The Psychology Behind Building a Daily Routine

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If you’ve tried to establish daily routines and failed, don’t feel bad. Your struggle is a common one—and something you can overcome it if you understand the psychology behind daily routines.

You see, there are many underlying reasons why you might have failed with building routines in the past.

Once you understand why these failures occurred, you’ll be able to take the first steps needed to stay consistent with your daily action plan, something a daily checklist template can help you with.

In this blog post, we’ll talk about seven psychological principles and the way they impact your ability to build positive habits. When you understand how they work, you’ll recognize why you make certain positive and negative choices on a daily basis.

7 Psychological Principles that Impact Building Positive Habits

Principle #1: Decision Fatigue

Researchers Danziger, Levav and Avnaim-Pesso recently analyzed factors that impacted the likelihood of Israeli prisoners being released on parole.

When it was time to decide if a prisoner should be paroled, it wasn’t the crime committed, the length of the sentence or the ethnicity of the offender that determined whether the prisoner would be granted freedom.

The biggest influence seemed to be the time of day the prisoner stood in front of the judge. The later in the day prisoners appeared, the less likely they were to be released on parole.

The judges weren’t being malicious or intentionally treating prisoners unfairly; they were suffering from “decision fatigue.” As the day wore on, each judge lost his ability to make good decisions. As a result, he went with the path of least resistance—denying parole to those who appeared before him.

As you make decisions throughout the day, you’ll eventually become worn down and start to look for shortcuts. Here are some of the foolish shortcuts people take when they have decision fatigue:

  • Writing an angry email instead of taking the time to respond in a way that requires more thought
  • Eating a fast food meal rather than taking the time to prepare something healthy
  • Making an impulsive and unnecessary purchase that blows your budget

There’s another possible negative outcome of decision fatigue—doing nothing. When we’re tired from a day of working hard and maintaining constant willpower, we often feel frazzled and tired. In many cases, this causes us to procrastinate on major projects we have planned for the end of the day.

Why “Fun” Decisions are Often the Hardest to Make

In the post “How to Be Happier and More Productive by Avoiding Decision Fatigue” by Brian Bailey, there are great examples of how making too many decisions in a short period of time often leads to poor results.

This type of issue often occurs when couples or families wait until the end of the day to decide what to eat for dinner.

Chances are you’ve had some version of this conversation multiple times:

You: “What do you want to do for dinner?”

Your significant other: “I don’t know. What do you want?”

After going back and forth, you finally give up and go with the path of least resistance by ordering a delicious (but very unhealthy) pizza.

You could have avoided this decision if you’d created a meal plan and shopped for the right ingredients earlier in the week.

We all think we want to have a lot of choices, but the truth is that too many choices lead to overwhelm, causing people to make bad choices or shut down and do nothing.

Routines limit the number of decisions you have to make, increasing your odds of doing the right thing.

Principle #2: Cognitive Load

According to Wikipedia, “cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.”

There are three types of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic, which has to do with the amount of effort a specific topic requires
  • Extraneous, which has to do with the way that information is presented to the learner
  • Germane, which refers to the effort required to organize information

To put it simply, the more you have to think about the process of completing an activity, the less energy you’ll have for future activities.

The amount of cognitive load is lower when a topic requires less effort. For instance, there is a lower cognitive load when calculating 2+2 than when performing a more complex calculation.

It’s important to note that every individual has a different capacity when it comes to their ability to process information.

This difference is clear when comparing novices and experts. For example, the young child who is just learning math has to work hard to solve the previous math example—even though it’s a simple task for most adults.

Here’s another example:

Think of the amount of mental energy driving takes for the person who is just learning, compared to someone who has been driving for several years.

The novice driver has to think about every move, from buckling a seatbelt to adjusting mirrors to turning the key in the ignition and then putting the car into drive.

In contrast, a person who has been driving for several years and drives the same route to work every day can safely drive to work without even thinking about how to get there.

Daily routines help when it comes to reducing the amount of cognitive load because, in a sense, you become an expert at the things you do day in and day out.

Principle #3: Ego Depletion

We wrote about the concept of ego depletion in our book The Daily Entrepreneur, and the concept is worth revisiting here because it relates to many aspects of habit development—including daily routines.

In Steve’s habit-related studies, he learned about ego depletion from the book Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. In this book, ego depletion is defined as “a person’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings and actions.” (Here are other books on willpower that I recommend.)

Willpower is compared to a muscle. In the same way that your muscles become fatigued with use, your willpower also becomes fatigued, and the amount of willpower you have diminishes as you use it throughout the day.

Simply put, once you’ve used up your supply of willpower for the day, it’s very difficult to exercise discipline.

This principle is important to keep in mind as you work to establish daily routines. If you try to adjust too many things in your routine all at once, you are more likely to fail.

Our advice, as you go through this book, is to focus on just one of the six areas. Don’t worry about the others until you’ve turned your new routine into a series of automatic actions. Only then should you move on to one of the other areas of your life. Doing it this way will dramatically increase your odds of success.

Principle #4: “What-the-Hell” Effect

Willpower is an important aspect of developing any habit, including daily routines.

Unfortunately, in spite of our best intentions, we often hit a bump, slip up and fail to do what we set out to do, or wind up doing something we swore we wouldn’t. This happens to everyone. What matters is how you respond to this failure.

The bottom line is that you have two choices: learn from this mistake and jump right back into the routine or succumb to what’s commonly called the “what-the-hell” effect.

For example, let’s say that you’ve sworn off sweets, but you mess up and eat a cookie. If you eat one cookie, the “what-the-hell” effect might lead to a cookie binge. Before you know it, you’ve devoured a whole box of Pepperidge Farm Double Chocolate Nantucket cookies.

