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No. 19 - In a Routine Rut
I Used to Love Routines. What Changed?
I often wonder what it’s like to be a soldier. To go through a grueling training regimen that will push you to your breaking point, and come out the ultimate human machine. To have achieved mastery over your mind and body. It’s a compelling fantasy, to be sure. Then, of course, I remember the horrors of war, and thank my lucky stars the only battlefield scenes I’ve seen lately were those from Guy Ritchie’s stellar The Covenant.
I’m not a soldier, and hopefully will never need to be. Yet I’m no stranger to a regimented life. For almost a decade, I’ve been using carefully constructed routines to help me chase my goals.
Routines have been an integral part of my life. So why do I suddenly hate them?
We’ll get to that in a second. First, what do I mean by a regimented life?
I was blessed with lenient parents, but as a child I didn’t see it that way. Compared to my peers, especially those I saw as less fortunate than me, I felt I lacked a certain seriousness, a certain discipline life forces on the poor. At fourteen came my ID card, and hot on its heels a rabid desire to join the ranks of the serious. So I began to discipline myself.
Early in high school, I made up my mind to go to law school, and my parents enrolled in private lessons. Shortly thereafter, I took up bass guitar—only the most badass instrument in the world—and in a blink I was in a band. Add all this to between thirty and forty hours of school per week and you’ve got a chronically tight schedule. The only way to manage would be to have complete control over my time. Like a magician or a mathematician, I set to work devising and adapting routines, in order to gain that control.
I learned many lessons in this early stage of my development. The value of time, for one: that what mattered was not whether one had enough time, but what one did with the time they were allotted. I also learned of sacrifice: that having a tight schedule meant needing to establish priorities. My fitness fell by the wayside, and I gained nearly 45 pounds. But my routines yielded the desired results. I was among the first to be accepted into law school, and I got to play five concerts with my punk rock band. Our final concert took place in a pub called Legendary, which shorty after burned down. Talk about a legendary last act.
These lessons I took to heart, and have applied all my life. In college, when I decided to start working out again and lose most of that weight, and during lockdown, when I grounded myself in a routine so I wouldn’t lose my mind.
I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been motivated by the idea of being the best. But I’ve been using routines to structure my life for so long that at this point, it’s in my blood. Or at least, I thought it was, up until this August.
Due to the way my work is structured this year, I was able to take the whole month off. After what I just told you, it won’t surprise you to learn that I had a routine fresh and ready to adopt during this lengthy holiday. I wanted to do so many things: write a lot, read a ton, work out a bunch, and spend A GAZILLION HOURS with my wife and cat.
The first few days, I really tried. I pushed myself to read, for hours, even though I found my mind wandering. When I sat down to write, I was fidgety, as if my body was spitefully choosing those exact moments to crave movement. I realized I wasn’t enjoying myself very much, but put it down to fatigue and overexertion during the year, and figured things would get better if I just kept going.
Then, on Thursday, a killer migraine kept me in bed the whole day. My schedule for that day, as ever, was full: I was deep into not one, but two books, a monolithic novel by a dead Chilean author and a book-length essay about grief. To make matters worse, that night I was supposed to hit the boxing gym. But all I wanted to do on the morning of the day in question was lie in bed and keep on sleeping. Still, I got to my feet and begrudgingly made myself a bowl of cereal. The migraine hit around noon. Naturally, I skipped boxing class.
It took a few more days for me to piece it together. I was morose. Morose because, in my rush to create the perfectly structured holiday, I’d squeezed all the life out of it. Because I knew exactly what to expect and when to expect it, and that made me feel constricted, forced into a state of affairs I wanted no part of any longer.
A simple truth about routines: we like them because they’re predictable. They imbue our lives with structure which, xenophobes that we are, we think we might go mad without. But rely too much on that predictability, and soon enough you’ll stumble into an even bigger problem than your fear of the unknown.
Case in point: Rocky Balboa.
As soon as you read his name, I bet many of you started picturing a training montage of Rocky running or doing one-handed push-ups to Eye of the Tiger or Burning Heart. What does Rocky have to do with boredom, you ask? Well, Rocky is the king of routines. This is a movie franchise whose central idea is that a regular guy can go to war with giants so long as he’s got the more badass training sequences. But have you noticed how long those training clips in the films actually are? Not more than a few minutes each, and it’s easy to see why. Showing Rocky train the same exercises for hours and hours each day in the months leading up to his fights would get repetitive very quickly. Nobody would pay to watch that. So the training got trimmed down to its most interesting bits, then put to music.
Imagine: if the average moviegoer couldn’t stand a two hour movie’s worth of routines, what must a decade’s worth of them do to a person?
I could see but one way forward. I needed to shake things up. And so I did.
I started small, searching for little changes I could make. Here are some things I did in the first week:
Instead of starting my day with cereal like I always do, I skipped breakfast, and ate nothing but a pack of biscuits until four p.m.;
I woke up with the sun, and wrote on an empty stomach (as instructed by);
I spent one whole day playing a wonderful video game;
I skipped my writing sessions for two days, and spent that time with my family.
Right away, I noticed two things: a) my sleep began to feel restful again, and b) nearly everything I did, I did with intent, simply because I was prioritizing what I wanted to do over what I imagined I should do.
A week or so later, my brain was doing most of this searching automatically. It was fishing for change.
And then, an unexpected (and unexpectedly fortunate) thing happened. I got into a huge fight with my landlord. In the aftermath, my wife and I realized we hadn’t been happy with our living situation for a while, and chose to move somewhere better suited to our needs. Were it not for this fight, we’d have spent another winter in a cold, unfriendly place.
What’s more, the few days I spent reaching out to real estate agents and traipsing through the city for apartment viewings truly threw the shackles off me.
My days since have remained happily structure-less. I turned off my alarm for the remainder of the month. Every morning, I sleep until my body decides it’s had enough, then ask my wife “What do you want to do today?” And the answers vary, as they should.
On a whim, I bought a new narrative cooking game called Venba, even though it seemed a bit short for its price, and it ended up being an amazing experience. I also spent much more time with my family, foregoing excuses like “I have to go work out now”, or “Let me just read one more chapter of this”. Sometimes, I even let myself do nothing because doing nothing felt like the right thing to do.
And like that, these final weeks of August have started to feel like a holiday, after all.
I’m not sure how sustainable this new approach of mine will be. In a week, I’ll be back at work, and a certain structure will be imposed on me once again. If nothing else, I’d like to embrace this newfound spontaneity in my free time. I want this time to actually feel free again, as it did when I was a child. I want to feel inspired. To let my feelings guide me, rather than my head, for once. In a word, I want to marvel.
That’s it. If you liked what you just read, could you let me know by clicking on the 💙 button below?
P.S. Some of you may recognize the feelings I’ve described. If so, how did you alleviate your situation? Feel free to pop into the comments and tell me.
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