Your Life, Your Routine: A Conversation With Dr. Angel Iscovich

Beautiful young woman sleeping on bed at bedroom

Routine. If you find that this word seems to be popping up more and more in discussion lately, you’re not alone. It seems like everyone has their own opinions on different routines that you should or should not engage in, from Instagram influencers to your parents. It begs the question: what exactly is a routine, and why is it so important?

That is exactly what Angel Iscovich, MD, is setting out to explain in his new book, “The Art of Routine: Discover How Routineology Can Transform Your Life.”Angel Iscovich has a wealth of experience in different areas, including medicine, psychology, and the world of business. Iscovich’s rich and varied life experience across multiple pursuits has taught him the real-world value and importance of routine.

Angel Iscovich Headsho
Dr. Angel Iscovich, author of “The Art of Routine: Discover How Routineology Can Transform Your Life” / Photo courtesy of Dr. Angel Iscovich

Dr. Iscovich is an emergency medicine physician from Santa Barbara, California, with over 20 years of experience. As if treating the sick and injured wasn’t enough, Dr. Iscovich broadened his horizons and applied his talents in the worlds of business and finance. He is a board member of several different organizations, including top charity Direct Relief and Potentia Analytics, a company specializing in the intersection of artificial intelligence and social issues like healthcare. His unique background has provided Dr. Iscovich with unique qualifications to examine and analyze the importance of routine from his perspectives both as a healthcare professional and a successful businessman.

Not only is his professional life very interesting, but his personal story is also one of perseverance and the importance of structure and stability. He was born in Argentina to parents who were both survivors of Nazi concentration camps. At a very young age, he and his family immigrated to the United States to begin their lives anew. This experience of building a new life from scratch has given him experience coping with real-life existential questions. Speaking on the subject, Dr. Iscovich says, “There’s a theme: how do you survive? How do you make a better world for yourself? I think that merging the aspects of philosophy and science, having training in psychiatry, and then going into emergency medicine gave me a really broad scope of life as it is to survive.” Certainly, his ancestry and professional experience have provided Dr. Iscovich with a unique lens through which to view the world.

According to “The Art of Routine”, survival comes from establishing stability through routines. If that seems like a big jump to make, don’t worry. The importance of routine and its role in all aspects of our lives and Dr. Iscovich’s approach to effectively establishing a routine will be explored fully below.

What Exactly is a Routine, and Why Do We Need One?

A routine is defined as “a sequence of actions regularly followed” or as a “fixed program.” In human terms, it’s a consistent pattern. If you live a very hectic life and sleep at random intervals between activities at all odd hours, you don’t have much of a routine at all. Not only can this be highly stressful, but it can also actually have negative effects on your physical and mental health. On the other hand, if you wake up at 6:37 every morning and drink one cup of black coffee before taking a shower, you have a very well-defined routine. That routine can actually benefit your health by allowing your body to develop a regular rhythm for hormone cycles, digestion, and other essential functions.

“When you look to define a routine, people often mix up what you do with what a routine is…. It is not what you do, it is just doing things with a lot of regularity, a lot of time,” Dr. Iscovich says. “It could be when you go to sleep, when you make your bed, or when you have lunch.”

According to Northwestern Medicine, people who lack a set routine can suffer from high levels of stress, poor sleep, unhealthy eating habits, and poor physical health, as well as struggling with a sense of lost control and missing free time. Some may assume that refusing to commit to a set routine would give you the freedom to sleep in or do what you want with your time. In actuality, that could not be further from the truth. Poor routines cause disruptions in your body’s rhythms that have real consequences for your wellness.

Psychology Today also mentions the impact of mental health from routine in the article “The Power of Routines in Your Mental Health” by Mariana Plata. Plata describes how the abrupt shift from an organized, office-based work life to one based at home during the pandemic was challenging and how a sudden surge of free time left her without a routine. At first, the surge in free time feels good as you rest up and relax. However, there can always be too much of a good thing, including unstructured free time. A long break from the standard routines driven by work and school can increase your risk of procrastination and exacerbate mental health issues.

