Routines: Necessary or Nuisance?

Routines: necessary or nuisance

If you asked me 20 years ago to add more routine into my life, I would have scoffed at the idea.  I considered myself to creative and flexible.  Routines were boring and restrictive.  Limiting what I could do and adding unnecessary bureaucracy.  Does this sound familiar?

I’ve recently taken up mountaineering and climbing.  It can be a risky sport, and the consequences of mistakes are often high, sometimes fatal.  As you can imagine, it comes with a lot of routines.  One such routine is called BARK, and it is used to check readiness before rappelling.  This is when you descend on a rope.  The routine focuses on four key checks to reduce the likelihood of human error.

Different types of routines

This type of routine is well accepted.  When our life is on the line, we want to minimize the risk.  On a climb last weekend, I was reminded of the more general value of having a good routine.  The situation wasn’t life threatening at all, but it was important.  I almost always get blisters on my toes when descending steep hills.  To avoid blistering, I tape my toes before a climb and it works very well.  That is so long as I remember to do it.  This last weekend we packed up camp in a driving rainstorm and I completely forgot to tape my feet.  Of course, I am now dealing with several blisters.

Reflecting on this, I am reminded of the benefit of establishing several key repeatable routines.  They help me remember but it also reduces my cognitive load.  If you’ve waken up in the middle of night because of something you forgot to do and don’t want to forget, this is cognitive load.  When faced with a complicated task, the cognitive load can be exhausting.

Reducing cognitive load

The advantage of a routine is getting this out of your neo-cortex, the thinking part of your brain and into the subconscious part.  This enables you to work on autopilot, like driving a car.  Once you have a routine, I recommend writing it down as a checklist, at least until you are very familiar with it.  Remember, the less steps the higher likelihood of remembering to do it.  Atul Gwande wrote an exceptional book about checklists based on a global study of surgical effectiveness.  The author points out using a surgical checklist led to a dramatic improvement in medical outcomes, including saving many lives.

The value of doing this in climbing is obvious and the same is true in business.  Starting the day with an effective routine is a surefire way to improve your focus and productivity while you are fresh.  What routines have you created and how well do they serve your needs?  Alternatively, you may believe you don’t have any routines.  I disagree.  We all have routines, the ones we haven’t planned don’t often serve us well.

Is this the time to establish some key routines?  If not now, when?