Boring May Be Better: Why Routine May Be Best for Certain Health Goals

Boring May Be Better FinalLet me first point out that I’m not arguing for a routine life. This isn’t about settling for spending the rest of your days without variability. Going Primal should never mean checking your sense of adventure or love of novelty at the door. If anything, it calls for us to grow our lives beyond the socially drawn scope of all things work, big commute, and must-see T.V. It encourages us to branch out of our comfort zones and conventional limits. Intermittent euphoria, flow, thrill, abundance, and even a certain amount of risk boost the heights of Primal vitality. As success story after success story show, people often discover they’ve not only invested in health, but learned to expand their horizons. Life takes on greater dimension as they venture into new activities, leave behind old identities, and make unimagined changes for the better. All that change and newness is good. But today I want to put in a good word for routine as a critical tool, particularly for certain health goals.

There’s a Flaubert quote I stumbled on once: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I’ve always been more of a science man than an artist of course (and I don’t know that carbohydrate curves or sprint intervals could ever be creatively “violent” anyway). Nonetheless, something about the underlying concept always stayed with me. It begs a fundamental, even pivotal question: where do you want the freedom to be bold and impulsive (or at least spontaneous) in your life, and where do you want the security of being fixed and (relatively speaking) unyielding?

Take a moment to think about that one.

It’s interesting to me because as a society, I think we have it entirely turned around. We keep ourselves locked in rigid work schedules and long commutes. We eschew the exertion and stress of activities that would keep us fit. We deny ourselves our own vacation time or the energy to get out and experience adventure. Yet we seek constant novelty and stimulation from our food and drinks. We accept unrelenting stress from our jobs and commutes, not to mention the endless tasks and errands our lifestyles assign us.

Sure, some people spend an enormous amount of energy into nailing down life as if getting it all in a row and making it stay there will keep them secure. But this isn’t using routine in service of the good life. It’s mistaking routine for life.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are those who resist any structure, claiming it insults their freedom to live the moment at whim. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this idea itself, but I don’t know too many people who would (or should) be ruled by whim.

I think there’s a clear and useful insight underlying this core discussion. We only have so much mental energy, and it behooves us to be mindful about where and how we apply it. The more methodical we are about some things, the less thought we need to invest in them. That means less mulling, teeth gnashing and hand wringing. (And the more energy we’ll have for other things.)

I’ll let you consider all the potential uses that extra time and conserved energy can serve for your career, parenting, housekeeping, and other life minutiae. For my part (no surprise here), I’m going to focus on health goals.

It’s not a big secret that many people want to get healthy but aren’t exactly excited about the actual process of doing it. The results are sexy. The work just isn’t—or not yet anyway. Getting in shape seems like a great idea. Losing weight has been a dream for years, maybe decades for a lot of folks. And, yet, the actualization of these goals can feel insurmountable. They assume that they’re going to have to harness some supernatural force of self-discipline to get the job done.

Here’s a bold truth: it doesn’t have to be that way. And here’s where evolutionary logic shows us something we can apply today.

Self-discipline matters much less when you limit the options.

Long ago before the advent of food markets or even agriculture, our ancestors were limited to the menus they could put together with the plants and animal meats of their immediate surroundings. Although many groups may have enjoyed relative nutritional diversity in their diet depending on climate and time of year, what they ate might seem largely the same to our modern palates—some kind of meat and an array of vegetables with a bit of fruit now and then. Some choices were undoubtedly more plentiful or easily caught or prepared. These likely became the foundation of their diet. A few options changed only with the seasonal rotation. The end result was a relatively fixed diet with every option being healthy (unless it was poisonous).

These days we could have everything under the sun, most of it unhealthy. But why not cut out the static and make it simple? One study comparing the results of eating a given food daily as opposed to weekly suggests that the more often people eat a food, the less they’ll eat of it. Barring actual addiction, a food loses its appeal over time.

Moreover, a substantial research review of both human and animal studies determined that variety, with its sensory stimulation, was time and again a leading catalyst for overeating and adiposity—with the notable exception of fruits and vegetables, a greater variety of which was associated with lower adiposity. In other words, the more varied the tastes we have from one meal to the next, the more we’ll want to eat. Low sensory variety (e.g. the same foods daily) reins in that impulse. Having a standard, repeatable set of meals makes it easier to moderate food intake and manage weight.

When it comes to fitness, there’s likewise a logic to establishing routine. Not only will we get better results faster with consistency, but we’ll stay more motivated. The key here is human psychology. Research suggests that we’re largely motivated not by big goals but by the positive effects we recently experienced and the anticipated regret we assume we’ll feel if we skip working out. The message is clear: don’t squander the mental capital of motivation by letting too much time pass or letting the timing of the next benefits get too vague.

