In a sense, doing something in a routine way means that we don’t have to think much about whether we want to or should do it. We just do it because it’s our established routine. Somewhere along the line, a decision was made to just do the thing so we don’t have to put much effort into deciding to do it each and every time. Implementing a previously-adopted routine can be done rather mindlessly.

Healthy routines are hard

We spend a fair amount of time trying desperately to establish certain routines. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could routinely wake up at 5:00 AM and get myself to the gym before work without thinking about it?” “If only I could get into the habit of making a few healthy meals for the week, then I wouldn’t be grabbing fast food so often.”

Unhealthy routines are easy

And we have unhealthy routines that we can’t seem to stop. We may routinely watch TV until too late at night, or routinely spend precious time checking social media to see who liked whom. Some of us, without thinking, routinely say “Yes” when asked to go the extra mile when it would be healthier to say “No.” Others habitually say “No” to opportunities outside of their comfort zone when it would be healthier to say “Yes.” 

Are we on auto-pilot?

If we’re asked, “Why do you do that every day?” we might respond, “I don’t even think about it. It’s just what I do.” This not-thinking-about-it part can work in our favor if the routine is healthy, and it can work against us if the routine is not healthy. If we decide that flossing before bed is a good idea, then we can just do it as a matter of routine and not waste energy evaluating its merits every night. Not thinking about it helps us to keep a good thing going. 

But if we have a personal mental health routine, habit or policy which is negatively affecting our quality of life and we’re not thinking about it deeply or evaluating why we do it and whether we should continue doing it, then we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Some of the more insidious routines are those habitual negative ways of thinking about ourselves and relating to others. If, when someone is angry at us, we routinely conclude that it’s our fault, we might be reinforcing feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. On the other hand, if we routinely respond to another’s anger with defensiveness and attack, we’re probably adding to a pattern of conflict and tension in our relationships.

Easy as A B C 

Let’s imagine three types of routines: Types A, B and C. Type A routines are those auto-pilot things that we do or ways that we think which have a positive effect in our lives, like locking the car door or giving others the benefit of the doubt. These are fine as-is and can be left alone. Type B routines are those auto-pilot ways of being which have negative consequences, like habitually judging ourselves or others. These are unhealthy and could use our attention. To say, “That’s just the way I am.” serves only to perpetuate an unhealthy routine. Type C routines are those positive habits we might not yet have in place but wish we did, like exercise or talking to ourselves or others respectfully. These are the ones that require more self-discipline and commitment. But in order to add more of these positive routines, we need to make some room for them first by getting rid of unhealthy, Type B routines. Eliminating some of our unhealthy, auto-pilot ways will free up more space and energy which we can devote to establishing new, healthy routines.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash