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Routines and Time Management

By Alainnah Robertson September 17, 2023 Lifestyle

In my recent posts, I’ve talked about a wide range of activities that give us the foundations for a healthy life. There’s still a missing piece of the puzzle, though. To make sure we regularly complete those activities, we need to develop a routine that incorporates them, plus strategies for protecting them from the unexpected.

The Benefits of a Routine

Of the many quotes that people like to attribute to Albert Einstein, one of the wisest is this: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” What this quote always brings to my mind when I hear it are all the people I’ve known through the years – including myself – who have tried, fruitlessly, to develop healthy new habits without making these part of a daily routine.

For many reasons, routines are an indispensable part of accomplishing goals. They increase our personal effectiveness and self-management. They reduce procrastination. They help us to switch from one task to another more effortlessly. They eliminate distractions, allowing us to focus on our true priorities.

They make it easier to get things done on those days when we’re not feeling at our best. And they stop us from resorting to mentally burdensome measures such as multitasking, which, according to research by the American Psychological Association, is 40 percent more inefficient and ineffective than focusing on one task at a time.

Getting Started with Routines

The basic rhythm of human life is set by Earth’s spin on its axis. The logical starting point for building a routine, then, is the unit of time created by that cosmic dance – the day. Here is a generic example of a daily routine; I encourage you to develop your own according to what is best for you.

7:00 amArise and greet the morning! Make bed.
7:15 amExercise programme.
7: 50 amShower.
8:20 amDress.
8:30 amBreakfast. Deal with emails and any business.
9:00 amReady for the day. Morning activities.
12:00 pmMeditation. Lunch.
12:30 amBrisk 20-minute walk.
1:00 pmAfternoon activities.
5:00 pmDinner.
6:00 pmRelax.
9:00 pmRead a book. Prepare for bed.
10:00 pmBedtime.

With a daily routine like this one in place, you’ll find it easier to fit all the ad hoc engagements of your week and month into windows you’ve set aside for them. In the routine above, they would slot into the parts labelled “morning activities” and “afternoon activities.”

Stopping Your Routine from Falling Apart

But what if an event can’t be accommodated within one of those windows? You will surely have had days when you’ve woken up ready to tackle a big list of things you’d carefully planned the day before, only to find yourself completely blown off course by a friend dropping by unannounced, or a long incoming call from a colleague, or a sick pet, or any one of a billion other acts of force majeure.

When such things happen, the temptation is to try to either cram everything into the day or let things that are important to us be pushed aside. But that’s a guaranteed formula for a muddled, stressed life in which self-care falls by the wayside.

What we really need in this situation is a system that lets us make calm, sensible decisions about amending our routine. The system I like to use is the Eisenhower Matrix. It’s based on the ideas of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom you’ll no doubt know as the man who led the Allies in Western Europe during World War II and then served two terms as President of the United States.

As systems go, it has quite the track record. For what was D-Day if not the ultimate test of good time management?

The Eisenhower Matrix

The way the system works is quite simple. First, we assess each potential time commitment based on its urgency and importance. And then we prioritize what we do based on our assessments.

What do we mean by “importance” here? Well, it’s simply a question of what you value. And that’s for you to decide. The only observation I’ll make is that if you’ve been reading my posts, taking care of yourself is likely something that you value.

Under Eisenhower’s system, any given task will have to fall within one of the following four categories:

Urgent and Important Tasks

These include any time-sensitive tasks on your default daily schedule, plus all those serendipitous opportunities that are just too good to miss when they come along. On a more sombre note, they can also include health emergencies and other crises experienced by you or your loved ones.

When something is urgent and important, you can be confident that deviating from your schedule to fit it in is the right thing to do, not a sign you’re disorganized.

Not Urgent but Important Tasks

These are tasks that are crucial for your long-term goals and development but don’t necessarily have to be done at a specific moment in time. Many of the self-care activities I’ve discussed in my posts – and therefore many of the things you’ll have included in your default daily routine – fall into this category.

Things that are not urgent but important should only yield to unforeseen tasks that are both urgent and important. Don’t forget to reschedule them, and when you do so, you have full license to give them priority over the two categories of tasks that we’ll take a look at next.

Urgent but Not Important Tasks

These are things that ask for a swift response from you but don’t contribute to what you value. Things like sales calls from your cell phone service provider or requests from friends to run errands for them at short notice belong in this category, as do most notifications from the apps on your smartphone.

Eisenhower’s solution to these tasks was to delegate them to others. The extent to which you can delegate tasks will depend on your personal circumstances. I would say that if you can’t delegate them or they don’t involve a legal obligation, and if they impinge in any way on the things you want to do (even if what you want to do is just relax), feel empowered to decline engaging with them.

Having a short period in your daily routine to take care of these tasks is also a good approach. In our example routine, the part labelled “deal with emails and any business” is where they would get dealt with.

Neither Urgent nor Important Tasks

These are essentially tasks that bring us no value and that no one is asking us to do in a hurry. Often, they are mindless habits – flicking through TV channels, for example. If you’ve determined something is neither urgent nor important, you can in good conscience pass up the opportunity to do it.

When your time is planned and managed, it flows according to a regular pattern, and the unforeseen becomes much easier to deal with. And on a more philosophical level, it gives us the chance to stop living what Socrates called an “unexamined life.” We begin reflecting on what things are really important to us, which makes our lives more enjoyable, more meaningful.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you ever tried creating a routine or using a time management strategy? What worked, and what didn’t? What effect did it have on your stress levels?

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Marion

I feel sorry for you if you think your day has been blown off course by a friend dropping in or something prevents you from carrying out your strict daily duties.
i welcome any deviation as housework and daily chores will always be there, remember that poem, dust if u must!!

Alainnah Robertson

I agree, it is wonderful to have a friend drop in. As you say, the work doesn’t go away, it will wait until we have time to attend to it.

Linda

My brother retired 14 years ago and sticks to the same routine ever weekday and every weekend. It has got to the stage if he deviates from it he is like a nervous wreck.

Alainnah Robertson

Everything can be done in moderation, even following a routine.

Janne Perry

I’m sorry but I laughed out loud when I read this. After 50 years of working, the pleasure of NOT having a scheduled routine and an alarm clock is invaluable. Routines have formed naturally with tiredness, hunger and needs – it feels like magic to find that my body knows how to do this and I’m healthier and more contented than ever. No thanks to a daily schedule *shivers*!

Alainnah Robertson

I can understand the great pleasure of being able to relax after a long work life. As you say, your body adjusts to its own rhythm.

The Author

Alainnah has lived on three continents and always had a strong desire for community. She has founded various groups, including one on mindfulness and self-development. Alainnah has compiled her group study sessions in a book, Mindfulness Together. The ebook and printed version are available on her website: alainnahrobertson.com.

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