Beyond the specifics of any study, however, I think the underlying truth is this: routine releases us from the work and willpower required for choice. (Again, here we return to where we want to exercise full, unabashed freedom in life and where we value simple consistency.) It puts food back in the “eat to live and not live to eat.” It situates and cements workouts into our consciousness. We’re harnessing our own human proclivity toward secure sameness, our own system of cognitive defaults where it most benefits us.

Convinced? Let me throw out a few suggestions:

  • Give real thought to how much routine you can embrace and where in your life you’re willing to compromise your latitude. Note where you feel resistance, and prioritize where you’ll create structure and what you’ll let remain flexible.
  • Make one meal the same every day—ideally the one that is most likely to trip you up. For some people this may be lunch because of the temptation of work gatherings. Others might choose breakfast given it’s often a last minute, out-the-door choice. Change this up as needed to keep boredom from becoming full-on avoidance.
  • Go by a standard weekly meal plan. (Again, change it before you get too tired of it.)
  • Buy your food in bulk to keep your core foods consistently available. I have my favorites that I build my diet around.
  • Limit social eating events, or eat before you leave.
  • Learn to bring your own food wherever you go throughout the day. This may not be necessary for everyone, but for some people it makes a significant difference.
  • Establish an IF schedule if you choose to fast.
  • Work out the same time of day. This is worth rearranging your schedule for.
  • Go by a regular weekly fitness plan. Do sprints on a certain day, devote specific other days for strength training, do a regular weekend outdoor hike or bike ride. Keep this schedule no matter what. On vacations, do shorter versions of these if need be, but keep to the overall outline.

Finally, don’t obsess. Employ routine as a tool, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Routine can be an organizing steadying principle, but don’t surrender commonsense or the need for a rest day to any “letter of the law” principle.

Thanks for reading, everyone. How do you use routine in your Primal living? Share your thoughts, and have a great end to the week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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23 thoughts on “Boring May Be Better: Why Routine May Be Best for Certain Health Goals”

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  1. Routines give me freedom. Freedom to have fun and be creative. I have an evening routine that involves setting up and prepping for the next day, and a morning routine that gets my day off to a positive start. My routines have evolved over time and will continue to change, but they give a basic structure to my day and make sure that I stick to my healthy habits. Then I am free to enjoy my life! I’m on my way to the Jersey shore for a week right now. Of course I’ll relax and have a great time, but will still have my basic routines in place. They even make my vacations more enjoyable because I come home feeling great!

    1. Elizabeth, hope your trip to the shore makes you Happy, the weather is not too Hot, and you have some interesting and Healthy food while there.

    2. “Routines give me freedom.” THIS! I completely agree.

      As humans, we fundamentally need both certainty and uncertainty to thrive. For me, certainty in many areas of my life means the uncertainty can be embraced, not feared.

  2. thank you for this! paleo/AIP is so important to my health and wellbeing, but there is a certain amount of shame in it when i bring my own food to an event or i eat beforehand– it’s very empowering to see these habits as necessary and healthy and NOT A BIG DEAL, as opposed to shameful and obsessive!

  3. “We only have so much mental energy, and it behooves us to be mindful about where and how we apply it.”

    This is why I really like a classes based gym (currently crossfit, but not always), it allows me to outsource my workout planning. I don’t need to think about it, I just go and they tell me what to do.

    I could expend mental energy on coming up with workouts on my own, but it is worth it to pay someone else.

  4. Thanks, but no thanks. I love to cook and love all kinds of activity, but what I enjoy most depends on mood, on what my workout buddies are up for, on how I’m feeling, and on what good stuff I’m hungry for. I follow a primal template and my health shows it. If a blazing variety of delicious nutrient-rich food and joyful movement puts me at higher risk for a touch more adiposity, so be it!

  5. We really love your insight Mark! Thank you for providing the tools to maintain good health.

  6. Routine, or as I prefer to call it, preparation, is key to success in many aspects of our lives whether it be about diet or exercise. Thanks for all you do Mark.

  7. Probably the single best routine for your health … and I have yet to get it though my thick skull as I am a night owl which puts me out of step with much of the rest of the world … is to go to bed and get up at about the same time each day (hopefully getting 7 – 9 hours of sleep based on how your body works).

  8. I hate tedium, but routines are critical to success. When I was a single-parent, running a personal chef business, I could NOT have maintained any level of sanity without routines for every area of my life…house, child, clients/work, social life, food. Over the last few years I kind of walked away from routines in many areas of my life, but am finding the need to reinstate them. By establishing set times and days for mandatory items, they give me the time and flexibility to enjoy my life. I’ve resisted going back to routines, after leaving the corporate world (where I had to follow someone else’s routine), but I think they are even more important for us entrepreneurs than we’d like to admit. I love the idea of being the free-spirited, creative, hippie chick…but I need to get -ish done!

