002A. The Best Daily Routines for a Healthy Life: The Power of Cycles

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Key Quote

  • “Your routine sets your tone for your day and your day sets your tone for your life. You won’t always step on the right foot, but we can help ourselves stay on the path by setting a routine that makes us mindful of ourselves and those around us, and that lets us make the best choices we can to be the best people that we can.” – Andrew Gilley

Episode Summary

  • Andrew Gilley experienced depression and found it difficult to set routines for himself when he moved away from home.
  • He fell into unhealthy coping strategies as a means of escape from his emotions and began coasting through life without intention.
  • He eventually realized the power of momentum, both negative and positive, and learned how to prioritize mindfulness and create a daily routine with intention.
  • Andrew discovered that maintaining a conscious routine can help him live authentically, be better in tune with himself, and make the best choices for himself.

Full Transcript

Andrew Gilley: Picture this, you’re unhappy, but don’t know how to stop it. You know it’s wrong, but you don’t know how to change it. You’re coasting through life, barely making your obligations, forgetting things and being depressed about it. You’re getting strung along by friends and family and not making your own choices.

You feel like you’ve lost control. What do you do? In today’s self-help podcast episode, I describe my own internal conflict about my own habits. The battle of a daily routine is internal. There’s a lot of forces pulling you one way or another. Your whole life leads up to every moment, so your routines form a very large part of shaping who you are.

This could be very good for you or very bad. I then talk about how the story opened up into a larger journey into habits, and my habits and the impact they had on my life. Lastly, I reflect on the value of the story, talking about our daily routines, and what role those play in our lives.

Welcome to Surviving Humanity: A Self-Help Podcast, where we shift your perspective to help you overcome the obstacles in your life.

We’re Wesley Jackson and Andrew Gilley, and we hope to foster a sense of connection and community over our common struggles while providing you with the tools to overcome them.

As always, FacebookTwitter, and our Subreddit are the best places to go for community, connection, and support.

 Links to these are in the show notes.

Let’s get started. 

 I wanna start off with a quote from chef Anthony Bourdain here, who died by suicide a number of years ago: “Look, I understand that inside me there’s a greedy, gluttonous, lazy hippie” he said to men’s journal, “I understand that free time is probably my enemy, that if I’m given too much free time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, I’m afraid of that inner hippie emerging.”

“There’s a guy inside of me who wants to lay in bed and smoke weed all day and watch cartoons and old movies. I could easily do that. My whole life is a series of strategems to avoid and outwit that guy.”

That’s why he kept himself moving forward with food, travel and work. “It goes back to heroin -” he said, “if heroin or delicious food is the number one thing on the to-do list every day, there probably won’t be a number two thing on your things to-do list.

 I think that’s a wonderful quote. I really liked that guy, I do miss him a lot, and I appreciate him being so open about his depression because it really helps other people. I’ve been clinically depressed for a long time – medication and everything – that means a lot of the time I’m in emotional pain.

It’s a lot better than it used to be, but I still struggle with managing it, and I’ve always, because of that, had a tendency to try to numb myself. The conflict in today’s story is that conflict, the one Bourdain’s describing up above: the temptation to numb yourself versus feeling feelings and how that manifests in a daily routine.

Because when you start reaching for something to numb yourself – alcohol, drugs, video games, there’s ultimately so many options today. You want some distraction to numb your bad feelings, that’s the desire for escape. But that’s not so simple, because when you habituate that, when you start making it a priority to escape, when it becomes part of your day every day, – that kind of escapism from your feelings and from reality – you’re also escaping from joy.

You’re escaping from the good things that happen to you too, and the good people that are around you.

And the conflict here is the part of me that wants to just smoke weed and drink beer and do anything I can to forget about how depressed I am or the me who wants to put my best foot forward to habitually do things that are good for me, good for the people around me, good for my mind…

these two things are in constant tension. It’s a dialectic between the two, always pushing and pulling. There’s always a temptation to try to escape the world for me and for many other people too. That’s why I’m sharing this experience that this conflict between the me I want to be versus the me withdrawing from the world.

That’s been a motivating factor for most of my life. But, here I’m gonna focus on what happened when I went to college.

I didn’t have a lot of structure then. That was the first time in my life I was setting my own daily routines and I had no real experience doing so.

It’s fun to push boundaries, of course, but, I was off at college, enjoying my freedom in pretty unhealthy ways. I was depressed, anxious, emotionally compromised, particularly with a big transition in life, living on my own for the first time. I was having trouble taking care of myself in general.

I would forget to eat a lot.

I didn’t really eat on a consistent basis until I made friends who would drag me there. Otherwise, I would just forget until 9:00 PM that people are supposed to eat dinner.

I had difficulty keeping track of my schoolwork. I’ve always had that, but it became much worse then, and I had a lot more opportunities to not do what I wanted to do. I wanted to succeed in school, but there was also all these other influences: partying, drugs, and all of these things that seemed available and seemed like a good source of escape.

