodically, people are proactive and come in before the chaos arrives, but most of us resist the idea of going to therapy until we are in a big mess. One of the most concrete ways to see immediate improvement is re-establish routine in your life. Sometimes establishing a solid routine can fix most of your problems. Years ago a college student came to see me for counseling. She was heartbroken over a lost love. After meeting with her for a few minutes we both decided her funk wasn’t really about he lost love, although that hurt, but it was really about her uncompleted 7 year journey in college. Here she was, intelligent, an excellent writer, ambitious when she started, and yet she dropped out of the university she went to for a few semesters and started up again in the community college but had difficulty completing a semester even with minimal credits. One of her problems, she smoked a lot of weed. She knew it was a problem and had intentions to cut back and even quit sometimes, but she was afraid to. So I sidestepped that issue. I didn’t get involved in a debate about the morality of smoking weed and the effects it had on her cognitive abilities. She actually agreed with most of what I would have said anyway. We worked on her routine. Somehow I was able to help her realize staying up late was not helpful for her attending classes in the morning. She made it a rule that during the week and Sunday nights she would go to bed by 11. A huge improvement for her. It also meant that she was going home after work instead of hanging out with her boss and co-workers to smoke. We worked out a study schedule where she stayed at school at the library to complete all of her homework and projects. We both knew she would get nothing done at her apartment since her roommate smoked a lot of weed too. Her depression started to lift, her motivation got rolling, and she saw some success and things snowballed for her in a good way. When therapy ended she was actually angry at pot. She would smell it and it would remind her of the total mediocrity she lived with for years. Routine wasn’t the only thing we addressed in therapy but it was the start and the bulk of her improvement can be credited to her efforts to establish a routine.
So why does routine help so much? Think about it this way, routine adds fuel to willpower. Think of willpower as a finite resource, like gas in your tank. If you are debating with yourself in the morning if you should get up right away and then after a 30 minutes you finally get up, then you agonize over what you are going to wear or whether you are going to exercise and then agonize about what to eat for breakfast or whether to even have breakfast, you feel tired before going to work. You get to work or get the kids up and deal with other peoples demands. Your cognitive abilities for the rigors of the day have been depleted already and now you have to make really important decisions about the project at work or disciplining a child or allocating your money in your budget. So you skip the budget and “veg” on social media for a break. Then you feel guilty because you haven’t recycled old t-shirts into a homemade rug like your friend on the east coast who makes her own butter and homeschools her kids and makes more passive income in a week than your husband does in a month. Yep, lack of routine can be that powerful. Want more proof? There is some fascinating research here http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/584/baumeisteretal1998.pdf and here http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp945883.pdf
that might explain it more convincingly than I do. I’m not getting this stuff from a self-help book. I really have observed how routine genuinely helps people and some pretty thorough researchers have observed some related findings. Namely that in certain experiments people who make decisions in one area can feel fatigue in a completely unrelated area when faced with another decision. For example if you had to make a conscious decision to not eat chocolate in the morning even though you succeeded in that moment, you will have less strength to resist later in the day, so put the chocolate away so you can’t hear it screaming at you! If you had spent a lot of energy convincing yourself to exercise early in the day you will have less energy deciding what paint to choose for your bathroom makeover. Research has also shown that when we choose something we know we already want, meaning the choice was made already, like the night before, it doesn’t deplete our resources to choose or work in the future.
Soooo if something is more of an automatic choice, something built into a routine, it doesn’t affect our problem solving skills in the future. Aha! Another study found that people who had to exert self-control in an experiment spent more time in leisure activities to “recover” than on studying for an exam. If you are really fascinated by this stuff I highly recommend this article http://www.elaborer.org/cours/A12/lectures/Baumeister2007.pdf .
Incidentally, this research also shows that successful exertion of self-control in one task over time can increase self-control over unrelated tasks – build your momentum over time by planning things, establish your system.
When I work with men who have issues with pornography, one of the more obvious triggers for accessing pornography is being alone. Further examination sometimes reveals that they were alone, and it was late at night. They haven’t eaten in a while and the low glucose level certainly doesn’t help with the self-control.
The take home message here is develop a system or routine that works well for you. I mean it really needs to work well for you. Start with the basics like bedtime and wake up time, then eat times and exercise times. Make as much of your day automatic as it can be, then you will have more mental and physical energy for the hiccups, surprises and important decisions life calls for. Once you have that down then your baseline is established and you are ready to move on to the next contributor to thriving!
So what if you are thinking, "but my life is already pretty boring. I feel like I spend all my days cleaning up after kids, doing laundry and trying to figure out what to make for dinner."
Deep down, you know how much easier it makes it when you plan ahead. The investment in time is so worth it. Plan those meals early so when 5 o’clock hits you’re not sitting there in front of the refrigerator or cupboards wondering what you will make again. As far as the mundane routine stuff that you might be doing every day or every week, establish it in your schedule, make it automatic and then you will find you have time to read that book someone gave you for Mother’s day two years ago. Or you can take yourself and your child to the museum or park, or up the canyon, instead of doing the same old thing. If you set up a solid consistent system, not only will you have more time for variety, but you will find that you have more time for the unexpected things that occur.