  9. Hm schedule has been super random lately from workouts, to meals, to sleep…. I think you are right, it’s time to reign some of that in to help me make better choices. I will write a schedule!

  10. Yes! I am grateful that I naturally settle into routines pretty easily and find them freeing. I schedule time each day for a workout of some sort. then I can be flexible, based on how I feel, what i did the day before etc; to decide how I will spend it. I have the same breakfast every day, a coffee drink chock full of nutrients, as well as the same next meal of a nutrient dense smoothie (usually around mid-afternoon). Since I know what this will be, I can always have all the ingredients stocked and always prepare the same way for the day each morning. It is an efficient process and it enables me to easily pass up opportunities to eat sub-optimal foods. Dinner is more flexible, within bounds.

  11. Thanks so much for this article. I had wondered if I was becoming too anal with my usual morning and bedtime routines, but now I can see even more reasons why they benefit me. I do my best when I start my day with my own “Power Hour:” BodyTalk Access routine, meditation and stretching/yoga. I finish the day with writing the day’s notable activities or thoughts in my journal, and then a list of a few items I’m presently grateful for in my Gratitude Journal. These morning and evening routines get my day off to wonderful start and help me ease into a peaceful sleep, and I miss them if travels or houseguests interrupt this flow.

    It’s so good to have these articles and folks’ input. I feel I’m always learning and progressing.

  12. I have always thrived on routine. My husband chastised me early in our relationship for not being spontaneous and he was probably correct but has accepted this about me. I always loved his spontaneity and we seem to balance each other. I go to bed and rise at the same time each day. He doesn’t. I have a workout schedule, he doesn’t, but he gets plenty of exercise. He eats what I prepare and always thanks me for the healthy foods I serve him. He still eats cookies and cake though. We are both retired now and I still need my routines. He is following my lead now, but I am finally trying new things. Life is wonderful!

  13. I learned through show prep that eating the same foods over and over day in and day out can create some severe sensitivities to those foods. While I have a “template” for creating meals that support my workouts I am careful to consistently rotate my protein, carb, and fat so that I’m not eating the same combinations of foods on any regular basis.

  14. Routines don’t make me feel hidebound. They give me a platform from which to launch creativity. Yes, I eat the same basic breakfast almost every day. I’ve figured out what works best for me and I save my creativity for other parts of my life. I thought I was just weird. 😉

    Great topic, Mark. It made me think!

  15. I first discovered this principle when I was a mother of young twins, & found household/parenting duties so overwhelming that I couldn’t focus on my art at all. (I’m a work-at-home artist/illustrator.) I always thought of myself as a free spirit, but at that point I realized I wasn’t free to freelance! Once I got the household stuff nailed into a regular routine, I found that Flaubert was right. I no longer fretted about quotidian tasks & I’ve yet to be accused of a lack of creativity. 😉

  16. Ha! Went to share this post with a client this morning during our daily check-in, and she had already sent me an email quoting it!

    Love the focus on balancing supportive routines with spontaneity, art and expression. Indeed, I’d say for myself and most of my clients, the container of supportive routines and structures offers freedom to find authentic expression of our fuller selves.

  17. I’ve been able to control over eating by staying with the same basic breakfast every morning. Lunch varies little day to day with a basic meat, veggies, cheese, fruit theme that is easy to throw in the cooler if I’m on the go. Dinner is more of a variety meal but always meat-veggie-fruit. Skipping meals makes me prone to junk food cravings or over eating.

  18. Yes- we have making the same meal each night of the week (Friday – Burgers). It has really taken the stress out of dinner. Plus, when one of needs to run to the grocery store, we know what grocery holes to fill.. so to speak. 😀 Thanks for the reminder that a good routine is necessary… and not boring!

  19. Thanks Mark, very timely topic for me! As an addict slowly taking control of his life I noticed such patterns help a lot as well. In my case the best is to have a somewhat flexible but still structured base routine in which I vary the activities/foods/etc to fill up that frame. Helps a lot to avoid random or habit decisions.

  20. Totally agree. A basic meal structure/plan makes our family food shopping and cooking much easier. Together with my personal food framework of rules, plus contingency plans for occasions of socialising and travel, I don’t need to continually make decisions or use willpower. I’m sure it’s a little extreme but it frees me up for everything else.

  21. Routine is what has gotten me to take those first few steps in getting healthy and building my strength. For me its about building a good habit and routine has gotten me this far.

    Amy |