For “Routine Excellence,” GQ asks creative, successful people about the practices and habits that get them through their day.
“My current philosophy on routine is very much rooted in acceptance and commitment therapy,” says Brad Stulberg, who has written extensively on health and excellence. “The whole point of ACT is that you can’t think or feel your way into a new way of being. You have to act your way into a new way of being.” Stulberg was thinking about this a lot when writing his newest book, Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything is Changing—Including You. In it, he cites research showing that over the course of their adulthood, the average person will experience 36 “disorder events” (things like job loss, a break-up, a big move, or, say, a global pandemic). One of the most effective ways to find stability amid all that turbulence? A routine!
Except Stulberg argues we’ve become too focused on creating overly precious or rigid routines—getting the right $6000 tub to cold plunge in, and doing it at the exact same time—at the expense of crafting routines that are built on values, allowing you to stay oriented towards the same long-term goals even through short term changes. “The whole point of a routine is to allow you to live in alignment with those core values,” he says. “The core values are the principles, and then the habits are how you manifest those core values.”
Here he takes us into his routine, and explains better ways of thinking about routine more generally.
GQ: How does your day usually break down?
Stulberg: In an ideal world, I wake up around 6:30, brew a pot of coffee, and work until 9:30. I might go through my phone for a bit while the coffee's brewing. I do a digital Sabbath on Saturdays, but I'm not one of these “don't check your phone in the morning people.” Around 9:30, I'll break, eat, and do some kind of physical activity—walk the dog, go to the gym—come back, shower, eat, and then groove back into like a second block of work. My wife generally does the mornings and drop off with the kids, and I do afternoon pickup. So, generally, I'm shutting things down by like 4:30. If there’s an after-school activity, and I work later, I always try to shut things down for dinner at 6:00. Then 6:00 to the next morning is offline, ideally. But I only shoot like 50% on that.
How does your digital Sabbath work?
On Saturday morning, I have my wife, Caitlin, hide my computer and my phone. It’s not returned to me until Sunday morning. The first month I was having withdrawal symptoms, reaching for my phone during open spaces in the day. I realized how dependent I was on social validation for my work to feel significant in the world.
I have a five-year-old son and, when I started this, our daughter was two months old. Caitlin was like, I need to be able to reach you. So, for $13 a month, I got a Jitterbug, which is a phone that's meant for senior citizens. It makes calls and texts, but you gotta press the numbers four or five times to cycle through letters, and I have an emergency fall button. So it's good for that too. The flip phone solves all of that. If you're curious about experimenting with digital free time, I like to start people with just having times where their devices are like not accessible. I have a client who, every night at 8:00 PM, puts his phone and computer in the glove compartment of his car in the garage. So he can use it, but he's gotta be like, do I really want to? It’s just figuring out, what's it like to live without this stuff for two and a half hours at night?
And? What’s it like?
It forced me to realize how much I was reliant on novelty and stimulus to get through periods of emptiness and boredom. At first I'd get it back Sunday morning and I'd be like, kid at the candy store, let me dive in. Give me all the dopamine: Instagram, Twitter, The New York Times—I don't even read The Wall Street Journal, but Sunday morning, I’m like let's see what The Wall Street Journal's gotta say about things. But now I often won't open it until Sunday at noon. It's very much in the spirit of, as Mark Epstein would say, the practice itself becomes the reward.
But it's so hard for me to say this because I built my platform to write books on the internet. I met my co-author of my first two books on the internet. The internet and smartphones are very potent tools, with a whole lot of upside and a whole lot of downside. And you can never eliminate all the downside. But you can use very rigid constraints to eliminate enough downside where it becomes a net positive. I once heard a psychotherapist define psychological flexibility as simply being able to ask yourself, is this helping me? Is this working in my service? If the answer is yes, use it. If the answer is no, stop or change it.
You coach clients who do things like pediatric neurosurgery, and I imagine what works for you may not work for them. So that gives you a wide range of types of people to draw on. What do you see most people struggle with when it comes to building a solid routine?
Number one is thinking that there is such a thing as an optimal routine: I need to cold plunge, I need to drink Athletic Greens… There is no magic bullet. Routines are great but there is no single great routine. Though there are some non-negotiables I talk about with all my clients. I think of these as foundational practices: some kind of physical practice, whether it's walking, running, weightlifting, cycling, gardening, just something to inhabit your body. If you're not sleeping, that's generally problematic, unless you have a newborn and then there's nothing you can do about it. Then it’s avoiding highly processed foods, and finding a way to engage in community. To me, those are the four essentials.
I think some people approach their work as if it's a newborn. They're like, “I can't sleep, I have to work.”
