How I Learned to Love Routines

Routines suck. They’re dull and boring. Who wants the same, old same-old? Well, I do.

Leaving my job and moving to Italy, Japan and Germany was great. I was freed from the boring old routines! No going to work at the same time every day. No more driving the same commute! No eating at the same place for lunch. No going to the gym every afternoon. No gym membership at all! No more shopping at the same Whole Foods grocery store. Everything is new and wonderful and shiny.


Uber Shiny!

Except, a lot of those things were useful and even healthy. Without them, I was starting over.

Here’s what I learned about routines.

  • Routines lead to success!
  • Routines are efficient
  • But you need breaks

On the road to success

Japanese turned out to be a lot more effort than Italian. So a little vocabulary review, a few Japanese songs and some random conversations weren’t cutting it. Even worse, I couldn’t find any books at my reading level. (Instead of using those kanji pictures could they just write them in English? Oh…)

It didn’t help that I often wandered around aimlessly trying to decide what I wanted for lunch, or hoping for the perfect study spot. Things had to change. I needed…a routine.


This one was NOT the perfect spot. More like mystery meat.

I had underestimated the value of a routine. I mean, I have a clearly defined mission, isn’t that enough? It’s “Learn to have conversations in Japanese.” Turns out it’s only part of the equation. A routine sets up a daily schedule that lets you focus on the mission, without wasting times on trivial decisions.

Here’s how I planned my time:

  • Bedtime is 10pm – instead of staying up until 1 am playing games or watching YouTube videos
  • Wake-up time – well, if I go to bed at 10, I’ll wake up by 8am.
  • Breakfast – go to the Starbucks with the ricotta and honey pastry
  • Study spot after breakfast – the other Starbucks with the good desks
  • Lunch options – I picked 4: Sushi, Focaccia, Indian, Okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake)
  • A mocha after lunch – to fuel my afternoon conversation practice
  • Conversation practice over Skype – every day, scheduled a week in advance
  • Cardio – and now my Apple watch nags me
  • Review of notes from conversation
  • Dinner – narrowed down to 4 places I can walk to easy – and get takeout if I want
  • Play a video game in Italian and/or watch a TV show in Japanese until bedtime

Actually, I only had half of those on the list when I started. (bedtime, lunch rotation, Skype conversations, and no playing until after dinner.) Each week I added one or two more as I tweaked my execution.


Before starting this routine, I had three main problems. One, I wasn’t studying in the morning, because I slept late, because I stayed up all night. Two, I didn’t have anything immediately on the line if I didn’t study. (I sometimes told myself I’d learned enough to convince most of my friends I was fluent.) And three, I wasted a lot of time deciding what I wanted to do next.


Somedays the cappuccino is the only reason I put on pants…

That last one was both mentally and physically draining. I would ask myself, “where did I want to go for lunch?” “Where did I want to study?” I would even wander around thinking “I ate there two days ago.” (whine) or “That looks kinda good, but I can’t read the menu, and what if it’s too expensive?”


Maybe I’ll have the “all tuna” special.

Finding new and interesting places takes quite a bit of effort. By adopting a routine, I gave up novelty, but gained energy and focus toward my goal. The risk is that I’ll miss some place that I should have gone. But there will always be a place you didn’t go. Eating at every place is not my goal. Learning Japanese is.

(I also started looking forward to “sushi day” or “focaccia day.” I might even enjoy them more than I would have enjoyed new places.)


We need a national focaccia day…


Routines have diminishing returns. I knew I’d need a break from my new routine. It’s amazing how helpful it is to know that what you’re doing isn’t forever.

I set up my routine for Monday through Friday, with a break on the weekends. If I got sluggish on Wednesday or Thursday, I could tell myself to keep pushing a couple more days. It feels kinda silly to go back to a workweek. On the other hand, I have often told people that learning languages would be my full-time job for the year, so I guess I’m living it now.


Tower + Sunset + Beach = Relax


Stop for a moment and think about your routines. Now imagine they didn’t exist. No job expecting you to show up. No commute. No clubs or gyms or other meetings. For months, you’re free to do whatever you want, whenever you want.

But exactly what is that? What do you want to do? When do you want it? Do you see how your routines are saving you time and energy? Take a moment and be thankful that you don’t have to make all those decisions all the time. They’re exhausting.

If there are any of those routines that aren’t helping you achieve your mission (or recharge you), can you get rid of them? Can you change them?

Are you taking enough breaks to be able to get the most out of your routines? For that matter, do you have a mission that guides what routines you need?

Now take a moment to appreciate the routines that help you achieve your goals, and the breaks that recharge you.

One Reply to “How I Learned to Love Routines”

  1. George

    I am in Tokyo studying too.
    I’ve been here 4 months and every day still feels like I’m learning Japanese for the first day again.
    It took me a while to figure out i needed a good routine. I’m yet to figure out how to best memorise new vocabulary and grammar.

    I think it id important to build success into your routine.
    If you feel you are achieving things you will be more motivated to keep the routine and work harder/smarter/more efficiently. You will feel happier too.


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