Choices For the Good of My Routines {The Grove: Routines}

I was in Costco the other day, taking up way more space in the aisle than I should, trying to decide on which type of meat I should buy. Chicken? Breast, thigh or drumstick? Beef? Steak, roast or ground? Fish? Salmon, tilapia or whatever is being marinated in that bag? I could feel the panic beginning to rise and I could not decide. I couldn’t do it. My brain could not take in the prices, the types of meat, the meals they would make, and what I’d have to buy with them. My brain just shut down.

This is a simple example of decision fatigue and according to new research, we deplete the resources of our brain with every new decision we make. Even acts of self-control, what we choose not to do, exert energy on the brain that exhausts it.  Just think about it. How many decisions do you make in a day? Especially in countries where we are speaking a second or third language. Should I use this word, or that one? Is this the right way to shake a hand? Should I take my shoes off or keep them on? Is this actually laundry detergent? Did they say what I think they said? Wait, what side of the road do I drive on?

Each decision during the day draws from a limited mind and weakens willpower making it difficult to make good choices as the day draws to a close. It now makes sense why I stood in Costco, unable to decide between meats and walked out with a pizza instead. As we become tired from making decisions we revert to choosing the easiest way out. I can see this especially with my eating habits. I can go all day, eating healthy and making good food choices, but once that day draws to a close…yeah, I’m eating that chocolate bar.

Within ministry and family, our decisions have far reaching implications and when we are running on a depleted brain, those decisions we make will be subpar. One of the ways to combat decision fatigue is to limit the amount of non-critical decisions throughout the day. This is where routine becomes a tool for expat use.

Cross-cultural life is all about interruptions and the unexpected. It’s about the stranger at the gate, the wedding down the street, the crisis across town, an unknown illness, or the surprise appearance of Special K and the disappearance of pickles. Life can change in a moment. Routine provides the mind and soul with the necessary structure to alleviate stress and frees us up to process information and make profitable choices.

I am currently 3 months into my first home assignment and my normal routines have all been uprooted. We have spent months visiting with family and friends, reengaging with churches and traveling up and down the pacific northwest. My body and soul are craving routine and I can see the effects of fatigue. Not only that, but we have some life changing decisions to make in the near future and if I can’t choose between chicken or beef, I’m not going to rush into a decision that has not been processed fully.

Implementing routine is more about personal health then it is about control and its value reaches far beyond getting a to-do list accomplished. I’ve seen the power of routine in my life and I have seen the mental and emotional chaos that living outside of structure can produce. For the remaining months of my home assignment I am committed to creating a routine that will both bring healing and provide me mental space to process the past and plan for the future.

First, I want to have a morning routine. No more hitting the snooze button or wondering if I should get up now or later. A set wake-up time followed by a patterned routine eliminates the decision struggle, minimizes anxiety and helps productivity. For me, this looks like a 6am wake-up time, followed by a fresh cup (or three) of coffee, sitting outside on my porch with my bible and current writing project or book. Then it’s breakfast and getting dressed for the day before we hunker down for schooling.

Secondly, I want to make a menu. Cooking and shopping takes up a lot of my time. A menu is easy to make and just having a written down plan eliminates all the deliberation before breakfast, lunch and dinner. It even focuses my shopping energy so that I don’t stand in the grocery store aisle aimless and confused.

Thirdly, I want a simplified wardrobe. I know that cross-cultural workers are not known for their high fashion but even the deliberation over what to wear each day erodes the willpower of my brain. Keeping my wardrobe simple helps alleviate the struggle to choose, particularly for church gatherings or events. I keep one or two sets of church clothes and the rest are casual day wear.

Lastly, a regular nighttime routine. Sleep is always important but during this time of recovery I feel it is especially important. I haven’t quite figured this one out yet, but I’m working on it. Hot tea, a good book, a thoughtful prayer, it doesn’t need to be a long or profound routine, just a consistent one, that allows the mind to relax, rest and sleep.

It’s easy for the tyranny of the urgent to take over, to believe that routine is a luxury that we can’t have. Yet cross-cultural workers are people too, the same as everyone else. God does not equip us to live outside of our humanity, without need for structure. Daily routine gives us the ability to engage in the unexpected with more clarity and focus. It sharpens our problem-solving skills and frees us to engage with people more deeply and effectively. I’m excited for this next season of mine, one filled with intentionality and structure in which God speaks and I am free to hear.

Do you follow a routine? What benefits have you seen come out of structure? How have you seen God move through routine?


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  1. Tricia Pearring October 18, 2018

    Hi Joy,
    I appreciate your insight in defining decision fatigue and then providing some ideas of routines to establish so that we don’t have to make as many daily decisions. Your suggestion to make a menu is something that I want to implement in my life! Thanks again for sharing!

    1. Joy Smalley October 19, 2018

      Thank you, Tricia!

  2. Michele October 18, 2018

    I almost cried when I read the first part of this about decision fatigue. I love routine, but in my first month back in Nepal I have found and rented a new flat, worked out how to pass my current one on to a friend returning from America the end of October, hosted a team of seven for a wonderful but intense week, and, with my mom here (came with the team and will stay a couple more weeks), packed up the belongings accumulated over six years and cleaned out the new flat. I’m not even including everything here- the complications that you, as expat sisters can just imagine. I’m writing this a couple of hours before movers come. I had already (thank the Lord) booked a little vacation for my mom and I, which is coming in three days. But I wake up making decisions about what needs to get done, etc. My brain feels tired and I can’t wait to get settled in and return to routine and establish new ones in a new place… Excited, but exhausted.
    This post gave me pause to think about all the decisions and why I’m tired, and, I hope, give myself a little more grace for this brief period of almost no routine- thanks!

