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DUCKWORTH: Gosh, I hope this isn’t too personal.

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: how important are routines?

DUCKWORTH: They need to live a chaotic life with no rules, no plans.

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MAUGHAN: Angela, today I think we have a really fun question, but I’m even more excited because it’s from a really fun person.

DUCKWORTH: Hmm, okay, do tell.

MAUGHAN: This is a question that was sent in from my brother, Peter.

DUCKWORTH: Perfect Peter, right? He’s the neurosurgeon.

MAUGHAN: Yes, I love that you call him Perfect Peter. I do think he’s incredible. I think he’s the smartest of all my siblings, I’ll give him that. 

DUCKWORTH: I can’t wait to hear what the other siblings think.

MAUGHAN: I think that they’d all acknowledge it.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, what does Perfect Peter want to know?

MAUGHAN: Okay, so Peter asked the question — he said, “How important is routine in life? To what extent does sticking closely to routine help someone be or feel more productive, happier, etcetera, versus limit them? Or perhaps better phrased, when is routine helpful, and when can it be harmful?”

DUCKWORTH: Interesting. I am guessing that Perfect Peter has lots of routines. Just a wild guess.

MAUGHAN: He absolutely does. He continues his question with this: “I can see how at times being too focused on routine causes one to feel like their life is overly regimented and doesn’t allow for enough free flow and spontaneity, while at other times routine can be an essential element of goal attainment and accomplishment. “So,” he says, “Angela and Mike, how should we think about routine and incorporate or not incorporate routine into our lives?”

DUCKWORTH: I think it’s a great question  

MAUGHAN: I mean, have you heard the phrase “firm opinions, loosely held”?


MAUGHAN: Well, I, I wonder if, like firm opinions, loosely held, there are times when routine can guide our lives, but shouldn’t control it. And I have a good friend who — he’s one of those people with what I would call firm routines, loosely held. So, every Friday, for example, at 2 p.m., he stops and gets together with a few friends, and they debrief on their week, and kind of make their transition into the weekend. But it’s both this productive element and this signaling of friendship that we’re transitioning into a different space. And he has so many of these types of just routines, but it’s not so firmly held that he won’t do anything else.

DUCKWORTH: They’re not so firmly held that, like, if he were on a plane at two o’clock on a Friday, he’d be freaking out because he couldn’t do that.

MAUGHAN: Right. And I thought to myself, so much of life is really busy all the time, and you get ripped from one place to another. It’s really beautiful to have a few of these — I’ll call them quasi-non-negotiables, in terms of routine that say, okay, this is how I’m going to approach my life to make sure I get these things into it that are important to me.

DUCKWORTH: You know, routine isn’t studied as much in psychology as habit. There’s so much, um — I want to say “hype” about habit only because that sounds good and it’s alliterative. Like, there’s so much talk about habit. There’s so many books about habit. Habits are really when your brain is on autopilot. In fact, my favorite habit neuroscientist, Colin Camerer, at Caltech, uses the phrase “neural autopilot.” And there is an entirely separate part of your brain — and sometimes people say this kind of thing, like, “Oh, there’s a part of your brain that,” you know, fill in the blank. In this case, there really is what is called the “habit system” and it’s a different part of the brain that you use when you do something which is so automatic, you’ve done it so many times, and it’s been so consistently the right thing to do, that you really don’t have to think. So, stopping at a red light. You know, red light? Hit the brakes. That’s the kind of thing that people talk about when they talk about neural autopilot. And I think that these routines that we’re talking about here, like, “Oh, on Fridays, I do this” — you’re not completely using cruise control, but there is some kind of default nature to it. You know, the reason why we have any of these things — like true habits, where your brain is really on autopilot; to routines, where you’re sort of, like, kind of awake, but there’s a strong default; to even a plan — all of these are on a continuum of: how much did I know in advance what I was going to do and not have to think about it too much to, on the other hand, like, “Wow, I have to use all the cognitive bandwidth I have to figure out what I’m going to do.” And I’ll just say that the human brain is a miracle, but it’s very small. And human beings have had to do smart things with this little few pounds of cranial material. And one of the reasons why human beings are so smart is because we have this ability to put some things on autopilot, or near autopilot, or “I already planned this yesterday.” You know, if you wake up and you have already planned what your day is going to be like the day before, that frees up a lot of cognitive bandwidth to, like, now negotiate what’s happening. People who wake up and they’re just making every single decision, like, reactively, they just are not living a very efficient life. So, I’m a big fan of habits, like pure habits, and also I’m a big fan of routines. 

