For the past several months, I’ve thought a lot about routines. How do we build a good routine? How do we make it stick?
In my research and reflection, I’ve learned that the best routines are based on our values, things we find meaningful. I’ve also discovered that cues from the physical world can be powerful tools to help us stay on track.
I’ve also realized there’s another key ingredient to having a good routine.
To have a good routine, sometimes you have to break it.
Why you need both scheduled and unscheduled breaks
If you’ve read anything about productivity lately, you’ll know that breaks are important. Breaks help boost your creativity, your energy, your enthusiasm.
And I’m not arguing; I’m a strong believer in scheduling breaks into your routine. Breaks help us mark boundaries between tasks, recharge, and refocus.
But there’s a difference between scheduled breaks and actually breaking your routine.
A scheduled break fulfills a specific purpose: It helps move you through your day and stick to your routine. Which, ultimately, helps you be more productive.
But an unstructured break isn’t about productivity. By definition, it’s spontaneous and unplanned.
The important thing about this kind of break is that it isn’t part of your routine — it disrupts it.
Disruptions help us rethink our values
Remember when “disruptive” was the hot startup buzzword? Everyone wanted to launch the next “disruptive” technology that rewrote the rules of an entrenched industry.
The craze didn’t last, of course, because you can’t be disruptive all the time. But being disruptive every now and then can actually be helpful.
Once you’ve established a routine, it can be easy to get caught up in its rhythm. We get tunnel vision — always focusing on the next task, the next goal. Sometimes, we get so focused on the path ahead we forget why we chose that path in the first place.
When companies like Uber and Airbnb “disrupted” old industries, they gave us an opportunity to reconsider what we wanted from those industries. By introducing a new technology, they introduced a new perspective.
And it turns out, lots of people don’t care about free continental breakfasts or swanky restaurants. We craved flexibility and unique experiences. We rediscovered what we valued about those industries, which set us down a new path.
Taking a disruptive, spontaneous break from routine allows us to do the same thing for our routines, and our lives.
By stepping outside our routines, we give ourselves the chance to ask: “Am I getting what I want out of life?”
To disrupt your routine, embrace inconvenient impulses
What we do on our scheduled breaks is often what’s convenient. If you’re in an office, you might go to a nearby park or hang out in the break room.
On my regular breaks, I usually walk to the nearby Starbucks, or ride my motorcycle to another coffee shop. These breaks fit into my routine, and give me the space I need to stay productive.
But if I wasn’t restrained by time and convenience, my breaks would look much different.
I’d prefer a hike in Forest Park to walking to a Starbucks, or a ride to Mt. Hood instead of a coffee shop. I’d spend my afternoon writing or reading for myself, not work, or building a new workbench for my garage.
These breaks destroy my productivity for the day, and that’s the point.
They aren’t about productivity — they’re about things that matter to me. Motorcycles, nature, learning, building. Connecting with the world around me.
Convenient, scheduled breaks help you de-stress and refocus. But those breaks are about your work; they’re still part of your routine.
Disruptive, unscheduled breaks give us the chance to step outside this flow and be ourselves. Not machines racing to meet deadlines, not cogs in a bigger system. But humans, individuals.
As I’ve written before, the key to a successful, productive routine is to base it on your values. And if you don’t make time to reflect on those values, the routine you create will, at some point, fall flat.
Routines help us harness our energy and direct it toward our goals. But if you’re not working toward a goal you care about, what’s the point?
Every now and then, take a real break
The next time you have a slow afternoon, or you’re not feeling 100 percent, rearrange your schedule. Take a break — a real break. Step outside your routine and do something you find meaningful.
You probably won’t learn anything life-changing from that first disruption. But over time, taking disruptive breaks to do things you value will help you build the kind of productive life you actually want to live.
As technology philosopher Jaron Lanier writes:
“If you want to see how valuable something is, try living without it for a while.”
Taking a break from routine might seem risky — after all, you worked so hard to build it.
But taking a real, disruptive break from your routine is the ultimate litmus test: If you have a good routine, you’ll miss it.