Get Rid of Your Workplace Stress by Implementing Shared Routines

4 February, 2015

Nathan Morris

Nathan Morris


I’m not going to say “this one simple trick” will fix all your problems. You wouldn’t believe me, and, hey, it’s just not true. But I do want to be clear: shared routines – that systematizing of the work done on a daily basis in your business – can truly transform your business and your life. Creating normalized, routine behaviors for every employee in every part of the job is what will turn you from being a micromanager to a producer again.  Collectively you will get more done, and faster, than you ever could have before.

To put it another way: becoming a cog in the machine may be the best thing that ever happened to you.  In this post Nathan talks about seven reasons why.  -Greg

In a recent post on keeping deadlines, we backed the idea of creating shared routines. Here’s why:

We admit it: the word “routine” is an ugly one — especially in the workplace. It’s been the trope of many a dark comedy and dour film: some mindless schlub plods through his day in a stupor, doing the same thing again and again, without vision or excitement. If you’re caught in routines that aren’t tied to any of your values, then regardless of the nature of the work or its remuneration, you may as well be in the gray opening scene of Joe Versus the Volcano.

We’ve watched enough commercials for vacation resorts and beer-with-lime to be familiar with the carpe-diem call to ditch the assembly line of routine and begin living spectacularly. But in real work, the routine and the spectacular aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, the right routines can actually free our brains from dwelling on the mundane, allowing them to focus on more creative, rewarding thought. Conversely, big ideas without steady routines to support them leave us wasting time and spinning wheels.

So we want to resuscitate that dirty word routine. What’s more: we want to talk about it as something to share with a team, as a power tool at the service of core values and big visions.

 The Case for Shared Routines:

1. Routines launch imagination

Don’t geniuses like us live their lives in individual recklessness?

Though the mythos of the rule-shattering virtuoso is pervasive, it’s not supported by the facts. Poet and creativity coach Mark McGuinness notes that “the most extraordinary works of imagination are often created by people working to predictable daily routines.” This is becoming so apparent that there’s a new popular book enumerating the mundane daily rituals of the world’s most creative people.

Prolific artist and writer Austin Kleon even demands that all imaginative people “be boring.” He explains:

“I’m a boring guy with a nine-to-five job who lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife and dog. That whole romantic image of the creative genius doing drugs and running around and sleeping with everyone is played out. It’s for the superhuman and the people who want to die young. The thing is: It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff.”

though we often use the word to describe rote, unthinking behavior, when scholars look at actual workplaces, they find that routine is often closely tied to creative and adaptive behavior.

This is the same thing said (much more dryly, but with scholarly credentials) in an exhaustive scholarly review on the nature of shared routines in the workplace by scholar Markus Becker. He found: “Cognitive resources are limited. [. . .] Attention has to be allocated selectively.” And: “Routines economize on the limited information processing and decision-making capacity of agents.”

This is because your routines are a stable backdrop from which you can evaluate change. Becker writes that though we often use the word to describe rote, unthinking behavior, when scholars look at actual workplaces, they find that routine is often closely tied to creative and adaptive behavior. It’s as though routine is a cognitive resting space from which you can fully recognize and respond to the non-routine.

Stephen King, who has a brain as non-routine as they come, sticks to his exact morning work ritual even on his birthday and Christmas. McGuinness goes so far as to suggest that the most creative thinkers use routine as a way to self-hypnotize, to move their minds to more profound levels of thought.

2. Routines build trust

Coordinating your activities in an agreed-upon routine is a basic gesture of respect for others in your office. It’s almost like a set of etiquette or good manners: when you hang onto files longer than you should, or fail to note down dates or tasks that might affect others, you’re limiting everyone else’s potential. Shared routines ease that burden. And more fundamentally, repeated interaction with others in established ways builds mutual trust.

Routines are also tools to help us hold ourselves and other responsible. Organizational theorist Martha Feldman writes that a routine “allows us to explain what we are doing and provides a sense of when it is appropriate to ask for an accounting.”

When you follow a shared routine, you build a sense of legitimacy. Feldman uses the example of a hiring process — making up a new process each time would leave others suspicious of your motivations, and deplete their trust in the final outcome.