For example, the Lancet Psychiatry released a study that showed how regular disturbance in sleep routines and the body’s circadian rhythm can heighten susceptibility to or symptoms of mood disorders. Certain routines, especially sleep, are innate biological functions and cannot be missed or changed without consequences. This innate role of routine on the human body is a critical element of Dr. Iscovich’s book. Human beings are born to be in tune with natural routines, according to Dr. Iscovich: “The moon phases, the seasons come and go, and they give us a certain sense of stability and certainty, as well as a rhythm that occurs. It is essentially a routine, one that is really essential to how we perceive our life.”

Brushing teeth in the morning. Rear view of handsome young beard man brushing his teeth and smiling while standing against a mirror
Man brushes his teeth in the mirror / Envato Elements

Routines Benefit Everyone in a Family Unit – And Can Prolong Life

Some people simply are not motivated to engage in a consistent routine on their own. This may be a result of outside factors like a hectic work schedule, multiple family obligations, or the general chaos of modern life. Some people may even rebel against routine in an attempt to reclaim their own free time, a phenomenon known as revenge bedtime procrastination. When your day is filled with tasks you do not wish to do, you put off going to bed in order to engage in tasks you did not have time for. These tasks don’t have to be meaningful or deep; they may even be simple time-wasters like scrolling through your phone or watching a show on television. The key element to revenge bedtime procrastination is exerting control over one’s own time in defiance of a normal routine.

Ironically, this phenomenon often results from a lack of routine and a struggle to complete tasks. Even children are affected by this phenomenon, as they may prefer to spend time relaxing and playing video games or reading without the interference of adult authorities.

Simply put, some people are never motivated to employ a consistent routine for themselves. They may read about the benefits but have trouble caring about personal consequences that come from an unstructured life. The rewards of the routine outweigh the risks of living a chaotic life. However, having a dependent like a child or pet can sometimes convince someone to maintain a routine in order to provide for others.

While routine can seem numbing or restrictive to some people, there is a lot of evidence that shows how routines are essential for healthy childhood development. Parenting institutions emphasize how routines teach children about belonging, safety, and the relationships and values their families hold dear. Routines are also helpful for the parent, allowing them to set boundaries and clear expectations with their children through repetition. If your child is expected to be up at seven every morning and in bed by ten every evening, they know what to expect on any given day.

Routines are especially important for children following a big change or transition, such as a divorce or a change in location. If you just cannot seem to motivate yourself to follow a daily routine despite the benefits, this motivation may appear once you are in a caretaker role. However, if you never learned how to establish routines for yourself, it will be hard to establish them for your kids or your pets. It will be helpful if you already know the best ways to implement a daily routine.

Dr. Iscovich talks about this in “The Art of Routine,” especially the importance of routine in the lives of children. It is more than just a scientific fact; rather, it connects back to his own upbringing.

“I think my folks provided a really stable environment for me,” he says. “That’s one aspect of the two principles that I speak about in the art of routine and nephrology, with some structure and organization to help us thrive in the world.”

There is plenty of evidence to support the importance of routine in our youth. One fact that may surprise you is that routine is a necessity throughout your entire life and that following routines with regularity may even prolong your lifespan! Think about the interviews you’ve seen with centenarians who begin by saying something like, “Every day, I wake up at six o’clock and have a cup of black coffee and two strips of bacon.”

If that sounds good to be true, don’t worry. There is scientific evidence to support the theory that stability and structure can improve your life and even make it longer. This science was an essential part of Dr. Iscovich’s research. From his study of medicine and research on routines came an interest in the lives of centenarians – those who have been alive for over one hundred years. Dr. Iscovich says:

“I became interested in people that lived over 100 years… and in some studies, there were two things that were very common. One was that people who lived over 100 years had a very stable environment, both physically and with the people socially that surrounded them. And two, they did things with incredible regularity and incredible routine.”