MAUGHAN: Let me jump in, then, for a second. What are some routines that you have in your life that have helped you maybe free up cognitive bandwidth for other things kind of on the regular?

DUCKWORTH: I call three girlfriends, three different days of the week. Sue is on Saturdays, Michelle is on Sundays, and Shalini is on Wednesdays.

MAUGHAN: That is amazing. 

DUCKWORTH: We talk and we run at the same time — or I should say jog, at least for me. It’s a routine, I would say, because it’s not like I start to do this automatically without any intentionality. Like, there’s a Google Calendar invite, it often needs to be moved a little bit, like one person needs to start a little earlier, or, like, I have to switch the day. But anyway, I have that routine. I think it is the one thing I have done as a friend that has been a real game-changer. Like, I would not say that I’m the best friend — like, I never remember anyone’s birthday. I’m not the most thoughtful human. I have to say, the routine of weekly calls has not only preserved these three friendships, but actually made them so much richer than they were before we started this, which is, I don’t know, like, 10 years ago or something.

MAUGHAN: That’s incredible. And forgive me, I’m going to use a term I shouldn’t, but is this a form of habit stacking?

DUCKWORTH: Where did you learn about habit stacking?  

MAUGHAN: Katy Milkman. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh right. A  lot of people call it “habit piggybacking.” And  my collaborator and friend Katy Milkman will talk about it. Also James Clear, who wrote Atomic Habits — which I just want to go on record as saying it’s a pretty gosh darn good book. He’s not a professor or psychologist, but he’s incredibly intuitive, so maybe I should call him a psychologist. But habit stacking, or habit piggybacking, is great advice for anybody who’s going to try to develop a routine or a pure habit. So, gosh, I hope this isn’t too personal, but you know what? In the world of podcasting, you can always edit things out. So, I was at the gynecologist — I feel like if I finish my sentence, Mike’s going to get up and leave, but anyway.

MAUGHAN: No, I just feel like every story that starts with “I probably shouldn’t say this” is either going to be really good or really bad — like there’s no —.

DUCKWORTH: There’s no in between.

MAUGHAN: Nothing else in the middle there.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I’ll say this. I was at the gynecologist and I’m a woman of a certain age —  so, I’m in menopause, we think. And one of the things that happens at this time of life, Mike, is that you basically, you know, have a hard time not peeing on yourself. You get told a joke, somebody bumps you, you get surprised. You do an aerobics class and, like, all of a sudden you have a problem because you’re not 17 anymore and these Kegel muscles that are in the pelvic floor aren’t working so well. So, basically, every woman of my age, I think, has been told at some point that you should do these very simple Kegel exercises. It’s free. It’s invisible. And every woman that I know of my age doesn’t do them. So, what my gynecologist said to me is that I should, essentially, habit stack. She was like, for example, you could stack it onto, like, something like a cue, like, when you’re watching TV and there’s a commercial, right? But I think the most common example that’s given is that brushing teeth is something that most people do twice a day, and that means you have two opportunities to habit stack — or I might say, thinking about Peter, routine stack. It doesn’t have to be, like, a purely automatic habit, but even something where — like, okay, I will give you a less embarrassing example, perhaps: I habit-stacked doing my physical therapy routine during my toothbrushing. So, I have lunges and squats and they’re all doable exercises while you’re holding a toothbrush in your right hand. And so, that has become my routine. And actually, it’s like you said — it’s a strong opinion loosely held in the sense that, you know, if I’m, like, doing something unusual, like I have to brush my teeth in the shower because I’m late, I don’t also try to do my physical therapy there, because that could be dangerous. So, anyway, my point is: if you think about trying to establish a new routine or a new habit without something to hook onto, it’s really hard.

