Thriving On Routine 10.01.19

As we start back at work after the festive period, our daily routine as an individual or family looms starkly before us. For a brief time between Christmas and New Year, structure departs from our lives as we (hopefully all) step off the treadmill and briefly become masters of our own destiny. We enjoy some time to ourselves, we stock up on rest and, in most of our cases, over-indulge somewhat. As boys returned from their holiday earlier this week, a return to their highly-structured school routine was clearly a shock to some as they got up in the dark for the first time for three weeks. After a holiday, it is tempting to think that we are stymied by routine and to long for freedom. However, in my assembly with Years 6-10 on Tuesday, my focus was on how routine, perhaps counter-intuitively, can set us free.

When time off work lies ahead of us, we start to think about everything we will be able to achieve during our holiday – perhaps personal targets that have lain dormant for months. We know, however, from experience that we rarely achieve these goals, and I would argue that it is our lack of routine during holiday time that is responsible. We need a sense of urgency to work to maximum efficiency, yet this urgency is absent when we have gaps in our diaries. This is no bad thing! I am certain that it is good for body and mind to demand less of ourselves from time to time, creating reserves of energy for the challenges ahead. However, if we lived without routine the whole time, we would drift. If we didn’t plan our lives, we would become stressed and anxious, feeling that we are not achieving and falling short of our goals and potential.

I would therefore go as far to say that human beings thrive on routine. Routines help us to be productive and to make the most of limited time; the one thing that each of us would wish to have more of. Firstly, having a routine makes us more efficient by reducing our cognitive load. We eliminate dozens of simple decisions each day by automatically following each step of our well-established routines. I am so glad that I have a ‘school uniform’ (of sorts) that eliminates the need for sartorial decision-making prior to 7 am. I know which ties go with which shirts (my colleagues might not necessarily agree) and all I have to do is choose one and put on my suit.

Routine is most helpful to boys if they play a part in creating it. For a musician, scheduling practice at the same time each day develops a good habit. I’m pleased to say that several of our musicians get into the Music Department early to do 30 minutes’ worth of practice before the start of school. The same is true of our top sportsmen, a couple of whom are at the University swimming pool each morning at silly o’clock. Our top musicians and sportsmen consistently out-perform the school averages in their academic results because their efficient training/practice routines translate into effective use of time in other areas of their lives.

In boys’ academic lives, a good example of a positive routine would be how they do their homework. I have written previously about the importance of developing a consistent work routine at home, particularly for those boys facing public examinations. I emphasised to boys on Tuesday that we are at the time of year when we talk about New Year’s resolutions. Can one of their resolutions be to develop an improved homework routine? Homework should always be part of a routine: boys should always work in the same place (at a desk in their bedroom, at the dining room table); they should always have their resources (stationery etc.) to hand to ensure that concentration is not broken by getting up to locate what they need; and they should keep their mobile devices in the next room, so that they’re not distracted by the buzzing of new notifications.

Such routines help us to avoid bad habits, such as procrastination, which is a particular hazard for tired boys at the end of a day at school. Getting into a routine helps us to avoid distractions, and therefore frees up our time, giving us greater opportunity to pursue our leisure interests.

I can’t finish this blog without releasing one of the bees in my bonnet! One of the reasons I am less efficient during the school holidays is that I take great pleasure in reading the newspaper from cover to cover, rather than relying on the usual digest that is provided daily to headteachers by the Independent Schools’ Council. The cover of The Times on Friday 4 January screamed out to me, “Doctors tell parents to cut children’s screen time”. Of course, I’ve written plenty on this subject already. However, the most interesting conclusion of this latest research (from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health) was to confirm the interference between the blue light from screens and production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.

The researchers’ clear recommendation was that children should not watch television or go online within an hour of bedtime. Surveys consistently show that our young people are sleep deprived, and that this has a deleterious effect on academic achievement. The conclusion of my assembly was therefore to challenge boys to create a positive routine around their devices and bedtime. How about a New Year’s resolution to put down the screens away an hour before going to bed? I shall let you continue the conversation! If your son can make this part of his personal routine, he is likely to sleep better, have more energy, and demonstrate a more positive mindset in all aspects of his life.