It would be easy to assume that the routines held by people for decades would be healthy – most research on living past 100 focuses on diet and exercise, such as a plant-based diet or exercising for a minimum time limit each week. While it is true that diet and exercise will play a role in health and, therefore, life span, that is not all there is to it.

In “The Art of Routine,”Dr. Iscovich intentionally focuses on centenarians who had daily routines that some would consider unhealthy. He discusses this research in an interview with Insider, with several prominent examples. One of the best is Elizabeth Sullivan, who lived to be 106 years old and drank three cans of Dr. Pepper every day. Another was Virginia Davis, a British woman who lived to be 108 years old and insisted on eating a bowl of ice cream every night! Iscovich concludes that “The content of our days is not as important for longevity as doing things regularly to support stability.”

What Makes a Routine?

As we’ve learned, routines are usually viewed as specific activities (such as going to bed early or eating at the same time each day) that are done to improve mental and physical health. Dr. Iscovich’s argument is that a routine can be anything, healthful or not, as long as it is done regularly to promote structure in your life. This structure is something your body becomes used to and falls back on.

What happens when you complete a task, whether it’s making your bed or doing a treadmill workout, is that there’s a lot of physiology going on making you feel good because you just completed what you did.

Dr. Angel Iscovich

Did you know that your brain rewards itself for accomplishing tasks? Much like giving a teenager some spending money for a good report card, your brain rewards you for task completion by releasing dopamine. Routines focused on task completion provide structure in your daily life as well as regular bursts of dopamine – a feel-good hormone. This is something that Dr. Iscovich knows well. He says, “What happens when you complete a task, whether it’s making your bed or doing a treadmill workout, is that there’s a lot of physiology going on making you feel good because you just completed what you did. Your dopamine is increasing. A lot of reward in good feelings, contentment, the fact that you accomplished something. So, you begin by doing something and doing something regularly, something that you think can make you happier.”

If, like some centenarians, a routine like drinking a soda in the morning or eating a dessert at night is something that makes you happy, go for it! Some people like to go for a walk each night before bed or listen to a specific song as they get ready in the morning. Regularity and routine bring a natural structure to an otherwise chaotic life.

The most important thing is to not allow your routine to be constantly disrupted. It needs to be consistent; otherwise, the regular dopamine delivery and stable feeling fade away. It is common for people to confuse habit with routine, and that is where mistakes are made.

The biggest difference is that habits are often unintentional. They become almost like muscle memory, whereas routines take time to build. You may eventually have a habit of waking up at six every morning, but it will not come into being unless waking up early is part of your intentional routine.

In other words, habits come from routine. It is common for people trying to begin a routine to feel frustrated when it is not natural. That is a big part of why so many New Year’s Resolutions fail – making a change is hard, and falling into old patterns is easy. Goals such as health and fitness will not come naturally on their own! Make them part of your daily routine, and eventually, they may become a habit. If you want to develop good habits, you need to first develop good routines and stick to them.

Creating a routine is hard because so many people set up unrealistic expectations for themselves. For example, running five miles every day or waking up with the sunrise will be incredibly difficult for anyone who lives a radically different schedule. If you currently wake up at 9:30 in the morning and run zero miles a day, switching to a radically different routine is probably not going to work unless you are an incredibly well-disciplined person. That said, setting realistic goals and routines is possible. Your routine can be anything you want, as long as you build it in such a way that you can stick to it.

Woman prepares for the day at table
Woman prepares for the day at table / Envato Elements

How To Develop A Routine

So how can you actually develop a healthy routine that will last? The main issue people complain about is that a routine can become boring or simple. Here is some advice from Dr. Iscovich on that topic:

“People say to me, ‘Well routines are boring!’  and I said, ‘if you’re not happy with your routine, then go ahead and change what it is you do!’ But whatever it is you do, try to do it with some regularity. With rhythm, our bodies adapt, and our bodies like to have homeostasis. They like to have equilibrium.” If you find your routine boring, you have the power to make it more interesting. You are in control of your routines: make them work for you.

