The Disproportionate Impact Of Small Routines

For the past year or so I have been conducting an accidental experiment. I say accidental because I didn’t set out to prove anything, I was just reacting to circumstances. The circumstances that set my accidental experiment in motion were that I kept making very small mistakes that had disproportionate consequences.

None of these disproportionate consequences was earth-shattering in isolation, but linked together (as they often were) they had become enough of a hindrance to me that I became determined to try to do something about them. That determination gradually led to my accidental experiment.

Here is how my experiment started. For years I have been procrastinating a mundane, boring but essential task in my life—filling up my car with gas. That was a very small mistake. The disproportionate consequence was not that I ran out of gas and got stuck somewhere (that never quite happened), but that I would be forced to stop for gas at the exact time that I was in a hurry to get somewhere important.

Now, I never actually missed an important event or was even late for one, so what was the problem? The problem was that I was only on time and that unsettled me. When an event is important, I want to be there early so that I can settle my mind in preparation for it. I want a few minutes to flush out the flurry caused by fighting traffic and searching for a parking space so that I can fully focus on what I am there to do. That is when I am at my best. The disproportionate consequence of my gas station procrastination was that I was not always at my best.

The solution? Fill up my tank at five o’clock every Sunday evening (after all the weekend’s soccer, sleep-over pick-up and shopping driving was done), regardless of how much gas I actually had. My old habit had been to let the gas gauge tell me when to fill up. When it got to a quarter-tank I would, in theory, go get gas. In practice, I would procrastinate until the reserve light went on and then push it a bit.

The root cause of my procrastination was the discretion I allowed myself to decide when getting gas was an important enough task to actually do rather than just think about doing. I told myself that point was at a quarter-tank, but in truth it was when the red light came on. A task as mundane and boring as going to the gas station needed a red light to get me to do it. Every time that red light came on, I had made a small mistake and every small mistake had the potential to yield disproportionate consequences, like arriving for something important without enough time to prepare for it.

When I began filling up every Sunday night I removed my discretion to procrastinate a mundane but essential task. Initially it felt a little odd and old-mannish (and my kids made fun of me), but after a month of Sundays I got used to it. It became routine. Actually, it became a routine. And it wasn’t long before I noticed that this small routine had eliminated disproportionate consequence of being unsettled at important events.

This experience led me to experiment with the introduction of other small routines into my busy life. None has been innovative and all of them seem like something I remember my grandfather doing, but cumulatively they have cleared more small mistakes out of my life than I even knew were there.

The impact has been disproportionately positive.

Dave Redding