 3. Routines speed up decision-making

Routines are so powerful that Feldman calls them “the primary means by which organizations accomplish much of what they do.” One key feature of this is that they give us a way to make decisions much more quickly than we would if left without a guide.

And what’s more: these are also likely to be good decisions. Becker explains that scholars have found that even though decision-making in routines happens in a mechanistic process, in most cases that doesn’t diminish workers’ “opportunities for a genuine, deliberate choice.”

 4. Sharing routines protects flexibility

This seems to be a paradox, since we think of the definition of routines as rigid, immutable structures. But Feldman found: “organizational routines are inherently capable of endogenous change. They can still be defined as repetitive, recognizable patterns of interdependent actions, but they cannot be understood as static, unchanging objects.”

Perhaps it would be better, suggests Feldman, to think of routines as a language. A language may appear to be a static thing, but it only exists as it is spoken and written, just as a routine only lives in the performance of actions by people. The structure of language allows for a measure of creativity. Those who best understand its rules can use it in a novel way, yet still make sense.

When everyone understands a routine, they’ll be able to enact a change in that routine much more rapidly — or communicate about the possible need for change. Without a shared understanding, communication breaks down, which means adaptations are harder to share, and individuals remain longer in their old habits.

 5. Routines take advantage of diverse interests and skills

We’re not necessarily talking about systems where everyone does exactly the same thing. When spread across a team, a routine can mean a project can be split into different parts, allowing different team members to focus on the areas that best align with their skills and interests. The routine enhances the ability to communicate across those divides.

6. Routines store knowledge

A good routine is a living incarnation of the knowledge gained by an organization — which is why Becker refers to it as “organizational memory.”  As a representation of good answers to past problems, the routine is “the most important form of storage of the organization’s specific operational knowledge.”

Daniel Levin from Rutgers Business School shows how this is also true with tacit knowledge — “know-how that is difficult to codify or explain.” Without the routine, tacit knowledge gets lost.

7. Routines build connections

Think about those people who go to the gym the same time as you, or pick their kids up from the same school, worship at the same church, or work at the grocery or restaurant which you go to regularly. Or maybe there’s a therapist you see every Thursday, or a doctor you visit for a yearly check-up — not to mention a significant other you take out on a weekly date-night. All of these are relationships that are forged out of a particular routine — and they form a solid foundation to our social lives.

A lot of our dislike for the idea of routine is because we see it as an abstract structure — rather than a stable, reiterated connection with others. Martha Feldman teamed with scholar Anat Rafaeli to explore how routines “establish connections among people, essentially constructing networks that facilitate the exchange of information and the development of understandings.” They found that “mere contact with another person is known to produce a sense of affinity and connection” — but the experience is ratcheted up with “more frequent and interdependent contact.” Routines also grow “a better understanding of the perspective offered by the other person” — which time continues to build and refine.

Routines can also connect us with people who don’t work in the same space. Maybe they force us to contact certain government officials, or members of other businesses whose services we use. These relationships and networks can be just as essential for good performance as any we forge in the workplace.

Even if routines are carried out with others whom you find unpleasant, the structure itself can serve to reduce conflict. Maintaining an accepted, agreed-upon way to do things is better than being forced to renegotiate an interaction each time with someone unpleasant. It’s also superior to a complete avoidance of interaction between two people who are structurally interdependent, which usually causes other problems that only increase the friction. The ability of routines to soothe conflicts is so marked that some scholars refer to them synonymously as organizational “truces.”

Feldman and Rafaeli compare routines to a square dance — the structure is what allows each person in the group to interact with each other. This also hints at the collective rhythm which a routine can build in a workplace, which can keep a person performing adequately even when they’re not feeling their best.

Finally, as connections are forged through reiterated interactions, the result is a stronger workplace culture. A group of people begins to function as a team, with a sense of identity and a signature way of behaving. When this culture is tied to fundamental, shared values, work becomes a much more pleasant, exciting place for everyone (which results in measurable, financial improvement).

Routines are a power-tool, to be used with care. Misused, they can sap joy and agency out of the workplace, or give us a false sense of certainty. But when used in the service of a shared vision, as a tool to connect us to others, nothing is better at moving our ideas forward.