With recent attention in the media on the medical benefits of routines, there is a lot of advice out there on how to properly develop a routine. Consider this article from NorthShore University Health System on jump-starting a new routine and making sure it sticks. The major points to ensure your success are as follows:

  1. Clearly state your goals. Is your routine meant to increase productivity, decrease stress, or even just do something you enjoy? Don’t pick a routine just because it seems like something other people would approve of; after all, you are the one who has to stick with it!
  2. Reward yourself. It all comes back to establishing a routine as worthy and getting your body not only used to it but looking forward to it. This is done by rewarding yourself with a treat or some free time each time you successfully complete an act of your routine. Do you want your dog to sit before you take him out? Reward him with a treat when he does it right, and eventually, he’ll learn. While we are more complex than dogs, we’re essentially animals at our core. With repetition and reward, the action alone will eventually feel like second nature.
  3. Be prepared, and do not allow any excuses. For example, you might want to add running a mile every morning to your daily routine. Prepare for what to do in the case of bad weather or construction along your route. By preparing ahead of time, sudden changes will be less likely to discourage you into abandoning your routine completely.

Routines are helpful for everyone, from families to entrepreneurs eager to begin a successful business. Many successful people, from actors to businessmen, credit routines for their clear heads and focused attitudes.

It is also important to recognize that people can have many different routines, one for daily life and others that pass longer stretches of time. Dr. Iscovich says, “You’ve seen things that happen weekly, like Friday being date night. Yet we have daily routines, we have weekly routines, bi-weekly routines, monthly routines, and then we have routines for holidays or religious rituals.”

Therefore, it is important to designate your routine in a timeframe as you work to develop it. Is enjoying a sweet dessert before bed something you want to do every day or every week? Is a self-care night something you are aiming to do weekly or monthly? Utilize these trains of thought in order to properly develop a routine (or several) that work for you. In order to do so, let’s break down an important concept that Dr. Iscovich brings up in “The Art Of Routine”the time bubble.

Understanding Your Time Bubble

What the heck is a time bubble? According to Dr. Iscovich, a “time bubble” is a mental barrier between you and the world that is made up of your daily activities. It is what keeps you busy and occupied, and when that time bubble is disrupted, you may notice all the time in a day and struggle to fill it.

Anything can disrupt your time bubble, and Dr. Iscovich discusses what that means: “Whether it’s divorce, loss, or change of job…we burst our time bubbles, and we try to maintain a certain sense of stability, and try to do those things that make us somewhat more happy and content. You know, some of us have more choices than others.”

The disruption of your time bubble is something you’ve seen many times before – you just didn’t know it. A common example is when students and parents have no idea what to do during summer vacation. Normally, the routines associated with school take up most of the day and create guardrails for a weekly routine, with weekends being a relaxing break. Yet when every single day feels like a weekend, the lack of structure begins to drive everyone crazy! The kids become listless, and the parents become annoyed.

Other common disruptions to your time bubble are life events such as losing your job or a relationship. Certain activities, such as work or personal time with a partner, become ingrained in your daily routine before you know it. You get used to kissing your partner goodnight or making the first pot of coffee for the crew at work. When those activities are removed, it’s like getting the rug pulled out from under you.

When a time bubble is disrupted by a big loss or change, it is common for someone to feel hopeless and wallow around in their new lack of a routine. You may feel adrift, like a ship without an anchor. This is normal! But as Dr. Iscovich explains, the only way to fix a disrupted time bubble is to craft a new one.

“When people are really disrupted, all they really want to get back to is an everyday life. Everyday life has stability. You’re not being attacked, you have a stable environment, and you’re doing things with some regularity,” Dr. Iscovich says.

Consider this article from Michael Ashley, a co-author on “The Art of Routine.”Ashley writes, “Iscovich contends that routine is a pathway to high performance. Whether it’s hitting the treadmill every day at 6:20 a.m. or clearing our desk once per quarter, he says humans perform best when our lives possess consistency and structure.”

Therefore, in order to properly understand and develop a routine, you need to understand your time bubble. What is something that takes up part of each day without fail? What is something that you would immediately notice if it disappeared? Of course, in recent times, most people have noticed a disruption of their time bubbles in quite a severe way.

