Several times a year – usually as summer ends and fall begins and just after Jan. 1 – people start talking about “getting back to a routine.”

This always makes me cringe. I have to confess that the word “routine” for me, until recently, conjured up only negative feelings. Part of the excitement of life is all the amazing, unplanned, and notably non-routine things that can happen from minute to minute.

Years ago, a friend who was a fellow stay-at-home parent talked to me about his evening and morning routines. “I have no advice for nights,” he’d say. “I end up sleeping in a bed by myself; it’s terrible.”

I was both pregnant and nursing at the time. The idea of sleeping in a bed by myself seemed like a beautiful fantasy world where unicorns lived. But when it came to mornings, my friend was all in. He woke up at 4:30 a.m., went to the YMCA and swam for an hour and then returned home at 6:00 a.m. so his wife could have a turn at working out.

He’d have some coffee and read the paper until his kids woke up. “That’s really my time – between the hours of 4:30 and 6:00 a.m. it’s all about me,” he’d muse. Me, still jealous of the unicorn sleep time, would think: “Um, eff that. Never happening.”

What a sad testament to the reality of parenting young children: You basically have to get up at the crack of dawn just to find a few moments for yourself.

This was also the time when all the parenting experts harped on the need to get your kids on a schedule. Pretty much the solution to everything was: Adopt a routine. Child not sleeping and climbing into bed with you at night? Get him on a routine! Child rejecting food she used to love and existing solely on French fries? Get her on a routine!

These days, adulting, too, requires a routine. You can’t possibly be healthy if you aren’t working out at 4 a.m. Eating past 4 p.m.? Tsk tsk, this famous supermodel eats macaroni and cheese all day but stops eating by 4:30 p.m. and is in perfect shape!

She’s on a routine!

For a long time, I resisted. I refused to be sold. I fought against society’s insistence on routines. Why does every day need to be the same? Isn’t that what we call a rut? Count. Me. Out.

But then it happened, as I think it does for nearly everyone as you get older. You toss and turn yourself to sleep only to wake up a few hours later thinking of the things you didn’t do, thinking of the things you need to do. Your brain turns into a hamster, running on its little exercise wheel.

Trying to solve this problem made me look at the dreaded routine differently. I realized a routine doesn’t have to limit the way you live. It can be a tool to help decide what you want to accomplish before you move onto something else. It’s not about a specific time of day or activity, it’s just figuring out what is needed and making sure those needs are taken care of in a systematic way.

Looking back to the time when I turned my nose up at the routine, I was actually doing it without even realizing it. Maybe I wasn’t on a specific time on the clock, but before my kids and I left the house, there was always a list of things I made sure we got done: Breakfast eaten, clothes put on, books read, snacks packed. We did this every, single, day.

You hit a point in life when you realize that the checklist needs to have things just for you to be mentally and physically healthy. This realization is what sometimes leads people to click on articles with headlines like “7 Things Every CEO Does Before 7 a.m.”

To me, that’s bullshit. We’re all different, and each personal list needs to be different, too.

For example, I am an early riser. I can’t escape it. I’m nearly giddy when I sleep until after 6 a.m. Most mornings I wake up wondering if I forgot to set my 5:20 a.m. alarm, only to find it’s 5:08 a.m. – Yeehaw! A whole 12 additional minutes to snooze.

By contrast, I have dear friends who must drag themselves out of bed in the morning. When I’m sound asleep at 9:30 p.m., they are just starting the productive part of their days.

Let’s accept at the outset that we each have a different set of personal needs. Those can vary depending on the stage of life we’re in. However, studies indicate doing the following things on a regular basis are good for everyone’s mental and physical health and productivity:

1. Move your body. It’s pretty clear by now that physical movement is good for you. Our ancestors got their physical activity by just living, our lives have become more sedentary and our brains suffer because of it. Creating space in your life for thoughtful, healthy movement is good for your body and brain.

There are numerous studies on this. Click here, here or here if you’re feeling skeptical.

2. Clear your mind. One of my recent CivMix posts focused on meditation – a simple and efficient way to clear your mind. This helps your brain prioritize and focus on the present. Make time to do this – just like you train your body – and you can train your mind to be stronger and improve performance. A clear mind focused on the present is able to find happiness and joy in the moment, where it is most easily found.

3. Be aware of what goes in. Hydration and nutrition are essential. Knowing how much water you should be drinking is a really good idea. Here’s a great hydration calculator to help you out. On eating: We are constantly inundated with what we should and shouldn’t consume. I’m not going to preach to you about this, except to say that mindful eating – paying attention to what you put in your mouth, and not consuming food mindlessly – is helpful.

4. Create clear goals. Long-term goals are good, but small changes over time add up to make a big difference – especially where quality of life is concerned. For example: My severe dust allergies make it really important for me to change my sheets weekly. If I don’t write it down, I have no idea when I last did that. I have a notebook I carry with me to keep track. Sometimes I get it all done, sometimes I don’t. But looking at these small tasks as goals and checking them off the list make it a lot easier for me to accomplish them. If a notebook isn’t your jam, try an app, a planner, or even a bullet journal to stay on track.

5. Don’t go it alone. Have you ever joined a gym or started a new hobby only to abandon it not long after you started? Don’t feel bad. We all have. Trying to change on your own is hard. Enlist other people to help you. Go for a walk over lunch with a friend, get a co-worker to do a hydration challenge, share your goals with a group. I’m in a challenge group, and we each have a variety of individual goals.

I might be the only one with “change the sheets” on her list, but being held accountable matters – and so does the encouragement.