MAUGHAN: So, first of all, I try — I won’t claim that I do this all the time — but when I brush my teeth, I try to do wall sits at the same time I’m doing it.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, when you say “try,” does that mean — is this a routine yet?

MAUGHAN: That means that I don’t do it all the time. I did not do it this morning. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, wall sits are so hard.

MAUGHAN: I did brush my teeth, I did not do wall sits. Let’s just clarify.

DUCKWORTH: You know, a lot of people are under the misunderstanding that if you do something, like, a million times, it becomes a habit, but that’s actually not how the habit system works. We only migrate things from what’s sometimes called the “goal system” in the brain, which is something that takes a lot of intentionality in the moment — you know, you’re thinking, you’re maybe simulating options, you’re deciding — we move from the goal system to the habit system when a behavior is repeated and it’s rewarded. So, I have to ask you: when you finish brushing your teeth and doing these wall sits, do you feel rewarded?

MAUGHAN: Well, I think like all exercise, nobody wants to do it in the moment, but you’re always grateful that you did.

DUCKWORTH: And when are you grateful? Are you grateful, like, right away? Do you feel rewarded right then?

MAUGHAN: Yeah, yes I do. 

DUCKWORTH: So, if you feel really good right away, I have some hope that this might become a habit. I think one of the challenges is that wall sits are painful. So, when I say that habits are behaviors that are repeated and rewarded, one of the things going against you in this case, Mike, and one thing that might keep it a routine and never a full-fledged habit is the pain of doing it, right? Like, if you had another exercise, by the way, that was maybe less good for you, but was less painful, I’m guessing that you would have a greater chance of keeping up the routine and even that routine becoming a habit.

MAUGHAN: Let me take it this way then. Here’s another one where I do feel deeply rewarded, but would still call it a routine. There’s this man named Jesse Itzler and he’s written some books about life with a SEAL. David Goggins is this Navy SEAL who is super well known. So, he had David Goggins, before David Goggins was well known, come live with him at his house and train him. But one of the things that he does — and he didn’t make any of this up, but he’s kind of the one who’s the biggest evangelizer of it — he talks about every year having a year-defining event. So, you can always look back and say, “In 2024 I did this. In 2023 I did this.” And then, he also says, “I plan six mini-adventures. So, every other month, I know that I’m going to have a mini adventure. And that’s something to look forward to, and I am excited about that.” So, I love the idea of year-defining event. I think it’s really important. And I love the idea of six mini adventures.

DUCKWORTH: And you plan it in advance, right? It’s not just that every year he looks back and he picks one thing as a year-defining event?

MAUGHAN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Which, again, on this continuum, from pure habit to like, “Wow, I have to think about everything in the moment” — I would call this a plan. So, there’s a spectrum of how much the thing is already foregone or automatic.

MAUGHAN: For sure. So, if you’re going to have your year-defining event, and I try to do that, have your six mini adventures, I try to plan all those out as well, then I want to have what I call my “365 moments of awe.”

DUCKWORTH: Ah, this is daily then.

MAUGHAN: This is my daily thing where no matter how busy life is, or crazy life is, or challenging the day, I challenge myself to have at least one moment, and that can just be 30 seconds —.

DUCKWORTH: So, can I have an example of an annual life-defining experience?

MAUGHAN: Well, “year-defining” — I’m not going to call it “life-defining.”  

DUCKWORTH: Okay, right, “year-defining.” Like, lower the stakes a little bit.

