The Importance of Routines

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Routines can be an important and beneficial component within our lives.  It is important to understand how best to incorporate them so as to optimize their advantages and reduce potential drawbacks.

Routines are frequently discussed in the context of performance domains.  Typically, they are considered as activities, tasks, or rituals that the individual performs prior to, during, and/or following particular events.  This is most evident within the domain of professional sports.  Examples include the pregame warmup routine an athlete may follow consistently before each game, the pre-race rituals a sprinter may display when getting into the starting blocks, and the consistent post-game tasks performed by athletes before leaving the arena.  These routines can be physical, psychological, or a combination.

While the performance of these routines and rituals is commonly understood, what may be less well appreciated are the reasons underlying how these can be beneficial.  In addition, it is worthwhile to consider whether or not routines can and should be integrated within our daily lives and what are the potential drawbacks of these routines.  This will be the focus of this article.

While there may be an element of superstition underlying the regular routines of many athletes, it is also the case that there are particular psychological and physical benefits to the performance of these routines.  The consistency and predictability of these activities is important for the nervous system.  Generally, our nervous system likes patterns and predictability.  Conversely, uncertainty and randomness tend to be less well received by our physiology.  In fact, such elements can even provide cues of risk and threat to our neuroception.  For these reasons, the predictability and consistency provided by routines can be calming for our nervous system and, simultaneously, helps to reduce uncertainty.

Furthermore, at the time of important events and high stakes situations, it can be helpful to provide our mind and body with specific tasks to focus upon that we are accustomed to and are not going to introduce further cues of risk or uncertainty.  This concept further builds on the importance of predictability and patterns for our nervous system.

An additional benefit of these routines is the mental and physical preparation specific to the required activities and tasks for which we are preparing.  For instance, an athlete who practices particular skills that will be executed during the upcoming competition is preparing both physically, psychologically, and from a psychomotor perspective to be able to perform at the highest level possible. 

While the discussion to this point has centered around routines amongst athletes, it is important to emphasize that similar routines are just as beneficial outside of competitive sports arenas.  In all domains of life, consistent and predictable routines, to the extent they are possible during everyday life, provide similar benefits to us all.  Establishing regular routines during times of the day when it is possible to do so can be highly beneficial.  For example, starting the day with mindfulness training and breathwork can provide not only the predictability that calms the nervous system but also specifically develop mind-based and body-based skills and strategies.  Routines can be regularly integrated at a consistent time during the day or before certain tasks or situations, such as those that are more likely to increase anxiety.  The exact details by which to do this are individual specific.

In addition to understanding the importance and benefit of routines within our day-to-day lives, it is instructive to consider a polyvagal informed outlook on these routines.  As described above, the consistency and predictability of these routines is calming to the nervous system and avoids the randomness which may occur outside of these routines.  From the polyvagal lens, this would be understood as the routines providing important cues of safety and connection to the nervous system, thereby increasing ventral vagal activation.  The reduction in randomness and the unexpected would avoid cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat which would lead towards sympathetic or dorsal vagal activation.  In addition, the specific components of the routine can be designed to help shift the biological state towards that which is desired for the upcoming activity.  For instance, if a blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state is optimal for an upcoming task, particular skills and strategies can be utilized to reach this state.  Within the realm of sports activities, this blended state is considered to be the optimal state for performance, as Michael Allison has beautifully illustrated in his work.  A similar principle applies to all areas of life in which we are looking to be at our best.

Another important consideration which emerges from the polyvagal informed perspective regarding routines is the importance of designing routines which are able to be consistently and predictably performed.  As discussed above, randomness and unexpected events can be unsettling for the nervous system.  From the polyvagal lens, this would be best described as cues of uncertainty, risk, or threat which can promote sympathetic and/or dorsal vagal states.  Consider as an example an individual who has an upcoming high stakes event for which a routine has been developed to be performed prior to starting the tasks.  If certain aspects of the routine were not within the individual’s control and then those elements were not able to be performed due to something occurring outside of their control, this could be a significant cue of uncertainty that may negatively impact their desired biological state.  This important impact of unpredictability and uncertainty on the nervous system will be discussed in further detail in an upcoming article.

Following the above scenario, consider if an aspect of the routine were to practice the necessary tasks prior to the actual event.  Further consider that, for instance, due to traffic, the individual did not arrive at the site of the event in time to participate in that planned and expected practice and preparation.  There would be significant potential for this situation to provide a cue of threat and uncertainty that would likely lead to a sympathetic or dorsal vagal activated state.  This example illustrates the importance of planning routines that are, to the greatest extent possible, within the control of the individual.  In addition, since unpredictable occurrences are a common element in life, it is highly beneficial to develop skills and strategies to shift our biological state if such a random event were to lead to an unexpected cue and shift in state.

It is hopefully the case that the application of routines within a healthcare specific context can be imagined and developed on the basis of the principles provided by the above discussion.  In addition to daily routines, such as the example of meditation and breathwork at the start of the day, it is entirely feasible to include routines during the regular schedule of a healthcare professional.  For instance, specific skills could be performed prior to the start of a technical procedure or surgery.  A routine could be developed and employed during busy clinic days in which numerous patients are being treated.  By developing such routines, the benefits described above can be realized by healthcare professionals with further benefit received by all those around them, including patients being treated.

It is important to understand the means by which routines can be beneficial within our lives.  This allows us to intentionally and deliberately implement such routines within our daily schedules as well as around the time of particular events or activities.  In addition to the benefits of the routine itself on our ability to perform upcoming tasks, there is the added advantage of developing the polyvagal informed mind-based and body-based skills and strategies that are at the core of the Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.

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