This is part of a series where I publish a post every week in order to exercise my writing muscle. I welcome any feedback!

Power of Habit

I’m a creature of habit. Every weekday for the last two years, I’ve had the same breakfast: overnight oats. I know what you’re thinking: “when did this become a food blog?”. It didn’t. The oats are merely a metaphor for routines. Classic, right?

I love my overnight oats. They are simple, nutritious and tasty. It only takes 5 minutes to make. There’s no cooking involved or any extra dishes. You mix 5 ingredients in a bowl and store it in the fridge overnight - it’s ready to eat by the morning. It’s loaded with protein, fiber and other nutrients. It also tastes great and keeps you satiated for hours. As a result, they quickly became a daily ritual.

It didn’t take long to realize the power of this habit. Breakfast was one less thing I had to think about every morning; it was glorious. I asked myself how I could recreate this effect for other aspects of my life. Naturally, I looked to overnight oats to understand why they worked.

Here are a few principles I distilled about building powerful routines.

Blueprint

Reduce your decision footprint. Decision fatigue is real and habits are the antidote. Find what works and stick to it. Oats are easy, filling and tasty - that was good enough to be my daily breakfast. Not having to think about what to make minimizes cognitive overhead and frees me to focus on the important things. Steve Jobs adopted his iconic personal uniform for the same reason: to not burden himself with an unimportant decision every day.

Keep it simple. The more involved the routine, the less likely you are to follow through. Oats only take 5 minutes and don’t require cooking or any extra dishes. At this point, it’s second nature. Even after a late night out, it’s never a chore to make them for the next morning. This ensures that it remains a habit, which brings me to the next principle…

Be regular. Harness inertia - when you are consistent, the habit has a momentum of its own. It automatically rises to the forefront. Since I make oats every day, the ingredients are front and center in my kitchen cabinet. As a result, I never forget to make them or refill the supplies.

Once you break a habit, it falls to the background. It then requires activation energy to restart. For example, my GPS watch always ends up dead and buried in a drawer if I stop running regularly. When I eventually try to revive the habit, I have to relocate the watch and charger. Though it’s a minor inconvenience, every moment of friction is an excuse to defer. This results in a vicious cycle of inaction - the longer you wait, the harder it is to get back on.

Plan for your future self. Anticipate your future state of mind and address it preemptively. This is easier than it sounds - our actions are quite predictable. As an example, I’m always hungry in the morning, but rarely have the energy to make something nutritious. Oats are the perfect solution - they are ready to eat, filling and healthy. If not for them, I would have compromised on one of those aspects or even skipped breakfast altogether. Neither option is ideal.

One of my best friends uses a similar strategy for waking up. Knowing that he’s an alarm snoozer, he turns off his smart speaker’s microphone before bed. When it rings in the morning, he has to get out of bed to turn the mic back on and yell at it to stop. You may question his methods, but you can’t question the results - after hurling obscenities at an inanimate object, he’s wide awake and ready to seize the day.

Wait, but…

At first glance, this contradicts last week’s post. There, I encouraged exploration. Here, I’m espousing static routines. In reality, they work in tandem. This is how I reconcile them: establishing routines for trivial things frees you to focus on the important ones.

As time passes, you should develop routines for the important aspects too. This is precisely how simulated annealing works. It starts with random exploration and ends with focused advances.

Another common concern with routines is the lack of variety. If I had an oat for every time someone asked me “don’t you get bored eating the same thing every day?”, I’d be a happy man. The truth is that it’s a tradeoff. Would I prefer more diversity? Sure. Who wouldn’t? But it comes at a cost. Personally, not having to think about breakfast is worth the so-called monotony.

I prefer to reserve variety for the more important things, such as experiences. Even if you don’t, there are smaller ways to spice things up - swap the fruit in your oats, pick a new running path or cuss your smart speaker out in a different language. Just make sure to have a default to fall back to so you don’t succumb to decision fatigue.

Recipe

After waxing poetic on overnight oats, I’d be remiss not to include the actual recipe.

For 1 serving, you need:

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup non-dairy milk
  • 2 tbsp nut butter
  • 2 tbsp chia seeds
  • 2 tbsp sunflower seeds
  • 1 banana

Mix the first five ingredients together in a bowl and set them in the fridge overnight. In the morning, cut the banana into it and mix. Enjoy!

A long backstory followed by a recipe at the very end… maybe this was a food blog all along?

This post took 340 minutes to write. Why I’m telling you this.