    1. Joy Smalley October 19, 2018

      Hi Michele! I’m praying that your little vacation is just what you need to endure the rest of the busyness before you can settle into a routine. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Sam October 19, 2018

    I usually plan our meals at the beginning of the month, and that definitely helps me day to day. I know things pop up or change, but that’s ok, it gives me one less decision to make each day, and an opportunity to avoid the crazy ‘what’s for dinner’ saga that is usually amplified by only having frozen meat, not fresh. This way, each night I can put the meat in the fridge for the next day, make sure I have all my other ingredients and sleep easy with a plan. I also do a big Saturday bake for morning tea snacks once or twice a month, then freeze them in individual bags/containers. Each morning before we start school, one of my daughters finds out what everyone wants for morning tea and packs the boxes. I still really need to work on a lunch routine, as that is still a bit crazy, but we will get there!

    1. Laura October 19, 2018

      I love the idea of baking ahead for morning tea. We do a morning tea with our house helper, and deciding what to serve is not the biggest decision of my week, but it’s a consistent one! I meal plan and cook ahead for dinners, but never for tea. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    2. Joy Smalley October 19, 2018

      Thank you for sharing, Sam! Lunch is my hardest to plan too.

  4. Laura October 19, 2018

    This has given me a lot to think about! It helps to explain why I’m so tired all the time! When we went out to our village for a few weeks earlier this year I started homeschooling my 4-year old. That routine ended up being huge for both of us. I am NOT a morning person, and it was nice to know that every morning we would eat breakfast and clean up, and then start school. It gave me a chance to wake up a little before trying to work on language learning in my second and third languages, and it was predictable and well-planned so I didn’t have too many decisions to make within that school time. I’ve been a little apprehensive about homeschooling my kids (which is why I wanted to start now while she’s still in preschool), but I’m now seeing how that routine will be good for us. She typically only goes to preschool two days a week, but when I was homeschooling her we did it 5 days a week because we needed the consistency (and because preschool crafts are fun!).

    1. Joy Smalley October 19, 2018

      Hi Laura! Homeschooling has probably been my favorite for routine and structure. The predictability is fantastic for both me and my kids.

  5. Grace L October 19, 2018

    Throughout all the posts this week, I am appreciating the routines we have in place and how they help me to have more stable days. It has given me the opportunity to look at them and treasure them more. I start out my day slowly because that is what works best for me. We have breakfast at the same time, then our morning meeting with our management staff, and on with the day. Some people may think our meals are boring, the same breakfast every day, but it works for us. We have about 6 to 10 different dinner plans and only about 3 or 4 lunch options we rotate around. But we eat fresh food that is healthy and delicious and are even losing some weight in the process!

    I especially love my routine of having time to myself in the late evenings when I can catch up on things, and also take some quiet time to journal and pray. Yes, these routines do help, and I have much more energy than when we are traveling back in our passport country, sleeping in different beds and being in a different church every Sunday. Yes, I love it here in my home abroad. Thank you for sharing, Joy, about how the impact of having to make so many decisions each day can make us tired. I already know exactly what I will eat for breakfast tomorrow morning!

    1. Erika October 20, 2018

      I think meal planning (and limiting rotation) is wise! I love trying out new foods and recipes but it can get to be a bit much so for months now we have had very similar meals every week. It really helps me with decision fatigue!

    2. Joy Smalley October 21, 2018

      Grace, I love that you eat the same breakfast every day and rotate between only a few meals. Food and cooking is my least favorite responsibility and I love when there is a plan that is easy to follow.

  6. Erika October 20, 2018

    Decision fatigue exists! And routines are so soothing, but I find that this life doesn´t lend itself to routine very well! So, I think what you suggest is a good idea. Rather than having a weekly routine (because each Monday will look different, that´s just how it is), I´m going to try your idea of adding smaller daily routines, like one for the morning, one for the evening, etc. For my husband´s health, we have a newly created just-after-lunch-routine, too!

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. Joy Smalley October 21, 2018

      Erika, yes! Routines overseas can’t seem to follow a Monday-Friday routine which is why I find the smaller routines extremely helpful and I like the word you used, soothing. It’s very soothing. .

  7. Shelly October 23, 2018

    Joy, you wrote: As we become tired from making decisions we revert to choosing the easiest way out. I can see this especially with my eating habits. I can go all day, eating healthy and making good food choices, but once that day draws to a close…yeah, I’m eating that chocolate bar.
    Oh, so true!!!! Trying to be full of grace toward myself to just start over again the next day. One routine that I have been fairly successful with is to drink 24 oz of water before my first cup of tea in the morning, and then another 24 oz before lunch, and another 24 oz before dinner in the evening. I have not been exact with this, but that target has helped me to have at least 50 oz of water each day – more than I had been drinking. I use a water bottle so it is easier to keep track. I have considered using two different colored bottles to help me remember which cycle of 24 oz I am on. 🙂
    A shout out about morning and evening routines. When I was in China these were wonderful bookends to my days. Since returning to the US I have yet to get them established. But more than these routines, I think meal planning is my biggest struggle because I have to think about what my dad would eat, too. If it were just me, no problem because it would be simple, like yogurt & fruit for lunches and hearty soups for dinner. But I think he wants/needs something more than that for his health. We are doing okay, and I check in with him about what he likes (he doesn’t like leftovers more than once). But I’d like to learn from other women who have this skill!

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