Then I think the issue becomes, is it that you're doing the wrong work? Is it that the way you relate to the work is wrong? Or is it that you're like one of these 1% of people that are actually short sleepers? Most commonly, it's that people relate to the work wrong. It’s really just anxiety. You have to kind of go through a period where you just sit with the anxiety of “The world's gonna end if I don't think about this problem,” or, “If I don't stay up and respond to all these emails, my boss is gonna get mad.” You have to test that. If you're in an environment where your boss does get mad, then maybe it's a shitty environment. But generally speaking, most of the time it's just your own expectations of yourself.
How do you think about reexamining your routine, so you don’t get stuck in it?
There are times to do it: life events like relationships starting or ending, children coming and going, grief, moving, a big professional accomplishment, the whole New Year's cycle. Sometimes core values change. What you can do to evaluate a routine is ask, what are my values and how am I practicing them? The whole point of routine is to allow you to practice your values. Because values can't just be a positive affirmation that's on your bedroom mirror or like a positive affirmation. You have to practice them.
What does your spiritual practice look like?
Pre-kids, my spiritual practice was pretty classical Vipassana, or insight meditation. I had really bad OCD and depression, and that's how I got into it. It was a big help in helping me get out of that period. I was meditating 40 minutes a day, six days a week. Then, when we had our first kid, I would fall asleep whenever I tried to meditate. And the person who has most influenced my daily meditation and Buddhist practice, is my meditation teacher, Judson Brewer. And he said to me, what if the practice is not meditating? If he reads this, he might say, “Brad, you're just remembering what you want to hear. Not what I really said.” But I remember him saying something like, “You've had insights when you were practicing really consistently. You can't un-have those insights. Can you get deeper? Yes. Is practice generally good? Yes. But right now, like what if the practice is not meditating?” So I'd say the spiritual practice now is Buddhist philosophy married with certain music, like Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell, or Sarah Bareilles, once a week for an hour with zero distractions—or the distraction is I'm walking my dog on a trail.
What makes that spiritual to you?
Listening to that kind of music makes me feel truths, not intellectually understand them. It makes me feel things that I know to be true, and that’s the best working definition I have of a spiritual practice. That's what meditation did for me. How I've edited what Judson told me is like, once you've felt those truths, you can't unfeel them. The truth that meditation helped me feel is that there is like a deeper canvas that is always there that is just my being. Even when I get really attached to the paint on the canvas, that canvas is still there.
Is there a single best thought, mantra, or practice you have for dealing with anxiety?
Getting over the idea of single best. Anxiety loves you to try to figure out anxiety. What anxiety hates is when you just say, “Oh there you are.” You can't problem solve your way out of anxiety. Everyone that goes through anxiety goes through this because there is such a tension between wanting to fix it, and radical acceptance. I think the key to navigating anxiety is to hold both those things at the same time. That's the very superficial answer. Someone that's in the throes of anxiety, is that gonna help them? Probably not. So finding a good therapist would be my single best answer. Given where so much of the culture is, I think it’s worth saying, based on all my research, [the solution] is not a supplement, it is not hypnosis, it’s probably not a psychedelic trip. It is probably—and I'm not giving you medical advice, do your own homework—finding a therapist that practices an evidence-based therapy and potentially an SSRI. Not everybody benefits from those interventions, some people fail, some people have side effects, I'm not denying any of that. But the research would say those ought to be the starting points.
Is there one idea or hack in this space that you think is most pernicious, or that you see people most often hoping will be a magic bullet?
I think the pernicious one is the cold plunge and I cringe because like, I'm gonna take so much shit. But it’s just doing a hard thing. The other day on Twitter I was feeling spicy and I essentially tweeted, I'm convinced that my morning routine of stumbling to the coffee pot, making coffee with ice water—which immediately makes me take a shit—probably releases more dopamine than a cold plunge. There's this guy that follows me on Twitter that always calls me out for being wrong, and he's a dopamine scientist at Caltech, and he was like this is accurate, and cited two papers showing that taking a big shit releases significantly more dopamine than a cold plunge. I want to be clear: if you like what a cold plunge does for you, great! Keep doing it. But don’t buy a $6,000 bathtub, make it freezing cold, wake up at 5:30 in the morning, because you think it's making you healthier, more productive, or better. Do it because you like it.
What about a “hack” that does actually work?
If you’re trying to put on muscle and training for strength and power, creatine is just free strength and power. And there's plenty of research that shows it’s safe for 99% of people. So is that a hack or is that an evidence-based thing? And then coffee. That’s the hill I'll die on. When the thread bros on the internet start being like, “I'm morally superior because I cut out caffeine,” that's when I know that you are insufferable.
Originally Appeared on GQ
More Great Wellness Stories From GQ
The Real-Life Diet of Bryan Danielson, Who Has Mastered the Vegan Protein Shake
Just a Little Movement Has Powerful Effects
Sure, You're Drinking Apple Cider Vinegar. But Is It Actually Good For You?
Right Wingers Continue to Flex in Weird Ways
Not a subscriber? Join GQ to receive full access to GQ.com.