How to Build an Optimal Routine

Young woman in white bathrobe opening window in luxury bathroom with city view

Written by: Sarah Haley

Do you feel like you lack order in your life? Do you wake up every day feeling rushed and behind schedule? Are you constantly living your life as though you’re always one step behind?

The solution to all these problems is a good routine. 

Routines can happen throughout the day, morning, and night. They prime you for success by providing a framework to your day. Good routines give life order. They provide your day organization and help eliminate nonessential daily tasks. 

Here we discuss what a routine is, how to break old routine habits, as well as some additional steps to help you build your own optimized routine. 

What is a routine?

A routine is defined as a habitual or mechanical performance of an established procedure.1 It is a series of actions that are regularly followed. 

Waking up at 8 AM and putting the coffee on is a routine. Going for an evening walk every night after dinner is a routine. Preparing lunch every night for work the next day is a routine. Laying on the couch all day while watching TV and eating ice cream is even considered a routine. 

A routine can involve anything, but the trick is making it a good routine. 

A good routine promotes self-discipline, positivity, accomplishment, and respect for oneself. As individuals, everyone is different. Therefore, it makes sense that everyone requires their own unique routine. You’ve just got to find the right one that works for you. 

Results from a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry found that individuals with an active daytime routine had healthier sleeping cycles, improved mental health, and decreased risk of developing emotional distress.  

According to clinical psychologist and educator Mariana Plata, routines also play an important role for individuals with mental health conditions such as addiction, depression, and bipolar disorder. Because routines provide a form of organization, they prepare people for what is to come in the future. For individuals with mental health conditions, knowing what to expect helps them actively work towards counteracting their thoughts and symptoms.2

American author and speaker John C. Maxwell once said:

“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”3

Routines are comprised of a series of actions or habits that occur daily. So, in order to have a constructive routine, you need constructive habits to go into it. 

What is a habit? 

A habit is defined as a memory-based cognitive associative entity which includes a history of behavioural repetition.4

A habit is something you do regularly, sometimes without even realizing you are doing it. 

You don’t realize you're performing a habit because of how deeply wired habits are in our brains. They are patterns of behaviour that are strengthened through constant repetition.5

The book, The Psychology of Habit, discusses how “for habit learning, greater task repetition speeds performance, reduces thought and attention, and increases activation in certain brain regions.”4

This means that the more you do a task, the more inclined your brain becomes to do the same task again. 

If a routine is a series of habits, then to have a good routine, you need to rewire your brain to create good habits. 

Firstly, you’ve got to break the old ones. 

How to Break Old Routine Habits

According to Harvard Medical school, motivation and confidence are two of the most important variables to break a habit. If you have the motivation to break a habit and the confidence within yourself that you can successfully break it, you’re ready to change your habit. 

Having a sturdy foundation is extremely important when trying to change a habit. A strong mentality is required to change habits because they are so deeply rooted within your brain.

Additionally, identification of habit triggers, creation of a concrete plan, the gathering of a support system, and collection of positive rewards are all important steps in changing a habit. Breaking a habit takes time. 

It’s important to be patient with yourself when trying to break an old habit. Remember to compromise and love yourself during the process. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Once you feel prepared enough to break your selected habit, remember the three Rs.

  1. Reminder: the trigger that’s initiating the habitual behaviour
  2. Routine: the action or habitual behaviour you complete
  3. Reward: the benefit that comes from the habitual behaviour

Reminder, routine, and reward are all linked to each other in a continuous loop. 

For example, say you have a habit of cracking your hands when you’re anxious. 

  1. Something stressful happens (reminder)
  2. You start cracking your hands (routine)
  3. Cracking your hands calms down your anxiety (reward) 

Now, once you have identified your three Rs, spend time understanding the reminder and routine components. Then, you identify your triggers, discover the rewards you enjoy, and make a plan to rewrite the cycle.  

It will take time to figure out the system that works for you. Maybe you purchase chewing gum and eat a piece every time something triggers your anxiety. Maybe, you try deep breathing exercises. 

You need to be patient while your brain adjusts to the new connections replacing the old ones. According to neuroscientist and psychologist Brian King, there is no specific length of time it takes to form a new habit. Since there are numerous unknown variables, it is simply an incalculable equation.6

Nevertheless, once you have discovered the habit-breaking system that works for you, you can start incorporating new constructive habits into your daily routine. 

Five Steps to Build an Optimal Daily Routine

Step 1. Don’t go on your phone right when you wake up

Millennial white man waking up in bad using smartphone, close up

No one likes experiencing information overload, especially when they wake up. It can be difficult to keep your hands from reaching for your phone but it's important that you don’t. 

Julie Morgenstern, author of the book Never Check Email In The Morning, said to the Huffington Post “you’ll never recover” if you check your notifications or email first thing after waking up. 

Morgenstern then goes on to explain how “it’s hard to go from your transactional, shallow part of your brain, the frontal cortex, to the other parts of your brain where strategy happens and relationships happen. It’s easier to start in the deep recesses of your brain and go to the shallow part.” 

