Why A Routine Won’t Make You Successful On Its Own

I don’t like it either, but it’s true.

If there’s one thing that has helped me overcome the darkest days it has to be a routine.

Sooner or later, life hits us in the face. And in those moments of adversity, a routine is what we rely on to get a sense of stability in our lives. When everything is going wrong, we can take refuge in the fact that we still can go to the gym in the morning, journal to count our blessings, and have a cup of joe.

Before you know it, your routine gets converted into a ritual. It becomes sacred.

But that dear, sacred routine of yours is fragile. Yes, I said that. Your strongest routine can turn into your biggest enemy if you can’t follow it for some reason.

Let me narrate a personal example. I have been meditating in the morning and evening for more than a year. When I started meditating, I thought of every excuse to avoid it. Now, fourteen months later, if I’m asked to skip my meditation, I’ll freak out — especially my morning session.

Over a period of time, my routine has become so strict that you can set your watch according to my routine. I sleep at 9 pm every night. I wake up around 5 am (ten minutes up/down). I do a set of energization exercises, make a cup of coffee, journal, and then meditate for one hour. I get up between 6:30 and 7:00 which is when I start exercising for a half-hour.

I then take a shower, go to the nearby grocery shop to get milk (for others in my family), and sit to write. I write for one hour every morning and then handle shallow tasks.

For me to function well, it has to be that way.

Even a slight disruption makes me nervous, irritated, and kills my enthusiasm. What disruptions? A phone call, an urgent and unplanned task showing up, etc. When this happens, I itch to face-punch the person who was the reason behind it. (Don’t worry, it lasts for a second only).

This is when I realized that even though my routine is a source of strength, it can be an incredible source of fragility at the same time.

Think about my enemy for a second. Let’s pretend I’m writing a book and someone’s jealous of me (aww!). He wants me to get sidetracked. To do this, he only has to ensure that an ‘accidental’ disruption pops up in the morning, and I’ll be done.

But it shouldn’t be like that, right?

Routines Break The Moment Adversity Strikes

“It’s a hard thing to leave any deeply routine life, even if you hate it.” ― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Routines and rituals are common for writers, athletes, and the like. Take Russel Westbrook, the NBA start for instance. His pregame ritual is the epitome of specificity.

He starts warming up exactly three hours before tipoff. After he’s done with that, he visits the arena chapel when there’s still one hour remaining for the game. And now for the most important detail, he eats peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the following specs:

  • Buttered wheat bread, toasted,

  • Strawberry jelly,

  • Skippy peanut butter, and

  • cut diagonally!

Exactly 6 minutes and 17 seconds before the game, he begins the final warmup drill. To top all this off, he parks at the same spot in the practice facility always shoots on practice court 3, calls his parents at the same time, and has different shoes for practice, matches, and road games.

This ritual seems more than a ritual to me. It looks like Westbrook gets a lot of strength from this particular series of events.

Basketball is a fast-paced, emotional, and engrossing game. In fact, for a person who’s played it for their whole life, any sport is consequential from their point of view. And rituals like these give players a sense of calm — a sense of control. In all the chaos of life, they feel that they finally have something in their hand. If nothing goes right, their routine will save them from getting mad.

The problem, however, is in the fragility of it. If for some reason (by happenstance or otherwise) a part of his routine is not right, he stands at the risk of losing his mind.

Think about it. If there’s no one to make his sandwich, the arena chapel is closed, the parking is filled, or Practice Court 3 is not available, what would he think?

If he’s too dependent on his routine, his thoughts will race, he’ll start to doubt himself and take everything happening as a bad omen. Soon, he’ll start to think that the game wouldn’t go right.

This is when things go haywire. When that seed of doubt is planted in his mind, no matter what he does, it will grow.

This seed then would turn into a huge tree of anger, frustration, and at last, underperformance.

All this may be because the sandwich wasn’t cut right!

This is how your routine can mess you up. And you need to protect yourself against that.

How? By not focusing on routine, but practices.