And I didn’t really have the tools to deal with that because of my depression, because I hadn’t really ever put the effort in before to think about what it would be like to have a daily routine and to take care of myself. This had never been something I’d really thought about or prioritized, so I had never worked on it.

Setting and maintaining routines is a skill that we need to practice. And I had never really done it. I never really thought about my routines before that; as a kid your routines are set for you. You have to show up at the school a certain time and you get more limited choices as you grow up.

I was allowed to, for example, go off campus for lunch as a teenager, but I never had to think about my health, or self-care. That term didn’t even really come into prominence until a lot later. I had medication, but not really a whole lot of coping mechanisms because being a depressed high schooler is very different than being a depressed college student.

I had less leeway, less people who were going to help me out. I wish I could say that this was the story of me figuring out in college how to set routines, but it wasn’t. I really didn’t learn how until much later. What happened was I just fell into other people’s routines, like with the dinner thing or when I had roommates for classes and things like that.

This was just a bandaid fix, really. I didn’t really have a system of working out my good habits or bad habits, I never really thought about what I was doing, that’s just what being 18 isn’t it? I never thought about what I was doing until, years later.

I transitioned from undergraduate study to graduate school, and I found myself struggling more. One of the things I’m always trying to avoid emotionally – this is one of the ones that is real common with people – is fear of failure. It’s perfectionism.

It lets you avoid criticism. If everything you submit is perfect, then nobody can criticize it, so you won’t get any blows to your ego. This isn’t realistic, but it’s a common problem. I was a people pleaser when I was young, and being a perfect student was a part of that – I never wanted to upset anyone.

I still don’t, really. But, the pressure at graduate school started to mount. Then I had to try to avoid these feelings of inadequacy more and more. And then, I’m starting to disengage from the world as much as I can.

I’m adopting more bad coping strategies than I used to. And unfortunately, the worst time to use bad coping strategies is when you really can’t afford to.

Russ Harris, in the book, the Happiness Trap, talks about “control strategies”, when you use a control strategy, you look to your own emotions to change them, avoid them, or cover them up. You’re pushing them into the back trying to suppress them. It’s like if you’ve got a dog and he goes to the bathroom in the house and you just throw more newspaper on top of it, you’re just delaying the problem but the smell’s still there.

I’ve tried a variety of control strategies. None of them work for very long, or at least none of the unhealthy ones do. Binge drinking was a big one. Drugs, video games, binge watching Netflix. Then there’s the weirder ones. Some things that people wouldn’t consider bad, like getting obsessed with philosophy, or Plato, or Wittgenstein, or Kant, or doomscrolling social media there’s all sorts of things.

It’s not about the thing itself, – unless it has a direct health effect – it’s about avoiding feeling things, and it’s about not realizing what your routine is turning into. Because I had this conception of a routine as something you set. And you can, certainly. That’s what we want to do, ideally. We wanna have conscious choice and control over our routines. That’s the goal.

But, if you’re not thinking about it, – like I wasn’t, and I was trying to think about it as little as possible – then your daily routine is just what you’re doing every day. If you’re drinking a couple of IPAs after work every day, the force of momentum leads to bad things. If you’re suddenly playing one hour of Guild Wars to four a night. Or you’re on Instagram every single time you sit down to watch TV or something like that.

There’s so many ways to distract yourself, but when you’re not paying attention to how you’re distracting yourself and your routines are forming without you being conscious of them – it leads down a very bad path.

I didn’t like myself at all during this period. I was throwing myself into my work in graduate school. I was drinking far too much. I was trying to construct a social community and support out of just going out drinking. It’s doing something with your friend, sure, but that as a part of a routine isn’t a healthy emotional outlet, it’s suppressing emotions. It’s going out and partying and doing anything to avoid actually scrutinizing how unhappy I was.

And it’s important to realize that I had done this to myself. Depression was the original source of it. Mental illness was the original source of it. But, by not watching what was happening, by not being mindful, I had let myself slip over and over again. Getting into that routine was rough because I would just try to forget about my troubles.

This is repeated so much, it’s kind of obvious, but your problems are still there in the morning if you spend all night drinking or playing video games or being on social media. I was lucky to have a strong relationship with my wife – she was helping me to stay focused and on track – but that wasn’t enough in the end of it, I needed to change what was in me and around me to change myself.

I wasn’t being mindful about how I was hurting my wife, or other people I cared about, because I’d let this tendency of mine to try to escape from reality go on for too long, and I was just, I wasn’t being social. I was showing up, but not really being present.

And you get used to it eventually. You get used to not being present. You get used to being lost in your own head, even though the thoughts weren’t pleasant, but it was just home. Sometimes that misery can really feel like home and when it does, and that’s part of your daily routine, well, that’s hard to break too.

That’s momentum too. Sometimes our bad habits could feel good, even if it’s not alcohol, even if it’s feeling sad. Sometimes it’s just that, sometimes it’s just being in a familiar place.