Essentially, this means that your mind becomes scattered if you check your phone right away. Psychiatrist Dr. Benders-Hadi said in an interview with Elite Daily that “the information overload that hits [you] before you’re fully awake also interferes with your ability to prioritize tasks.”7

It's more beneficial to start your morning with something focused but calming. If you want a more productive morning routine, try starting your day with a morning walk or read instead of checking your phone. 


"But every time she remembered her phone wasn't there, she felt relieved, and free all over again. Like she'd been given more life to live." 
– Megan Angelo, Followers

Step 2. Make Your bed

woman making the bed by putting pillow case on a pillow

This one may seem simple, but it starts your day in the right direction.

William H. McRaven is a retired Navy four-star admiral and former chancellor of The University of Texas System who wrote the book Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World.

McRaven’s book discusses how making your bed in the morning sets you up for success. You are accomplishing a task first thing in the morning when you make your bed. This initial success will help encourage additional successes throughout the day and promote productivity. 

Making your bed each morning has also been associated with better sleep, improved focus, enhanced organization, stress reduction, and relaxation.8 


“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”
– William H. McRaven, Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World

Step 3. Make a To-do list

Top view shot of woman sitting at table with coffee writing on notebook. Female making to do list on diary.

Writing a list helps organize your thoughts when you wake up in the morning. Try writing down everything you have to get done that day onto a piece of paper or word doc. 

To help organize your list, try sectioning it out into three categories: work, home, and social. 

  • Put everything work-related (i.e., calls, meetings) in the work category,
  • everything that is home related (i.e., grocery shopping, cleaning, meal prep) in the home category and;
  • everything friends and family-related (i.e., dinners, coffee dates, phone calls) in the social category. 

When you write down everything, you take the pressure off your memory. Now instead of trying to remember your daily tasks, you have a reference you can go to. 

Dr. Joseph Amagada, a member of the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine, discusses the countless benefits associated with making to-do lists. Among them are increased productivity, accountability, task prioritization, and improved daily structure and order. 

Dr. Amagada even mentions how “one main thing that happens with writing down a to-do list even before it’s execution is that a to-do list actually relieves anxiety.”9

However, it’s important to note that flexibility should also be incorporated into your to-do list. Flexibility helps decrease the pressure and stress that’s sometimes associated with lists and will ensure that you are set up for success. 

“A complete and accurately defined list of projects, kept current and reviewed on at least a weekly basis, is a master key to stress-free productivity.” 
– David Allen (American productivity consultant and author)10 

Step 4. Get Outside (weather permitting) 

Weekend Concept. African Millennial Girl With Headphones Having Coffee Enjoying Day Walking Outside In Park. Panorama, Copy Space

Spending time outdoors can be part of your morning, lunch, or night routine. It can mean going for a morning walk, getting on a bike, or just simply drinking your coffee on the porch. 

A study by the Nature Conservancy of Canada found that approximately 90% of Canadian participants said they felt healthier and happier when in nature. Surprisingly, 66% of participants also said that they no longer spend as much time in nature as they used to.11

Try incorporating spending time outdoors into your daily routine. 

When you spend time outside, you’re exposing your skin to the sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. This exposure to UVB rays enables the body to make vitamin D.12 Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and promote bone growth, it regulates the neuromuscular and immune systems, and it plays a key role in the life cycle of human cells.13

Sunlight has also been correlated to increased happiness and concentration. A 2008 study looked at children with ADHD and how nature walks affected their concentration. The results found that children scored higher on a test of concentration after a walk through a park than after a walk through a downtown area.12

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden14

Step 5. Express your gratitude & write it down

List making desktop theme with gold accessories

Gratitude is the act of expressing gratefulness or thankfulness. It is a positive response that encourages appreciation for life’s gifts. Creating a gratitude list every day allows you to recognize your blessings and fortunes. 

Write down the numbers 1 through 10 on a piece of paper as if you were about to make a list. Then, beside each number write down something that you are grateful for.   

This isn’t always an easy task to do… and that’s okay. 

It can be hard to focus your energy on gratitude when you feel everything but. Regardless, writing down the things you’re thankful for will help you actively appreciate your blessings. Plus, the more you practice gratitude for the blessings in your life, the more blessings you attract or draw in.   

Robert Emmons is a psychologist, professor at UC Davis, and the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He has performed multiple research studies on gratitude and his results have shown that being more grateful can lead to increased feelings of well-being.15 

Dr. Emmons's studies have also shown that practicing gratitude can lead to increased optimism. His 2003 study with Dr. McCullough found that participants practicing gratitude for 10 weeks showed greater optimism in numerous areas of their lives.16 


“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Takeaway

Building an optimal routine will help you succeed in life. Routines provide structure, order, and organization to your day.

To make a good routine, start by changing your habits. Remember to create a strong plan and to be patient during the process.

To optimize your day, try incorporating some new habits with known benefits. 

It will take time and energy to break old habits and create new ones. But it will be worth it. 

Having a good routine has the power to change your life. 

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