MAUGHAN: So, 2022, for me, the year-defining event was Kilimanjaro — hiking Mount Kilimanjaro. Last year, my year-defining event — I’m only doing one in my life; for other people, this is one of their mini-adventures — it was doing a marathon. That will always be my year of the marathon.

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh, I forgot you ran a marathon.

MAUGHAN: You know, I’m going to go ahead and say I “finished” a marathon in 2023. There were parts where I hobbled and waddled, but yes, I finished a marathon.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, and then, what would be an example of a mini adventure?

MAUGHAN: So, a mini adventure, for example, I’m going down to the Indian Wells tennis tournament for a weekend. Or I have a couple of friends that we get together for a surfing trip every year. I should clarify — they surf, and I sit on a surfboard in the water and miss every wave.

DUCKWORTH: I have seen you in a photo in a wetsuit holding a board.

MAUGHAN: It turns out, you do not have to be able to get up on said board to take a picture with it.

DUCKWORTH: That is true, and you were on the sand, so —.

MAUGHAN: Yes, yes, yes, you’ve never seen a video of me surfing. 

DUCKWORTH: These were just props. Okay, so, um, what’s an example of an everyday?

MAUGHAN: So, I will just say, yesterday was a crazy day, and I just walked outside for one minute and looked up at the mountains.

DUCKWORTH: So, this doesn’t have to be planned in advance, but maybe, like, a daily practice of gratitude?

MAUGHAN: Maybe you could call it a moment of gratitude. I also try to do that. So, maybe the moment of awe is the same thing, but I treat them separately. Here’s what I say: Angela and I would love to hear your thoughts on the importance of routines. Do you find them particularly helpful? Do you find them restrictive to you? Or how does your current routine affect your productivity and your mood? Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email it to us at And maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. And if you like the show and want to support it, the best thing you can do is tell a friend about it. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your podcast app. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: is having a solid morning routine crucial for leading a productive life?

DUCKWORTH: For a time I thought every productive person has a morning routine. But let me tell you how I was wrong about that.

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about routines.

MAUGHAN: So, a lot of people when they talk about routines talk about their morning routines. And I’ll just share one that I found from a, a video that Tony Robbins did that I actually really love. And so, he basically talked about how he starts his morning with three minutes of a breathing exercise, three minutes of gratitude, three minutes of prayer, and then three minutes of what he, I think, calls “prioritization.” And he says, “Here are the three things that I need to accomplish today, regardless of whatever else comes into my life or, or time, etc.” And I love that idea of a morning routine.

DUCKWORTH: You know, I love morning routines too, and for a time I thought every productive person has a morning routine. But let me tell you how I was wrong about that. I still think that most productive people have a morning routine. I mean, by the way, you could have, like, an afternoon routine or an evening routine, and some people do, but there’s something about the morning. I think, because it’s tabula rasa, right? Like, you can wake up and there aren’t already a lot of competing things. So, morning routines do, as a rule, I think, end up being in the toolbox of very productive people. But let me tell you, not everyone. So, Katy Milkman — aforementioned friend collaborator, behavioral scientist — and I were hosting Cass Sunstein, who is the co-author of Nudge, the famous book that kind of launched behavioral economics into the popular consciousness. And also under Obama, he was, like, the “nudge czar” and actually helped establish the first team to get governments to use nudges to make the world better. But Cass is actually not an economist or behavioral scientist. He’s a lawyer. He’s a law professor. His current appointment is at Harvard. And Cass is truly the most productive writer that I know by a long shot. We joke that he gets on a plane, flies across the country and gets off the plane and has another book! I’ve quite literally lost count of his books, but I think it’s well over 50 now. 

MAUGHAN: Oh, wow.