So, overcoming that is overcoming a lot of inertia. It’s always a really rocky road. One cigarette a day turns into a pack, one drink turns into six – that’s the power of momentum. Think a boulder rolling down a hill, or a snowball going down a mountain, getting larger. But, consciously putting in that effort has its own momentum too.

When I started meditating, it was really hard to stick to, but just showing up little by little every day that helped me. But, meditation just being in my daily routine was helpful in and of itself. Two, it’s not just the act of meditating – which is helpful – it’s the taking the time to prioritize mindfulness, to prioritize making your daily routine better. It’s a reminder that you have to put effort into these things.

And I bundled other habits in here too – I try to read and write after meditating. It’s what James Clear calls “habit stacking”. If you associate one habit with another, you’re more likely to do them together. And I think my focus on mindfulness helps, and having that reminder in my day of mindfulness helps all of it, not just the act of meditation. The act of meditation itself isn’t the only thing working for me, it’s also my schedule that’s working for me, because it’s setting my priorities. And if I’m not careful and the guy who just wants to escape reality gets in there, then things don’t go as well.

When we structure our days, we prevent ourselves from falling into bad habits. I didn’t say I have perfect habits and I always stick to my routine, but I don’t. Hard times are always hard, regardless of where you are in the mental health journey and I’ve had my share of stumbles and falls.

But, I’m a lot more conscious of my habits now and how I spend my days than I used to be. I can deal better with having a depressive episode and still being able to move forward, I can deal better with missing a day of habits and recovering. I deal better with being mindful to support those around me, those who care about me and have given me that support.

I’m not always perfect at that, but, I’m trying. Because it’s always hard – a vice always feels good; drinking or smoking or whatever. It’s how they sneak up on you really, because it feels good for a little while.

But a daily routine is a hedge against that. It’s a hedge against any kind of temptation, because if you’ve put a reminder in your daily routine of the things you value – you value being a good friend, a good husband – putting those things in your day, finding time for them, that’s a way to reorient your mind away from any kind of habit you’re trying to avoid. The daily routine here then is not only a schedule, it’s a commitment to a certain kind of value, and then you do your best to follow that. Again, life gets in the way.

What I learned from all of this really is how powerful habits are. Take the phrase force of habit. This is a common expression, but it’s really powerful, the force of habit. It can really take over your life, no matter what the bad habit is. And just skating through life without being mindful of what you’re doing can lead to some bad decisions and some negative patterns. And, that’s what happened to me – not being mindful hurt the people I care about a lot and it cost me a lot. It stopped me from being happy and achieving what I wanted to achieve. A lot of that was a lack of planning and a lack of clarity.

The inner struggle, of course, is still there. There’s always a temptation to lapse back into drinking or smoking or what have you, but having my day structured in ways to try to prevent that is helpful. It takes work every day. This isn’t a one and done thing. It would be nice if it was, but nothing in self-improvement is; you can’t fix yourself and be done with it.

I used to think about therapy this way. This may work for some people, but it’s not a “one and done” thing. For many people it’s not a simple matter of doing a set routine, adopting it, and then being done, because we always have to continue to modify ourselves. We have to put in the work to continue developing.

Not coasting is my key takeaway. If you coast, then your daily routine is something out of your hands. It’s something out of your control, because it’s just whatever accumulated things that form into habits over what you’re doing, without intention. If you set your daily routine with intention, you can know yourself and set yourself up for success to do what you wanna do and be who you wanna be.

Your routine sets your tone for your day and your day sets your tone for your life. You won’t always step on the right foot, but we can help ourselves stay on the path by setting a routine that makes us mindful of ourselves and those around us, and that lets us make the best choices we can to be the best people that we can.

And if we remind ourselves to live life through our daily routine, rather than just coast through it, then I think we can be better people, engage more authentically, and live our lives in a more honest way. But if we don’t and we’re not making our own decisions, and we’re letting our routines get dictated by other people, then we’ll be unhappy.

We won’t be in harmony with ourselves and we’ll grow away from ourselves and become alienated. So, it’s very important to think about how your time is being sucked away, how you can set a routine to help with that time and how planning your day and choosing what you experience the best you can allows you to transcend negative habits and shape your future. 

Thank you so much for listening. Tune in next Tuesday, where I’ll be talking with Wes about how this is a much bigger part of our story about habits. If you wanna help support us, you can join our exclusive monthly book club on Patreon, share the podcast with others, and don’t forget to follow, rate, and review on your favorite podcast platform.

And, before you go, do you feel like you could benefit from a boost to your morale? Well, then why not give our 7-Day Self-Confidence Challenge a go? For only seven bucks, you’ll get exclusive access to content that will help you determine your core values and strengths, reframe negative thought patterns, and break old habits to build new ones, all while setting realistic personal development goals.

Links to the Patreon and the challenge are in the show notes.

See you next week.

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