Creating effective routines

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

Basically, a routine is a series of actions that we perform so often that they become automatic and which often produce a particular mindset. The more we practice the routine, the more rapidly we create the mindset. Eventually, merely contemplating the routine will initiate the mental state, although performing the routine is still essential most of the time if we want it to last. When an athlete executes a pre-performance routine, that routine is intended to get them physically and mentally prepared for competition. Many people create morning routines around breakfast, coffee, and reading the news as a way of mentally preparing to focus on the day’s work. My first jujitsu sensei used to tell us that the reason we bowed as we entered the dojo was to leave the day’s baggage at the door so that we could concentrate on the workout. If we practiced the routine with that image in mind, it worked. If we didn’t, it didn’t.

Quite often, though, routines are created less carefully. They just build up over time: for example, the student I described in the opening to this chapter was in the process of building up a routine around her throws. Throw, focus on the negative, produce a negative, pessimistic mindset, repeat. Of course, as she built that mindset, her throws would get worse, there would be more negatives to focus on, and so it went. When this process isn’t interrupted, students start dreading the practice of throwing because they’ve built such negative associations.

I’ve encountered this phenomenon in jujitsu, and also when conducting seminars on mental skills techniques for athletes in other sports. It comes up in the business world as well: as I alluded to at the beginning of this chapter, in one particularly dramatic example, a software engineering team at one major company would conduct a post-mortem review after each product ship. Unfortunately, as we know from chapter three, group polarization can produce extremes of behavior in a team. In this case, team members all wanted to demonstrate that they were serious and dedicated and open to giving and receiving criticism. It wasn’t long before each product ship was followed by a laser-like focus on the flaws, while the very real successes were minimized or ignored. Over time, the ability of the team declined simply because they convinced themselves that they just weren’t all that good and eventually product quality followed. Then they really did have something to complain about! Performance reviews are another area in which routines develop over time, a point well illustrated by the number of managers who complain to me about how unpleasant it is to even contemplate the review process!