DUCKWORTH: I know! I was like, “Oh, Cass, do you have a book coming out?” And he was like, “Oh, which one?” I was like, “What?” So, I had to ask him, because we were doing this conversation — I was like, “Cass, I’ve got to know, what’s your morning routine?” So, he thought for a moment, he’s like, “Well, um, I guess I get up around — well, whenever the dogs get me out of bed. And then, he sort of was, like, staring off into space as he was, like, recreating this. So, it’s obviously not something where he was like, “Okay, here’s my morning routine. I have calibrated this over the years.” He was like, “Oh, I guess after I walk the dogs, well, then I get back into bed.” I’m like, “Wow, this is not sounding like a productive morning routine. This is not sounding like David Goggins.” I was like, “Okay, and then what?” He’s like, “I don’t know. I guess, I get up. I like coffee.” Um, and then I said, “Cass, what do you eat?” Because I’m thinking, now we’re going to get somewhere, right? He’s going to have some high protein, you know, invigorating — he’s like, “Ah, like a doughnut? I don’t know. Maybe? I like doughnuts.” And then, I, you know, usually want to start writing.” And I was like, “Okay.” So, I will say that some people have very regimented morning routines. For some people it is bordering on a habit, because it’s so automatic. And then,  I guess, there’s Cass Sunstein who gets woken up by his dogs because his dogs need to go to the bathroom.   And then, is kind of, like, vaulted into his life. If I might venture a guess, which is unfounded, because I have to ask Cass, I think one of the reasons why he doesn’t need a routine as much as other people is that he is really driven to write, like, in an intrinsic way. A lot of writers, including me, need these, like, crutches and supports — like, a calendar where you can X off the day, like, okay, you know, I want to keep my streak. I think Cass is so driven to write that he doesn’t need any of these external supports to just do it.

MAUGHAN: It’s really interesting that you say that, because I was reading this review of Mason Currey’s book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.”

DUCKWORTH: Ugh, I read his books, both of them.

MAUGHAN: Then you’re going to know more about this. I’ve only read excerpts. But I thought it was really interesting how he talked about this idea — that maybe doesn’t apply as much to Cass, but like you’re saying, many writers need — and it’s this idea that order and routine is what allows for creativity and daring. And New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this great opinion piece inspired by Mason Currey’s work. He says, quote: “Children need emotional and physical order so they can go off and explore. A parent’s main job is to provide daily predictability and emotional security.” Then he continues: “Communities need order to thrive and cooperate, since when there’s chaos and disorder, there’s distrust and withdrawal. The main job of local leaders is to provide basic infrastructure and security, roads, police, honest judges, orderly schools, etcetera so that your community can thrive.” He made the same argument about what people who are in creative fields need in order to actually be creative. So, it’s almost this reverse understanding what you’d think. You’d think a creative person is just free flowy and go with whatever but it—.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, they need to live a chaotic life with no rules, no plans, no routines, and no habits, right? Like, that could be the mental image of an artist. 

MAUGHAN: Right! But I loved kind of his thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book Evicted —.

DUCKWORTH: I have not.

MAUGHAN: Evicted is a fascinating and heartbreaking exploration into poverty in the United States and how not having a stable housing situation — not knowing that there’s a place that you can come home to every day — really disrupts the development of children because they’re constantly in flux, whether that’s not knowing where they’re going to live or going into an unhoused situation, et cetera, et cetera. And the massive negative ramifications that has on people’s development, their grades, their emotional security, et cetera. Children need this emotional and physical order so they can explore. It’s kind of this idea that Currey’s talking about here: creatives need this order and routine so that they can actually be creative, et cetera.

