Daily Routines: Why You Need One and How to Build Your Own

Daily routines are crucial for success, especially if you’re juggling schoolwork, extracurriculars, a part-time job, and a social life. When you have a million tasks to accomplish, having a routine removes some of the brain power needed for decision making – letting you use that power for more important tasks.

In psychology, this is known as reducing decision fatigue. The more decisions you have to make, the more brain power you have to use. When you make some of those decisions automatic, you’ll feel fresh when the time comes to tackle more difficult problems.

When you study at the library between your 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. classes every Tuesday and Thursday, you know exactly where to go and what to do. You don’t spend any time or energy deciding if you should go home, stay on campus or head into town. 

When you’re creating your to-do list, make sure to estimate how long everything will take, and be aware of Hofstadter’s law. This states that everything takes longer than you expect it to. If you’re not sure how long some things will take, try tracking your time for the first couple weeks to see how long individual tasks actually take. 

Because everyone has limited mental energy, the next step to building a successful routine is to focus on the most difficult tasks first. This is also known as “eating the frog.” This quote is attributed to Mark Twain, who was supposed to have said that if eating a frog is the hardest thing you have to do in a day, you might as well get it over with as quickly as possible.

If you’re dreading writing a Spanish essay, do it first thing in the morning. Once that’s done, you’ll feel accomplished and not have to stress about it hanging over your head all day.

Step 1) Prioritize the sleep schedule that works for you

Many students think that college is the time to work hard, play hard, and never sleep. In reality, not getting enough sleep can affect your cognitive abilities and make you less productive in the long run. 

A study from MIT found that the students who received the best grades in a chemistry class were also the ones who got the most sleep and the best quality of sleep.

When building your routine, block out seven to eight hours for sleep. It may take awhile to adjust to going to bed at a regular time, but your mind and body will thank you for it.

To enjoy high quality sleep, try to avoid using any electronic devices for at least 30 minutes before bed. Instead of using your phone until you fall asleep, read a physical book or write in a journal.

Step 2) Block out times and find good study locations

Working at a coffee shop sounds fun, but the background noise might be too distracting for you. A library seems even more ideal, but the stuffy atmosphere can make some people too sleepy. Experiment with different locations until you find a couple places where you can get work done effectively. 

Figure out if you focus more when you’re alone or with a friend. Some people are too easily distracted with someone else around, while others draw motivation from seeing a friend putting in work.

If the main library is too far away from your classes or apartment, try to find other smaller libraries on campus. Ask upperclassmen for their favorite quiet study spots. Talk to friends in other departments; you never know what secret haunts they’ve found.

Make sure to have a study spot close to your classes and your apartment or dorm. If you have to walk or take the bus for 30 minutes to get there, you’ll be less inclined to use it when time is scarce.

You should also figure out the best times to study. If you’re a morning person, use that time for homework. If you’re a night owl, head to the library after dinner. Make sure to do what’s best for you – not what anyone else says.

Step 3) Tackle your weekly eating plan

Don’t feel pressure to cook different meals every week. In college, meal prep is your friend.

Cook a big batch of grains, protein, and vegetables on Sunday and then eat that the rest of the week. Pick easy breakfasts, like instant oatmeal or granola bars you can take with you. Eating the same or similar foods can also reduce decision fatigue, as we mentioned above.

Food, like exercise, is another chance to refuel your brain. It may be tempting to eat pizza and chips, but you’ll feel better if you mostly stick with lean proteins and vegetables. 

Use meal times to recharge, whether that means grabbing food at the cafeteria with a friend or eating by yourself on the lawn while reading a book. 

Step 4) Exercise and self-care

Exercise often takes a backseat when you’re busy, but working out is one of the most important things you can do for your mental and physical health. Chances are, you can find some time in your schedule to break a sweat. Even 10 minutes of exercise done every day can lead to huge results.

Most colleges offer exercise classes that you can register for. These are also an easy way to add an A to your GPA. If there’s a gym with showers on campus, you can work out in between classes. You can also find a friend who wants to stay fit and be accountability buddies together.

Hanging out with friends is another crucial self-care activity, but it’s hard to make plans when you all have busy lives. Try to bundle self-care with tasks you already have to do. Go grocery shopping with your best friend in the middle of the week or go to the laundromat together. Building social time into your routine will prevent burnout and make you happier overall.

Step 5) Errands and other “life maintenance”

Some people set aside the weekend for running errands, but you may be better off scheduling those errands on weekdays. There are fewer people at the grocery store on weekdays, so the same errand will take less time.

Make a list of all the regular household tasks on your list, and try to intersperse them with school and other activities. For example, figure out which day is the best for doing laundry and stick to that schedule. 

Fine-tune your morning and nightly routines as a gift to your future self. This may include packing up all your textbooks, notebooks, and laptop in your backpack, filling up the coffeemaker, or drafting a to-do list for the next day.

Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” has a rule that if it takes less than one minute to do, she does it immediately. That can apply to tasks like responding to a text, sorting through the mail, or taking out the trash. Completing these one-minute tasks as they come prevents them from piling up and turning into a bigger problem down the road.

For more inspiration on how routines impact productivity, check out Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. This book describes how creative people establish a routine that works best for them. 

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