Tools of Time Management, 4: Routines

I’ve been tweaking my family’s morning and bedtime routines over the past few months, and reflecting on the power of routines.

Routines are repeated patterns of desired behavior

At their best, they specify when, where, and what will happen. After enough repetitions, it seems like the behavior happens almost effortlessly (given the right trigger). We tend to label the routines we don’t like as “bad habits.”

Routines are a key support for the academic life. A regular research and writing routine has been shown again and again to dramatically increase productivity as measured by number of publications (see Boice and Belcher). Solid morning and evening routines, even “end of work” routines, can support transitions between one activity and the next, and just make the whole day flow more smoothly.

The “Goldilocks” spot

I’ve posted before on one way to set up new routines. But how do you know you have enough routines? When life generally flows smoothly, and you’re not running into the same problems every day or week.

How do you know you have too many routines? When life starts to feel inflexible and overly rigid. The sweet spot in the middle (the “Goldilocks” spot) is different for everyone, changes over time, and is best found through experimentation. (Check out this cartoon from Everyday People).

Smartphone alarms + topical music = less nagging

With two small children, however, I’ve found that more regimentation is extremely helpful. Observing my own life, I realized that the routines that worked best were anchored by smartphone alarms. Over the last two months, I’ve taken advantage of my smartphone’s capabilities to engage my children with music for every step of the routine.

In the morning we have thematic songs set as alarms for cuddle time, waking up, bed making, getting dressed, hairbrushing, breakfast, toothbrushing, shoes & coats, and out the door. In the evening we have thematic songs for getting backpacks ready, cleaning up, dimming the lights, changing into PJs, brushing teeth, and lights out. Now instead of nagging, the songs are doing the work of keeping us on time, and we’re dancing around the house! (If you’re curious, I’ve posted my playlist).

Actually, it’s working so well that I’m looking for additional theme songs to cue writing sessions and other tricky bits of my routine.

Update: Smartphone alarms + topical music featured in The Detroit News, Jan 12, 2014!

Update March 19, 2014: The excitement and novelty has worn off as a motivator; but new songs and revision of the timing of alarms has provided an effectiveness boost. 

Update October 13, 2014: I’ve streamlined the selections to just enough to keep us on schedule (or point out that we’re behind schedule). Fewer details needed as the kids have internalized the routines (mostly).

Other posts in this series:

Tools of Time Management, 3: Wide Margins

Tools of Time Management, 2: The List

Tools of Time Management, 1: The Calendar