DUCKWORTH: I think he has an intuition that is now supported — and I say “now” because I think this is very recent research. So, just the other day, I’m reading this article, it’s called “What’s Next? Advances and Challenges in Understanding How Environmental Predictability Shapes the Development of Cognitive Control.” And what these scholars argue is that when a child is growing up, if they grow up in a relatively — not entirely, but relatively predictable, orderly world — like, breakfast happens in the morning, not sometimes you get breakfast and sometimes you go hungry. You know, adults in your life say things like, “After you do your chores, then, we’ll have some time to read.” That is a kind of world that is very different from a child growing up where, like, you do your chores and then your parents aren’t even there anymore. Like, where’d they go? Like, they left the house. So, what they claim is very bold, and that is that: across species, actually, a predictable world is essential for the development of cognitive control. And that is this ability to regulate your thoughts and your actions. Cognitive control is a little bit like the C.E.O. of your brain. But the idea is that it needs to have a predictable environment to develop properly. The reason why this is so interesting is that it not only dovetails with what Mason Currey is observing about artists, but also parenting researchers since forever have been saying that when you observe parents who have the healthiest and happiest kids — and by the way, also the kids who are the most ethical, — I mean, all these things go together.

MAUGHAN: Oh, it’s like all the above. It’s not just physical health and happiness.

DUCKWORTH: Right. You know, parenting is hard, but the one thing I will say is that the things that you want a child to be are all correlated. And consistency in parenting — this is something I wasn’t that great at, but I tried. I knew the research. When I was in graduate school, as you know, my one daughter was in the womb. The other daughter was just in her toddlerhood. And I knew that consistency mattered. So, I knew they needed to have regularity in when mealtimes were; also in discipline. I knew that I was supposed to be consistent. Okay, I was not so great at that. But I think in many other ways, there was really a kind of orderly predictability. And one theory behind this is that if you grow up in a world like that, you have the incentive to develop a great prefrontal cortex, lots of cognitive control, do lots of planning, et cetera. If you grow up in chaos, you have an incentive to be an impulsive, reactive, in the moment, “I guess I’ll do this because it feels good.” So, I think it’s a very deep idea. And I don’t think anybody is saying you should be so regimented that if you don’t have breakfast exactly at eight, the world has come to an end. But I do think it’s — like you said, it’s paradoxical in a way, right? Like, these are the kids who end up being risk-taking and creative and able to deal with uncertainty because they’ve grown up with a lot of certainty.

MAUGHAN: Right. You actually can’t jump that high off of a sand foundation versus a really solid one.

DUCKWORTH: You know, I mean, we’ve been kind of extolling routines as awesome. And I do think they are. I do think productive people have morning routines on average — maybe not Cass Sunstein. And I think children need much more consistency than they’re getting in some cases. But, as somebody who has studied the downside of routine and habit, I guess I should probably put a word in for why sometimes people resist these rules, if you will, right?   So, let’s talk about flexibility, because I think that is actually the cost, if you will, if the routine is too tightly held. And by the way, this is the cost of habit also, right? So, pure habits, where you’re truly on autopilot, have a lack of flexibility to them that is sometimes not good. That is why the brain is very conservative about what it puts on autopilot. That’s why you not only have to repeat a behavior — like brushing your teeth, or doing wall squats, or whatever — but it has to be, basically, immediately rewarded. You know, I mentioned this Caltech neuroscientist, Colin Camerer — he says really what puts something on autopilot is what he calls “prediction error.” The prediction error is the difference between how rewarding you think something is going to be and then how it turns out. So, the prediction error can be really high if you’re like, “I thought that cheesesteak was going to be amazing and oh my gosh, I got food poisoning,” right? So, it could be close to zero. In the case of, by the way, like, junk food and going to fast food restaurants, you know, the prediction error is close to zero because those products are so consistent.

MAUGHAN: Oh, you just know exactly what you’re going to get.

DUCKWORTH: Right. Colin and I believe that is one of the reasons why they are so habit forming. And then, it becomes — like, again, on the continuum — you stop paying attention to it, you do it without a lot of intentionality. But one of the costs of that, of course, is, like, maybe you’re inflexibly doing something that’s wrong or that’s bad. I mean, obviously, junk food has its own whole Pandora’s box of bad things. But I guess what I want to say is this: I think flexibility is a cost of routine. So, let me tell you about a study that I did with Katy Milkman and also her Ph.D. student, whose name is Aneesh Rai. He’s now a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business. And we wanted to ask the question: what is this tradeoff between flexibility on one hand and routine or kind of, um, “I know what I’m going to do in advance,” right? Where do we draw that line? And so, what Aneesh did was he partnered with this organization called Crisis Text Line. It’s this non-profit where, if you are having a crisis, like you’re having maybe even suicidal thoughts, that you actually can text a certain number, and then a volunteer on the other end will text you back, and you have a conversation. For people of a certain generation, they’re more comfortable, actually, with texting when they’re in distress.

