No, really. I’m serious.
There’s this very prevalent alternative-culture meme about how routine kills life and joy: how doing more or less the same things every day makes you less present and mindful in your life; how spontaneity is the key to a life fully lived.
So today — just for a change — I want to be an ornery cuss, and buck this trend.
I want to speak in praise of routine.
Ingrid and I just got back from a vacation in which, for complicated reasons that I won’t bore you with, we stayed in five different rooms, in three different homes and hotels. All throughout that trip — and for several days after getting back home from it — my daily routine was seriously disrupted.
And this put rather a crimp in my life. The vacation was great, for all the reasons that vacations are great. But it was also disruptive: even more so than a regular vacation where you stay in one or two places. And in the week or so that I’ve been back at home trying to get back into my groove, my style has been rather cramped. The loss of my routine has made my life less lively, less joyful, less present and mindful. Finally settling back into that routine has been a relief… and it’s enabled me to live my life more fully.
See, here’s the thing. When I’m not in a routine, I have to put a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy into thinking about things that are… well, routine. Where is my toothbrush? Where is my underwear? Where is the colander in this kitchen? Where are the 15 pound dumbbells at this gym? The smallest aspects of my life are a struggle just to make happen.
And I screw things up. I forget to bring my lunch to work. I leave my wallet on the sofa. I lose my workout notebook. All of which takes even more time and mental energy to deal with.
That’s time and mental energy that I don’t have to spend on things like, say, writing. Talking with friends. Pondering the nature of existence. Looking at trees.
Plus it’s an irritant. And getting irritated every half an hour because you lost your workout notebook and can’t find your underwear is probably not the best state of mind for a present, mindful, fully-lived life.
But when I’m in my routine, I can spend less time and energy struggling just to make my life happen… and can spend more time and energy actually experiencing it. And I can experience it in a calmer, more peaceful state of mind. When I’m getting dressed, I can be more present in my body and the way I express myself through style if I’m not tearing apart my suitcase trying to find my underwear; when I’m working out, I can focus more intently on the signals my body is giving me when I’m not wondering where the damn 15-pound dumbbells are.
(Side note: I think it’s funny that many of the people who deride routine are the same people who praise ritual, and bemoan the lack of it in our rushed modern society. If I call brushing my teeth and journaling my workouts a ritual instead of a routine, can I get my alt-culture cred back?)
I agree that there’s a happy medium here. I agree that there’s a balance between rigidity and chaos; a place where we can feel both peaceful and free, where we have room for surprises and change, but don’t have to spend every moment working out the smallest details of everyday existence. And I think this happy medium is different for different people. Some people flourish on wearing the same outfit and having the same thing for breakfast every day; for others, as long as they brush their teeth every morning and every night, that’s all the routine they need. For some people, the level of routine that I have in my life would be mind- numbingly repetitive; for others, it would be alarmingly chaotic.
But… well, actually, I think that’s my point. I don’t think it’s up to us to judge other people for having a happy balance point between rigidity and chaos that’s different from ours.
Yes, too much routine — whatever “too much” means for you — can be tedious and stultifying. Yes, doing the same things day in and day out can lead you to space out from your life instead of engaging you with it. Yes, we need to be willing to try new things, and to make room in our lives for surprises. Yes, we need to not be so attached to our routine that we’re afraid to ever let go of it.
But I have a limited amount of time on this earth. I would really rather not spend it figuring out where I put my underwear.