Black Man Exercising Doing Plank Exercise At Laptop Indoors
Man exercises indoors / Envato Elements

Routine in COVID Times and the Modern World

A book about routine published recently would have been remiss if it did not include all the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the world’s routine. It’s something that everyone can relate to, and the collective trauma of complete lockdown and being stuck at home for weeks on end are not leaving our collective memory anytime soon.

Working from home, online schooling, and general togetherness without anywhere to go had a huge impact on relationships and the family unit. People had to develop new routines. Entertainment like movies and television shows had record viewing numbers, and there was the feeling of summer idleness often seen in school children, albeit with a backdrop of a deadly and immensely stressful pandemic.

The Graduate School of the University of Washington released a study conducted by an Urban Planning doctoral student over how the disruption of daily routines changed our lives. Interestingly, this study found that productivity for those working from home stayed relatively similar. However, screen time increased, and physical activity decreased. Mental health was also impacted, with more people reporting negative feelings. This study and others like it are incredibly useful in proving Dr. Iscovich’s point about how a disruption of our time bubble and the removal of structure from routines is detrimental to our health. It is a uniquely interesting time to be studying routines!

You just have to understand that it is your nature. And you have to understand that you have to start with doing something very regularly. Whatever that is that can make you content when things are very disrupted, and it will build upon itself.

– Dr. Angel Iscovich

Speaking on Covid, Dr. Iscovich says, “You see what happens with COVID, in trying to create the stability and the certainty of your environment in uncertain times. Whether it’s World War II in England with bombs going off, or whether it’s a disease that occurs, you try to create a cocoon, sort of a time bubble of stability, to give you a sense of certainty to survive. And that’s what we were really doing with COVID.”

Our normal routines were disrupted, and people were forced to either create new ones or see a marked decrease in mental and physical health. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Time bubbles such as work, visiting friends and family, and school are still feeling the impacts of the pandemic, and it is unclear when things will return to normal and even whether they ever will. That is why Dr. Iscovich’s research and “The Art of Routine” are so important. Routine has been permanently altered by COVID-19, and in order to be successful from here on out, people need to be aware of how to set their own routines.

Dr. Iscovich’s advice on this subject: “You just have to understand that it is your nature. And you have to understand that you have to start with doing something very regularly. Whatever that is that can make you content when things are very disrupted, and it will build upon itself.”

Routine, Repetition, and You

You can use what you have learned in this article to improve your routines and your life. Most people are unaware of the routines they follow and how that structure impacts their lives. If you asked them to identify a common routine, they would not be able to do it even though they follow a routine every day! Knowing what a routine is, how to identify yours, and how to develop new ones is a skill that will change your life. Entrepreneurs, students, and families will all benefit greatly from what routines provide: structure, stability, and safety.

People who do not follow a routine, either by personal choice or a disruption of their time bubble, are generally unhappier and less healthy than their counterparts. Routines benefit your mental and physical health by encouraging exercise and the production of dopamine, and they are a huge help for families and those taking care of children.

Now that you are aware of the difference between routine and habit, as well as the impacts of routine on lifespan, you can share this information with friends and family. Consider buying Dr. Iscovich’s book, “The Art of Routine: Discover How Routineology Can Transform Your Life,” in order to learn everything you can about routine and how to properly utilize it. The biggest thing to remember is that routine is unique to each person and can comprise anything so long as the action is done with regularity. Dr. Iscovich’s wide range of experience and expertise provides him with unique qualifications to teach us how to implement routines in our daily lives.

We’ll leave you with a quote from Dr. Iscovich about his passion for helping others discover the magic of routine: “I try to, if I’m doing it in a more therapeutic way, or with friends or family, try to help give them some form of structure, a routine, and then try to get them to find something that gives them some happiness and contentment to get started.”

Enjoy your routine and structure, and remember: the routine is yours to make!

View this article in the February 2022 issue of MP: Day 1.