MAUGHAN: Oh, than having a phone call conversation, you’re saying.

DUCKWORTH: Than having a phone call, especially with a stranger. So, we knew that this non-profit, Crisis Text Line, needed their volunteers to log 200 hours of volunteering over the course of, I think it was a year. And we randomly assigned people to either have   just like, “Could you do some hours every week so that you could get to 200 hours,” right? So, that was the control condition. Then there was a condition that was at the other end of the continuum. It was like, “Can you volunteer four hours every week?” So, that was a very granular sub-goal condition. And then, there was a condition that we designed that we thought was going to benefit from the granularity of the goal, but also have a built in little bit of flexibility. So, in this case, instead of four hours every week, we thought, okay, let’s ask this group of people to think about volunteering eight hours every two weeks. So, now we’re giving them, you know, like, there’s a little latitude. “Oh, this week is really hard for me or whatever.” And, essentially, what we found is that both of the goal-setting conditions, they actually increased volunteering by roughly 8 percent over just the first 12-week period, even, of this time. But we also found that the flexible condition, eight hours every two weeks, seemed to have more enduring benefits as we looked at the data over time.

MAUGHAN: I love that idea, the flexibility, because obviously everyone’s lives go a little bit differently. So, Angela, we have talked about the benefits of routine, the benefits of flexibility, and the challenges of routine. What would you say you want to change about your own routines or maybe advice you’d want to give me about routines?

DUCKWORTH: So, this question that Perfect Peter, your neurosurgeon brother, asked is bringing to mind just, like, one last study that ends up being, I think, advice. So, this study was done by Sydney Scott and Elanor Williams. They’re at WashU in St. Louis. And it’s about how people, when they think about their own life, pretty much want flexibility, and they don’t want routines, and they don’t want the rigidity of deciding in advance. But when they are asked for advice for other people that they care about, they are much more likely to choose this kind of rigid-plan routine option. And what Sydney and Elanor conclude is that when you’re thinking about other people, you use your head and when you think about yourself, you use your gut, right? Or your heart.

MAUGHAN: I was going to say heart, but you’re going to go with gut. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know, like, “Oh, what feels right for me?” But when you’re thinking about your friend, you’re sort of really thinking. You’re like, “What would be the best thing?” And I think the advice, then, is that if there really is a benefit to routine, then maybe what we should do is think of our own life sometimes as if we’re planning for someone else. I think this is just a great life hack. Many business leaders do this when they have to make business decisions. Like, “If it weren’t me, but if it were my best friend making this business decision,” right? If it weren’t me ordering lunch right now, but like, actually somebody I really care about — my best friend, my significant other, whatever, what would I order for them? What would I have them do in the morning? Because I think it’s true that sometimes we would make a better decision that way. So, I think my closing advice is, like, yeah, there are trade offs, but routines are awesome. And there are ways to develop strong routines, but to loosely hold them, right, to build in some flexibility as well. And if you have a problem with any of this, pretend that you’re deciding on all this for another person who’s not you.

MAUGHAN: I love that concept though of making sure that you have this almost third-party view into your life and, look, I think that my life has been so much richer when I have tried to incorporate routines into it. And I think that there are so many ways that routine breeds intentionality in life. And I will say, I will go forward now with that advice, and when I’m about to make these decisions on routine, think about my best friend or, as you call him, Perfect Peter.

DUCKWORTH: You know, Mike, one of the new routines in my life that I have really appreciated, it’s having conversations with you.

MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh, ditto.