Practices Can Never Break

“If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow — you are not understanding yourself.” — Bruce Lee

Practices are a part of the routine. Here’s the difference:

  • Eating a sandwich before the game is a practice. Eating a sandwich 1 hour before the game is a routine.

  • Writing is a practice. Meditating, working out, and then sitting down to right is a routine.

You see, routines are vulnerable to outside events. The sandwich may be late for Westbrook that day. And no matter how much I try to avoid morning calls, I may have to take some urgent ones.

What’s the solution? The way out of this mess is to not be rigid — to be flexible in getting your practice in no matter what you do.

If you focus on a routine, you become too austere. While this austerity is good from time to time, it makes you unable to adapt. This inability is your handicap.

Once you shift from routine to practice, you become like water. You can take the shape of the vessel you’re put into. You don’t care about what’s happening in the world around you. Because whatever it is you know you can handle it.

If you bet bottom dollar on routines, you better be sure that events are in your control. Lest you’ll be walloped and you won’t know where the blow came from.

Focus on practices. Have more than one routine.

The pandemic, like no other event, has bought me face-to-face with the fact that diamonds maybe forever (007-reference) but routines are not. They work for a while only when circumstances are in your control. In reality, circumstances are anything but in our control.

To fix this, you can think about different situations you can find yourself in and develop alternative routines. For instance, I have different writing routines for the weekday and the weekend.

The weekends give me more control and I thus have a longer writing session. The weekdays are chaotic so I only ensure I get my writing done whenever I get time. Without stressing out if I didn’t do it first thing in the morning.

You need to have some form of a routine. Without it, there are too many decisions to make — should I write before eating or after, in the morning or in the evening, and so on. But the key is to not be so stringent about it that you lose your mind when something goes wrong.

The reason we don’t do this often is we think things will go on like they are. Again, the pandemic has shown us the exact opposite. So how can you prepare yourself to be antifragile with your routines?

By breaking them on purpose.

Break your routine down into practices and switch things up to see how you feel. Here are two examples from my life.


Instead of meditating in the evening, I often do it in the afternoon. This way, I can be sure that no matter what happens, I am comfortable in finding time to meditate any day of the week.

If I don’t do this, I’m giving my mind an opportunity to slack off — “Since I missed my 5 pm meditation, I’ll not meditate at all.” And when I don’t do it, I feel bad.

Shallow Work

I have almost 1–2 hours worth of shallow work every day. This includes checking email, messages, replying to social media comments, etc. I often schedule this work later in the day when I’m tired.

I’ve always been this way. I cling to the mentality of “Eat that Frog” and don’t do anything else until my frog is finished. (For those who don’t get it, the “frog” is my most important/difficult task of the day).

But lately, I started avoiding my shallow tasks. I was too tired to do them. Plus, I couldn’t focus on my “frog” while my to-do list full of little tasks stared me in the face.

So I switched up the routine. I completed my shallow tasks first thing when I sat down to work. By doing this I went against my old self as well as conventional wisdom. But to my surprise, it gave me immense freedom.

Knowing that all tasks for the day are taken care of, I could work on my important task for as long as I’d like. There wasn’t any rush or pressure to finish at a certain time. (This peace of mind has been valuable especially in creative tasks like writing and programming)

The point is this — Switching your routine reassures you that you’ll be alright in the absence of certainty. Trust me, you’ll face such days and it’s better to be ready for them. Else you stand the risk of being thrown off from your game completely.

The Takeaway

Focusing on practices means that you understand the world isn’t in your control. On the other hand, when you marry a routine, you’re in effect saying you know for certain that the future won’t disrupt your flow.

That would be a stupid position to be in.

With this fundamental shift, I know the things I’ll do every day — meditate, journal, exercise, and write. But I’m not attached to doing them exactly in the way I want to.

I instead position myself to respond to the events around me. Instead of prediction, I focus on an effective reaction.

Why? Because you can always change yourself but not the world.

Don’t set yourself in stone. Be like water — take the shape of the vessel you’re put into. Be adaptable. Be invincible. Be formidable.

Are you serious about becoming the best version of yourself? Get your free 5-day email course to Master The Art Of Personal Transformation

Written on December 1, 2020