After a year of interviewing creatives about their daily routines, Madeleine Dore embarked on a 30-day habit experiment to see if she could build the ultimate routine. Here is a breakdown of exactly what that looked like and what was learned along the way.
Words by Madeleine Dore
Graphics by Amelia Goss
American author Annie Dillard once said, ‘How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.’
I have long been fascinated by daily routines for this very reason – our approach to creativity, our outlook on life, our challenges, our successes, talents, fears, vulnerabilities and peculiarities can all be found in the corners of our day to day lives.
But after a year of interviewing artists, writers, and entrepreneurs about their daily routines, I was yet to develop a routine of my own. I began to panic. Being this researcher of routines, I was beginning to feel like a fraud.
I’d go to bed and wake up at inconsistent times each day. Evenings would be a mix of slumping on the couch, madly trying to meet a deadline, having dinner with a friend and often too much wine. Exercise was sporadic. Ordering takeaway was becoming a staple. I’d fall into social media spirals, and I’d fall into bed with a full face of make-up.
It wasn’t all chaos. As an avid planner I still managed to power through to-do lists and get things done, but I felt like not having a consistent routine meant that I would miss out on some of the good things because I would have to finish something I had earlier procrastinated on.
I was curious to see if incorporating more structure and routine into my days would enrich my life, perhaps even increase my 'happiness' and 'success' – however broad and vague those terms are. After all, I have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé – could I maximise mine?
Turning to the history books, the internet, and Extraordinary Routines interviews, I quickly uncovered the common habits and routines that people are eager to adopt or get rid of.
Things like doing more exercise, waking up early, reading more, flossing, eating breakfast, saving money, getting more sleep, and spending less time on social media. In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, author Gretchen Rubin observed that common habits fall into the Essential Seven: 1. Eat and drink more healthfully 2. Exercise regularly 3. Save, spend and earn wisely 4. Rest, relax and enjoy 5. Accomplish more, stop procrastinating 6. Simplify, clear, clean and organise 7. Engage more with relationships.
In my research, I began to notice how these essential habits fit together puzzle pieces. In order to eat breakfast, it’s probably a good idea to wake up earlier. A key determinant in being able to wake up earlier, is to go to sleep earlier, and limiting social media before bed and instead picking up a book can aid that process.
So like any rational human being, I thought to myself, why don’t I just take up the most sought-after habits over a 30-day period and become a routine super-human?
But as they say, to be successful in forming new habits, take it one at a time. Each new day I decided to quit just one habit or pick up a new one. Day 1 would be wake up early. Day 2 would be wake up early and exercise. Day 3 would be wake up early, exercise, and turn my phone off by 10pm to avoid spending two hours reading the entire internet. And so on and so forth, until I’d accumulated new habits each day for an entire month.
Towards the end of the experiment, I was exhausted. My morning routine alone involved waking up at 6am; drinking a large glass of water before getting out of bed; making a green tea; doing my morning creative writing; writing my intention for the day – whether it was to be kind or to be more present; working on something project related; going for a 15 minute run; stretching and meditating for six minutes; doing coconut oil pulling for 20 minutes while I showered and got ready for work; then listening to a podcast on the tram. Phew!
Step by step 30-day habit experiment
Day 1: Automated eating
Monotony aside, eating the same thing every day is a common timesaver. For the experiment, breakfast consisted of microwave scrambled eggs with spinach or a homemade frittata; lunch was salad with spinach, cherry tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, tuna, brown rice and cottage cheese; dinner was pre-prepared meatloaf and veggies or vegetable lasagne. Fruit and nuts for snacks throughout the day.
Day 2: Exercise
Each day involved some form of exercise – a jog around the park, a ten minute weights or yoga video on YouTube, a pilates class or walking home from work.
Day 3: Switch off phone at 10pm
Social media can be timewaster, especially in those moments before bed when click-bait articles seem appealing in your sleepy-haze. During the experiment I would switch my phone to flight mode at exactly 10pm each night.
Day 4: Wake up early
Resisting the snooze button at 6am was an immense effort, but coffee helped. My morning routine was filled with writing, emails and exercise. Pulling myself out of bed when the alarm sounded didn’t get easier – and there were a few days where the snooze button was pressed several times, but I did get less tired throughout the day.
Day 5: Quit sugar
A nightly chocolate indulgence had become routine, so cutting out sugar was a challenge. But even by the end of day three without stodgy carbohydrates and refined sugar had me feeling less bloated and more aware of what I was consuming in general.
