The Importance of Routine
5 benefits of good habits in the time of online learning

Travis DixonDevelopmental Psychology, General Interest, Health Psychology

Our mental and physical health is being challenged at the moment. In this post, I want to address one solution that's not immediately obvious: routine. 

One of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now is the disruption to our normal routines. With schools closing and moving to online learning, it’s very easy to get into bad habits. My goal as an online teacher at the moment is to offer meaningful work and help my students maintain good routines. The biggest challenge for students is to stick to them. In this post, I’ll explain why I think developing and maintaining good habits and routines should be the focus of online learning right now. 

Schools give students structure and a safe place to socialize. With schools closing students have a bigger responsibility to be self-disciplined.

In my opinion, the primary purpose of school is to give kids a safe and social place to go every day. It’s secondary purpose is to help provide routine and structure. A positive side-effect is you might actually learn something. We now have a new challenge: to continue to give routine, structure and chances for social interaction via online platforms.

My goal as an online teacher is to first and foremost make contact with students at the same time we normally have class everyday. This keeps a semblance of routine. I also want to give them meaningful work that is a close replica of what we would be doing in class, without overburdening them. In general, my approach is to always try to do less but to do it better.

In an earlier post on how to cope with the stress of exams being cancelled, I explained the importance of keeping focused on the future and for motivated students to keep developing good habits. This post for any student who is interested in self-improvement. If you want to face a challenge and emerge on the other side stronger and more resilient, this is for you. If you’re weak, you’ll take the easy way out. If you’re strong, I’m sure you’ll work hard and do what’s best.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle.

Our school in Japan has just announced we are not going back this academic year. That means for some students it will be at least five months before they’re back in a classroom. You might be in a similar position. It’s very easy to turn to Netflix and online video games to kill the time, but you must reconsider. Developing resilience, self-discipline and working hard to have good habits is so important. Here’s why.

5 Reason for Routines

#1 Be healthier

It’s not just young kids who benefit from good eating and sleep routines – adolescents and adults do, too.

There are some obvious ways routines are connected with physical health. If you have a daily or weekly training routine, you’ll obviously be more healthy. This is something that you can still continue while schools are closed. We are lucky that there are so many free workouts available on Youtube and online. My wife and I tried this 20 minute workout yesterday and believe me, it’s tougher than it looks (especially when you’ve got a four year old climbing all over you).

Having regular routines has been linked with numerous health benefits. One study in the UK found that kids who had good routines and had dinner and went to bed at the same time each night at aged three, were less likely to be obese by age 11 (Andersen et al. 2005 link). Similar results have also been found in teenagers and adults (e.g. Hart et al. 2011 link).

These are just a small sample of the plethora of studies that link routines with physical health.

#2. Increased self-control

Successful people share something in common – self-control (Duckworth, 2018 link). Self-control means you can resist the temptation for easy rewards and pleasurable things and do what you know is best. For example, do you order the steamed vegetables or the fries as your side-dish at the restaurant? Do you want that extra hour of Netflix before bedtime or do you read because you know screens affect your sleep?

Writing a daily schedule that plans out your every hour might sound like OCD, but it’s actually an effectively strategy for being productive and creating good habits.

If you have better self-control, you will be more successful. Developing routines and habits is one way of improving your self-control. Over the next few weeks of online learning, I implore you to take this challenge seriously if you want to be successful.

Being self-motivated and disciplined is extremely difficult. Like anything that’s hard, it takes practice. You will fail. But you must try again. Perhaps my favourite saying about this is by Jocko Willink: “Discipline is freedom.”

#3. Sleep better – More energy

With the shift to online learning there is an obvious increase in screen time. Of course, teachers need to be aware of this and try to be creative with the work we assign so that we don’t add to the problem. But it’s also your responsibility to be mindful of your recreational screen time use.

A big challenge students face at the moment is managing screen time. Another reason why routines and scheduled are so important.

Do you take your phone to bed with you? If you do, you’re increasing your chances of having sleep problems like insomnia, low levels of energy and a lack of concentration (Foerster et al. 2019 link). This is because you physically cannot hit the deep sleep necessary to fully recharge if you have your phone by your bed. This is especially true if you haven’t turned off your notifications. But studies even suggest that with phones turned off your mind still doesn’t fully shut down to rest. This disrupted sleep will have numerous consequences.

Creating a good daily routine means allowing for times of recreational screen use like social media or watching TV. But if you don’t set a strict schedule to allow for this time, you run the risk of falling into bad screen habits.

#4. Learn to delay gratification

Mischel’s famous “Marshmallow studies” on the powerful effects of delaying gratification suggest that if you can resist the temptation to go for the immediate reward and wait, you’ll be more likely to be successful later in life (you can read more about the Marshmallow studies here).

While the validity of these claims has been challenged (e.g. by Watts et al.’s 2018 replication), it should still be obvious that being able to ignore immediate temptations and wait for longer rewards is a good quality to have.

So what does this have to do with routines and online learning? When you’re at home alone and asked to get work done, you don’t have a teacher there to constantly keep you focused. You’ll probably also have far greater freedom for when and how you get work done. Without a schedule or a routine, you run the risk of giving into those unhealthy temptations that will form bad habits and have negative effects we’ve already discussed – bad sleep habits, poor physical health, and more stress. Interestingly, it might also lead to a less meaningful life. Which brings me to the final benefit of routines…

#5. Live a more meaningful life

If you’re feeling tired, unmotived or lethargic, try writing down a to-do list of jobs for the day. It will help.

It’s not just your physical health that can benefit from routines and good habits. In a really interesting study, Heintzelman and King (2018) (link) found that routines were actually associated with having more meaning in life.

At first this sounds like an overstatement, but if we take some time to think about it, it makes sense. What gives us meaning in life? This is a highly subjective answer but most people would agree that having some kind of purpose is the key to meaning. If you wake up, write down what you’ve got to do in a day as a list of jobs, you’ve instantly given yourself purpose. You have work to do.

This is why studies find very small links between money and happiness – money does not create purpose, work does. As long as you feel your life has purpose and meaning you will be happier. And this is all about how you think – if you feel that the cancelled exams has taken all the purpose out of school, you’ll struggle to stay motivated. However, if you use this as a challenge to continue to maintain good habits, develop some routines and self-discipline you’ll be a stronger, fitter, healthier and more productive person when this is all over.

Mr Dixon’s Spiraling Metaphor

In my experience, Ithink there are three fundamental factors that influence my physical and mental health. Like many others, I call these the holy trinity: sleep, diet and exercise. When I have the holy trinity in my favour: good sleep, healthy eating and lots of exercise, I feel like I am “spiraling up.” It’s a gradual process but it builds momentum. If I exercise a bit I sleep better. That means I wake up more refreshed and rested, so I have more energy to exercise again. Then I also want to eat better, which also helps my sleep, so I have more energy and want to work out…and it keeps spiraling and spiraling up.

But it can also spiral down. A lack of routine leads to bad habits, too much sitting on the couch, suddenly I’m online ordering Dominoes delivery pizza and now I’ll have a nap instead of going for a run. I wake up lazy, watch a movie and now my sleep is bad. So I wake up with less energy, maybe craving something sugar or high in calories and the spiral downwards continues.

If your school is closed, the next few weeks or months will be challenging. Try your best to spiral up. In my next post, I’ll write a few tips on how you can do this.

Are you going to start spiraling up, or spiraling down?