Why routines are so difficult to stick to

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It doesn’t matter if you’re an All-Star, even the pros have trouble sticking to routines. Seasonal slumps, like when a team is struggling through a losing streak, or career changes, can make it more difficult to see the necessity of a routine.

“One of the conversations that I may have with a player, and it's happened a few times during my career, is when a player is starting to be complacent,” Jon Lee, Strength and Conditioning coach with the Toronto Raptors, says.

Lee says he’ll often have these check-ins with athletes when their circumstances change. It could be they are playing less because their role within the team changes. Or maybe they’re at a point in their career where they’re considered more of a veteran player. These situations are no different from circumstances we encounter in our own lives. Slumps don’t only effect players. Whether it’s at work or in your personal life, we all go through moments when we question if we can stick to our routines. We might question whether we’ll ever achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

In these moments, Lee recommends getting a new perspective. “I'll have a heart-to-heart talk with them. And I'll ask them, what are your goals for the next two years?” Lee says.

Lee works with athletes to frame out their short-term futures. They focus on questions like: ‘Where do you see yourself at a specific point in the future? How many more years do you want out of your professional career?’ This way, Lee is able to get a baseline sense of what’s most important to them. Figuring this out helps him zero in on re-shaping their routines. Or even, with starting new ones that will better support their goals. From there, as someone who has worked with them and understands their capabilities, Lee will push his players. They can end up adding a few years of play to their original goal.

"We all go through moments when we question if we can stick to our routines."

For the pros, this routine recalibration is followed by rigorous changes to their workout routines. Their reward, or incentivization, in sticking to routines becomes a longer career. Lee notes that for the average person, it’s just as important to think about the long term with routines. The incentive to stick to them is much more personal.

Rather than looking at it from a career point of view, as he does for his players, Lee thinks of his daughter.

“What are you willing to do for your children? Most people are willing to do everything. And if your health is not good, that’s not going to be healthy for your child,” Lee stresses. “So I would look at my child, or children, as motivation to get healthy so that I could play with them, move with them, and do things with them.”

Jen Sygo, team Nutritionist for the Raptors, approaches trouble with routines with the same honesty, just a little more flex.

"Sygo likes to think of discipline like a muscle that gets stronger through decision-making."

“We want our nutritional habits, or any of our lifestyle habits, to have a similar degree of ease,” Sygo says. If we’re waking up in the morning already feeling like we must talk ourselves into routines, that routine will be difficult day-to-day and in the long run.

Sygo likes to think of discipline like a muscle that gets stronger through decision-making. But like any muscle, discipline can suffer from fatigue. Sygo points out that we all make hundreds of decisions over the course of a day. Eventually, saying no to temptations gets exhausting. That’s why we so often cave and order takeout or have that extra glass of wine we said we wouldn’t have. The day’s stress and fatigue often just overpower us and win out.

This can also lead to feeling disappointed in yourself. And that makes you less likely to stick to the routines that got you there. To counter that negative cycle, Sygo suggests we build routines that are realistic. We need routines we feel strong enough to stick to.

"We need routines we feel strong enough to stick to."

“Positive routines have to have an underpinning of ease. They have to be automatic,” Sygo stresses. “They have to be able to be executed even when our self-discipline is low and fatigue is high. That improves our odds of success.”

To get to that point of a routine being reflex, Sygo likes to encourage people to “set the bar at medium”. That way small wins – like making decisions that grow our discipline muscle over time – begin to feel like big victories.

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