Day 6: Write
As an arts writer by day, I found I was doing little creative of free-flow writing in my spare time. I picked out dozens of topics as writing prompts and each morning would rise, make a coffee or tea, and sit at my computer and write for ten minutes.
Day 7: Learn to juggle
Studies have shown juggling can give our brains a boost and make us more mentally alert. After a brief lesson from a friend, I worked on juggling for a minimum of 15-minutes each day. Despite the consistency, I didn’t master the skill during the experiment.
Day 8: Set a daily budget
For food and basics I implemented a daily budget and made notes in my phone for everything I purchased to help curb spending.
Day 9: Podcast and news
As a regular listener of This American Life, On Being, The Good Life, Tim Ferris Show and Tara Brach, I wanted to stretch myself and listen to a brand new podcast daily. On my morning commute I started listening to The Moth, Radio National, Grammar Girl, How to be Amazing, Radio Lab and Ted Radio Hour.
Day 10: Cleanse and moisturise
Taking my makeup off before bed wasn’t really a priority pre-experiment. I have problematic skin, so I thought maybe it should be. Before bed, I would remove makeup with wipes, then use a cleanser, apply Vitamin A cream to problematic spots and lashings of moisturiser.
Day 11: Meditate
I started with a body scan meditation but felt my mind wandering and becoming impatient. I then experimented with concentration meditation – listening with full attention to a song, or mindfully sipping a cup of tea. Eventually I found a five-minute positive thinking meditation recording that I started to listen to in the park after I’d finished my daily run.
Day 12: Vitamins
I’m terrible at remembering to take vitamins, even with a reminder on my phone. I found it helped having them next to my bed at night so I was prompted to take them when I went to switch off my lamp. In the evening I would take Vitamin D, calcium and magnesium. Mid-morning I would take a multivitamin, fish oil, B6 and a chewable Vitamin C.
Day 13: Drink water
Continued to struggle with the early mornings, but guzzling half a litre of water the moment my eyes opened gave me a little boost and helped turn the automatic response to the alarm being a resentful groan into, “Must Drink Water.”
Day 14: Read
No longer getting caught in a social media vortex before bed meant I had more time to read. I finished The Art of Nonconformity by Chris Guillebeau and High Sobriety: my year without booze by Jill Stark; reread Seneca’s On the shortness of life and read Womankind magazine cover to cover.
Day 15: Quit drinking
One of my most destructive habits is drinking too much wine. Even just a few drinks on a Friday night can leave me feeling hazy on a Saturday – any more and I’m left with a crippling hangover. I’ve cancelled plans and skipped important to-dos because I’ve had too much to drink the night before. Forgoing wine after work for the experiment left me feeling fresher throughout the day.
Day 16: Evening questions
Benjamin Franklin had a daily habit of asking himself the evening question, “What good have I done today?” Before bed, I’d scribble a list of all the things I did well on a post-it note – from clearing out my email inbox to paying someone a compliment – and stick the note to the wall as a positive reminder.
Day 17: Oil pulling
Oil pulling is an ancient dental technique that involves swishing a tablespoon of coconut oil in your mouth for around 20-minutes. The idea being that toxins cling to the oil, so spitting them out improves your oral health, whitening your teeth, clearing your skin and giving your immune system a boost. I’d do the oil pulling in the morning while I was showering and getting ready for work and did notice slightly whiter teeth.
Day 18: Take a break
It’s easily to spend the entire working day sitting down glued to the computer, or to work through lunch breaks. I made a concerted effort to get outside and go for a walk or run an errand and get some fresh air each day.
Day 19: Social media limits
If I found myself with a free moment, it was a reflex to check social media. I would rapidly switch my attention from an email, to writing a feature, to Facebook. Limiting how often I could check the time zapping platforms to just once in the morning and once in the evening was admittedly more difficult than I imagined. There were multiple daily battles as I fought the urge to mindlessly scroll through my newsfeed but I did eventually find myself with more time.
Day 20: Incidental movement and exercise
To incorporate more incidental exercise into my day I would do one big stretch upon waking and each time I walked up my stairs at home, I would bear looking ridiculous as I did five push ups before reaching the landing.
Day 21: Do something new
Doing something new can be revitalising. From picking wattle in the park nearby my house, to having a new conversation, trying oysters for the first time since childhood, meeting someone new, reading a new author, and going to a new event, each day I would extend my bravery and curiosity by seeking out a new experience.
