Objects for sticking to a routine
September 14, 2020
5 mins read

8 steps to starting and sticking to a routine

Having routines can help us feel grounded when the future and, perhaps, the present seem shrouded in uncertainty. With routines, things feel laid out; we’re armed with a plan. 

Routines can even help us improve our mood, bolster our mental and physical health, and avoid procrastination. However, creating a new routine takes time and effort.

If you’re looking to discover new ways to kick off—and keep—a routine, here’s a quick guide to help you out!

5 steps to starting a new routine

1. Make a list of what you want your routine to include

Get out a blank page, unrein your mind, and list all the things you imagine being part of your new routine. For example, do you want to:

  • Wake up at 5:00 am every morning?

  • Do some “really, really short workouts” or practice a hot new dance tutorial?

  • Prepare snacks for each coming week?

  • Set aside time for self-care?

  • Get dressed for work or school so it feels like you’re physically there?

A list

I personally find these 12 writers’ routines incredibly motivational. A salient theme I noticed was that certain writers (e.g. Murakami, Vonnegut, and Hemingway) relied on the physical parts of their routines to get themselves ready for intellectual work—interesting!

2. Evaluate your actionable items 

Return to the list you just created—and, with a critical eye, identify the items you want to prioritize. For ideas on how to evaluate each item, check out Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix. Consider substituting the axes in Covey’s matrix (which are currently “Urgency” vs. “Importance”) with different criteria, like:

  • Feasibility (Will I actually be able to keep this up?)
  • Significance (What do I get out of this, can it wait, and what do I have to lose?)
  • Time commitment (Will I invest lots of time in this, and is it worth it?)
  • Resources required (What do I have to get to pursue this item?)

3. Develop your schedule

After selecting the items you want to pursue as part of your routine, specify exactly what you will do for each item. What are the key tasks you have to complete? For example, if you’ve got a morning routine (the “get ready for the day” sort), then one of your items may include going for a jog, which, in turn, entails tasks such as preparing what you’ll wear and filling up your water bottle.

Next, drill down on the amount of time—and time of day—you will be dedicating to each item. Allocate a few extra minutes for each item, just in case you need more time than you had expected or you want to take a quick break. 

Water bottle, alarm, schedule

4. Prepare cues and carrots/consequences

Adopting a new routine can take time, so take pride in every incremental change in progress you make! To stay on track, you could give yourself:

a) Cues

What will work as a reminder for you? Alarms? A clock right in front of you? Have something that visually reminds you of the task you set out to do.

b) Carrots and consequences

Write out some conditionals, e.g. “If I do this, then I will [reward]” or “If I don’t manage to do this, then I will [consequence].”

That is, think about how you might treat yourself every time you manage to get through your routine—these rewards (or “carrots”) can be positive incentives! Alternatively, the consequences you set for yourself can serve as constructive incentives later on—but don’t be too hard on yourself. 

5. Find support

If starting and maintaining a routine by yourself feels a bit challenging, see if someone can commit to the routine with you. This way, you can hold one another accountable (e.g. during the final season of my second year, a friend and I would wake each other up at 5:00 am and then go study together). If you prefer to tackle your routine alone, that’s totally okay, too!


Okay, now, set a “launch” date so you’re clear when you’re officially starting this new routine!

3 steps to sticking to your routine

So, you’ve started your routine. Now what?

1. Remember to tackle one thing at a time

Try to limit yourself to working on tasks outlined for the item at hand. 

Pro tip: Disable notifications and set aside 1 hour for “email/social media gardening” each day, during which you only tend to your inboxes/DMs—though preferably not before your bedtime (lest you come across something you feel like you just have to respond to or that keeps you up). Outside of that time, avoid checking your accounts. After all, you have your own priorities; try to avoid working according to someone else’s schedule.

Once the amount of time you’ve allocated for a specific item has elapsed, put what you’re working on aside and start on the next task. 

2. Track your progress and emotions

Journal about how you’re progressing with the new routine. Reflect on what’s working and what’s not. Give yourself a performance review.

I would suggest having clear metrics for yourself, similar to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that companies set. For example, if your routine involves going for a 3-kilometre run each day, keep track of how many kilometres you run so you can see if you’re meeting your goal, or even exceeding it by covering a longer distance. Or, to my fellow sonneteers and creative writers trying to churn out a new piece for an upcoming anthology, look at your word count. 

Also, jot down how you feel. Is there anything that’s not working? What are the cues? Are the rewards too dull? Are you losing steam? 

If you start to lose interest or steam:

3. Modify (or jump ship), if needed 

If you feel like your routine is leaving you drained, ask yourself: “Why?” 

The answer you come up with may not be the real reason. Dive deeper by asking a follow-up "Why?"

And again. 

Keep probing until you uncover the underlying reason, and see what you can do about it. Sometimes the issue may persist, even if you did change your routine.

For instance, if you want to have a routine that includes waking up early in the morning, but you regularly find yourself oversleeping, keep asking yourself, “Why?” 

Modifying routine

From a personal standpoint, I can share how my vow this past summer to wake up at 5:00 am to do work wasn’t the most brilliantly planned routine. As a result, I slept for very few hours on many days from July to August. Why? It was because I was working really late into the night. Why? It was because I couldn’t finish my to-dos during the day. Why? It was because I was working 5 different part-time jobs and taking a course…

You might be seeing where this is leading—that the real reason I couldn't stick to my 5:00 am wake-up time was that I had taken on too many responsibilities. (And I don’t wish to relive those days.) As for what I can do: Re-evaluate my commitments and in the future, consider how much time I’d need to dedicate to a role before taking it on.

If you’d like to call it quits on a new routine, that is fair, too—just try not to feel like all the progress you’ve made will go to the dumpster if you discontinue. Know that no matter what comes out of starting a new routine, you’ll have discovered something new about yourself and grown some more as a person.

Try your best to maintain the routine you develop—and take pride in what you learn in the process, regardless of the outcome!