And since you ate the whole box of cookies, what the hell, you may as well grab a donut to go with your coffee the next day on the way to work. Of course you do all of this while telling yourself that you’ll get back to your sugar-free diet next week, since you’ve already blown it for this week.

Eventually, though, you completely give up on this habit change because you feel like you don’t have the willpower to stay consistent.

Sound familiar?

We know this all too well because it’s a faulty logic trap we’ve all experienced at some point.

Principle #5: “Monkey Mind”

Monkey mind is a Buddhist term that means “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.”

Monkey mind is an especially big problem for those who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (or ADHD), but most have struggled with this problem at some point.

Monkey mind can keep you from sticking to your daily routine. It often happens when an action causes you to think of a related action. The second action leads to a third, and so on and so forth. Eventually you’re doing something that has nothing to do with the first action.

For instance, let’s say part of your morning routine is to journal for 10 minutes. (Check out these daily journal templates you can use.) A decision to check your email “real quick” can lead to all kinds of distractions, such as clicking on a link in an email that goes to a blog post that has links to other blog posts.

And of course there are the comments on the blog that you just have to respond to. Suddenly that 10-minute creativity routine has turned into a 30-minute rabbit hole of unproductive tasks.

Later on in this book, we’ll talk about a variety of productivity tools and habits. The reason we emphasize being disciplined with your work is that you’ll avoid the trap of monkey mind. Instead of succumbing to it, you’ll learn to recognize when it’s happening and avoid succumbing to the lure of this thought pattern.

Principle #6: Multitasking Isn’t Effective

Multitasking was once touted as the way to get things done. People who are (supposedly) good at it often feel a sense of pride as they declare—usually with big fat smiles on their faces—“I’m a great multitasker!”

However, we now know better. Multitasking is currently regarded as one of several faulty practices that cause you to get less done, not more.

There are a few exceptions, of course. For example, you may be able to listen to a podcast or audiobook while doing housework, walking the dog or exercising. But in most cases, being present and “all in” are important if you want to be truly focused on whatever it is you’re doing.

As an example, Steve enjoys listening to podcasts on his daily walks because he follows the same routes (so there’s little cognitive load). However, he turns off the podcasts when he’s writing because he can’t concentrate on both the words in his head and what’s discussed on the show.

Remember, daily routines are much more than something you check off a list. The idea here is to improve the quality of your life and the lives of those around you. If you’re simply going through the motions and multitasking the whole time, then don’t expect to get good results.

Here is three-step process to help you to be present with all that you do:

Step 1: Be mindful of your current focus. For instance, your focus may be your children, a book you’re reading or a project at work. Be aware of what your “one thing” is at every moment.

Step 2: Push aside anything that doesn’t enhance or add to that one thing. If you’re focused on your children, turn off your cell phone and shut down your computer unless you absolutely need to have them on.

Step 3: Set a time limit for your current focus. Setting a time limit for the thing you’re focused on can make staying focused more doable, and can also help to bring about balance.

If you’re focused on your kids, for example, let everyone know you will be away from your phone for the next hour or two. Then check for messages at the end of the session.

You’ll get a lot more done if you are completely present with whatever you’re doing—and you can even improve your relationships with this type of approach.

Principle #7: You NEED Downtime

How regularly do you have downtime?

If your response is, “Not very often,” or worse yet, “What’s downtime?” you could be in trouble.

Downtime is not an act of laziness. It is, in fact, an incredibly important factor to keep in mind when it comes to daily routines. The truth is, we need more downtime than most people think.

self care quotes for caregivers

According to a 2013 Scientific American article, workers in industrialized nations spend as much, if not more, time taking in information as they do completing actual work. This consistent bombardment of information makes it difficult to process things and makes it even harder to shut off our minds when it’s time to rest.

U.S. employees not only deal with information overload, but are some of the worst when it comes to vacation time. Unlike the European Union, the United States has no federal laws mandating vacation time, sick leave, paid holidays or other paid time off.

The crazy thing is, even though Americans get less paid time off than most industrialized countries, it’s not unusual for Americans to have a lot of unused vacation time at the end of the year.

Even worse, when people go on vacation, they often feel the need to check email and, in some cases, show up at virtual meetings.

Even if you don’t have an unreasonable boss, it’s easy to feel intimidated by co-workers who stay at the office late and then work all kinds of crazy hours after they go home for the evening.

After all, no one wants to be the last person to show up at the office each day and the first one to go home, lest they be considered a slacker.

Why are we mentioning this? Because it’s important to avoid getting so caught up in daily routines that you don’t have any time to recharge. Although it’s true that a set schedule will make you more productive, the idea isn’t to work like a machine and never take time off.

This quote from the Scientific American article referenced above provides some good food for thought regarding the necessity of downtime:

“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

Final Thoughts on Daily Routines

Sometimes you need to do less in order to ultimately do more.

As you think about the daily routines you want to implement, be sure to leave yourself enough margin for downtime. Or better yet, make downtime part of your daily routines.

If you need some help creating your daily routines, here are some more articles:

Finally, if you want the perfect morning routine, then check out this seven-step process for creating a morning routine that will become a vital part of your daily life.)

psychology of daily routines | daily habits and psychology | mental effects of routines

1 thought on “The Psychology Behind Building a Daily Routine”

  1. Great article! I was always falling into the trap of distractions, or taking too long making decisions. Now I find that making a to do list the night before works well. I start with the first task, making sure to finish it before going on to the next. I also try and set time goals which don’t always work out:)

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