Day 22: Learn piano
I gave up piano when I was nine-years-old and my Mum always told me I’d regret it. I regret it. I decided to take up lessons and practice for ten minutes each day. Fumbling over the keys and chords, I mastered Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the opening chords to Valerie.
Day 23: Practice saying no
Often we say yes to things out of guilt, a sense of obligation, to be nice, or a plain disregard for our own time. But saying yes to things we don’t want to do isn’t nice – it deprives of us our time and creates a disconnect from our priorities. Practicing saying no was at times awkward and uncomfortable, but it taught me to better value my time and the time of others.
Day 24: Quit coffee
A day without coffee left me with a throbbing headache and a slump mid-afternoon. By day three, headaches were gone and I looked forward to a cup of green tea in the morning. Being highly sensitive to the ol' cup of joe, It was also easier for me to nod off to sleep at night.
Day 25: Give something away
I donated books to a local pop-up library and dresses I hadn’t worn for a year to a charity store. I sent a friend a gift she wasn’t expecting, money to someone in need, I gave away my time helping a friend with writing a grant, and culled bric-a-brac, shoes and bags I no longer used. It felt good to get rid of clutter but also to think of something each day that could potentially improve someone else’s.
Day 26: Set a daily intention
We can so often meander through our days not really knowing what it is we want to achieve beyond our to-do list. Setting a simple intention for the day such as smile more, or be kinder to myself, or try to catch my thoughts before they spiralled into negativity helped me set a gear for the day ahead.
Day 27: Do something that scares you
Doing something each day that scares you, however small, extends your comfort zone. I did a cartwheel in the park, asked someone out on a date, spoke to a stranger, and faced my social fear and went to a party alone. Pushing myself daily was a challenge but meant that my threshold of what I found daunting was extended just that little bit more.
Day 28: Make something
It had been years since I had made something with my hands and for the experiment I decided to do a sketch each night. There was an initial fear of the pencil and the page, but then I reminded myself of techniques used by several illustrators I’ve interviewed – don’t worry about it being good; just draw.
Day 29: The Pomodoro Technique
This time management method was a favourite amongst interviewees and I found it to be a great way to get started. Knowing that I only had 25-minutes to get something done before earning a five-minute break had me skipping the procrastination stage and speeding through my writing, leaving me with the momentum to keep working through the breaks.
Day 30: Air bath
Benjamin Franklin believed in the health benefits of nudity and to avoid getting sick would have a daily cold air bath. Opening up the windows to increase circulation, Franklin would sit nude for about half an hour reading or writing. I lasted ten minutes on a cold Melbourne morning with the health benefits of a cold tush left undetected.
Learning to deal with failure: The 'Sabit'
Listening to podcasts was part of my experiment, and one of my favourites is by psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach. There is saying that Tara likes to share in her meditations:
“If you can start the day without caffeine or pep pills. If you can be cheerful while ignoring aches and pains. If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles. If you can eat the same food every day and be thankful for it. If you can take criticism and blame without resentment. If you can face the world without lies and deceit. If you can relax without liquor. If you can sleep without the aid of drugs… Then you are probably a dog.”
We’re all human, and we all slip up from our ideal routine from time to time. I certainly slipped up during the experiment – I slept in, I checked social media outside my allocated time. I forgot my juggling practice.
But instead of falling into the habit of beating myself up, I came up with an idea that both acknowledged and respected the very human tendency to fail: The Sabit.
A Sabit is a Sabbath from habits. It meant that for 24-hours each week, I could have a break from my experiment and have a sleep in, eat sugar and basically do as I pleased.
But this break from being "perfect" also speaks to something greater. That is, in order for creativity to really flourish, we need a break. We need to give ourselves time to breathe. There is a place for doing nothing in our day, and we don't need to taint it by telling ourselves we should be doing more, or we should be doing things differently.
When I interview people about their daily routines, one of the most common things I hear is how difficult it is to do nothing. People complain that they don’t know what to do when they have nothing to do. Myself included. But we really need to get better at that. We need to get better at enjoying the time we have available to us, instead of mindlessly trying to fill it for the sake of being "productive."
We all have creative slumps. We miss deadlines. No one sticks to their routine all the time. And I think that’s far more interesting.
We’ve got to be kinder to ourselves and stop berating ourselves for having dull days and instead enjoy them for what they are.
If this experiment taught me anything, it's not so much about filling our lives with more and more things to do, but getting better at filling them with the things we want to do and above all, embracing the Sabit!