And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

Angela uses the example of performing pelvic-floor-strengthening exercises while watching television to illustrate the benefits of habit stacking. She notes that, as people age, the Kegel muscles that support pelvic floor organs may stop functioning as well. There is, in fact, no such thing as “Kegel muscles.” The pelvic floor consists of the levator ani, which wraps around the pelvis, and the coccygeus, located in the back of the pelvis. Kegel exercises were first described in 1948 by American gynecologist Arnold Kegel as a way to prevent incontinence. The exercises are often recommended for women’s health, as Angela mentions, but they can also be beneficial for men — especially those who’ve had their prostate surgically removed or who have conditions like diabetes or an overactive bladder.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on closure.

Kelsey SIMPKINS: Hi, Angela and Mike. I wanted to say that what really resonated with me was the fact that psychologically we need closure. And yet there are all sorts of TikToks and Instagram reels from certified therapists and influencers and all sorts of people who claim that you don’t need to get closure from someone when you get ghosted, or someone breaks up with you. And so, I think this episode is really important in helping shape that conversation around how you can create closure for yourself or maybe why we do really owe each other explanations for things, and it’s not needy and it’s not too much to ask why something happened. Maybe this kind of content can help us improve our relationships with each other in this very digital and somewhat unaccountable world.

Rachel HAMPTON:  Hi, my name’s Rachel. When we moved to a new city several years ago, we enrolled our son in a new daycare, and through this daycare, we made friends with another young family, and we all got along so well. Our kids played together really well. They were best buddies. And then suddenly in the fall of 2020, they stopped all communication with us. They ignored our texts. They ignored Instagram messages, but we saw they were still hanging out with other people. Anyway, I think about the abrupt cessation of this friendship every couple of days, and I wonder if I’d had closure with the termination of this friendship that I would not be brooding on it so frequently.  

Steve TURNER: Hi Angela and Mike, this is Steve from Chicago, and your show about closure reminded me of one of the best and worst events in my life. In college, I received a bouquet of flowers in the dorm, and not a few cheap carnations, but a rather large, and beautiful, and probably expensive arrangement. And the card only said, “Hey, you’re kind of cute.” I asked around, I looked around, put an ad in the school paper, but I never found out who sent them to me. And even after more than 30 years, I can still look back on that moment with great joy, but also a little bit of sadness for what might have been.

That was. respectively, Kelsey Simpkins, Rachel Hampton, and Steve Turner. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear about your relationship with routines. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

DUCKWORTH: Hi everyone, Angela here. I want to tell you about a special project Mike and I are working on. We’re planning a series of episodes of No Stupid Questions about personality. In anticipation of the first episode, we have a really fun quiz we’re excited to share. To check it out, and to learn more about your personality, go Take the Big Five Inventory, and get an immediate personality profile. Your results will remain completely anonymous. And if you have a question about personality, feel free to email us at We may be able to answer your question during the series. Thanks, and see you next week! 

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: are you motivated by fear?

MAUGHAN: I’m sitting there, and I can’t move. I can hardly breathe. People are trying to talk to me, and I’m like, “Don’t — don’t talk to” — I can’t cognitively function.

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Greg Rippin. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

MAUGHAN: Enthusiastic. Woo! Now they’re going to put that at the end. I hate that.

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  • David Brooks, opinion columnist for The New York Times.
  • Colin Camerer, professor of economics at the California Institute of Technology.
  • James Clear, writer.
  • Mason Currey, author.
  • David Goggins, ultra-endurance athlete and retired U.S. Navy SEAL.
  • Jesse Itzler, entrepreneur and author.
  • Katy Milkman, professor of operations, information and decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and host of the Choiceology podcast.
  • Aneesh Rai, professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland.
  • Tony Robbins, author, motivational speaker, and life coach.
  • Sydney Scott, professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis.
  • Cass Sunstein, professor and founding director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School.
  • Elanor Williams, professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis.



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