In Praise of Routine


No, really. I’m serious.

Monday shirtThere’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.

ToothbrushSee, 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.

DumbbellsBut 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?)

BalanceI 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.

Comments

  1. CybrgnX says

    Great -your posts usually are!!
    I sort of agree that routine makes life easier. I have 2 routines I go thru one in the morning and one late night. The routines allow the tasks to be done quick and efficient. And as a side benefit I can tell when a part is skipped because it ‘felt’ wrong.
    I have plenty of ‘spice’ during the daily work.
    In fact all GOOD martial artists will tell you to practice until they become routine so you can perform quickly and effectively.
    Routine is good like everything else-in its proper place.
    Routine only becomes bad when you let it rule you.

  2. says

    My grandmother used, at the same time every morning, make herself morning tea consisting of toasted cheese sandwich, tea, and a pear.
    I might sound staid and stultifying, but she had it to an absolute art. Every day it was the perfect cheese sandwich, the perfect cup of tea and an exquisitely perfect pear. And she would have them while doing a cryptic crossword.
    When you have managed to figure out how to do something absolutely spot on, and it brings you pleasure to do so, why change it?
    I don’t know quite how she managed to get them all to the peak of perfection, day after day, but even now, many decades later, the memory of the mingling of the perfect sights and smells makes my mouth water.

  3. says

    The book “Time Management for System Administrators” actually recommends routines, specifically so that you can “automate” the everyday stuff and spend more brain power on tasks that require it. If you always check the printer on your way to your office in the morning and after lunch, you never have to worry about whether there’s paper in it when you need to print something in a hurry.
    A well-developed routine also helps avoid mistakes: a friend of mine is a test proctor, and her routine goes something like: get the candidate’s admmission form, get the ID, get the credit card, check ID, check the form, return ID, enter payment data, return credit card, give test materials. Since she always follows the same routine, even if she spaces out, she knows what the next step is; and if she’s given someone their test materials, that means that she hasn’t accidentally kept their ID or credit card.
    Having said this, the words “routine” and “ritual” have different connotations: routine implies an uninteresting part of life, something that you need to get past to get to the interesting bits; while ritual implies underscoring the important bits, like having tea or communing with one’s deities of choice. Then again, a) repetition can blur the distinction between the two, and b) I don’t know your alt-friends, so I don’t know how they use these words.

  4. says

    This is among my favorite of your posts (there are so many). I’m totally about routine. I have to be, or I drive other people crazy.
    I like to have days of no routine every once in a while, but I have to get back to it or shit just doesn’t get done, ya know?

  5. says

    I’ve come to love routine lately too. I once believed wholeheartedly that you should never do anything the same way twice, to always innovate and improve. But I’ve come to love routine lately. Not for efficiency’s sake, though. I like becoming known at my lunch spot and the cafe and the restaurant. I like being greeted by name and asked if I’d like the usual. In my case age brings isolation and routine helps to push that away once or twice a day.

  6. says

    It’s like the whole nature vs nurture debate – the answer isn’t one or the other, it’s a little bit of both. I love some routine to structure the chaotic parts of my life around. I’m just back from three weeks of Muay Thai training near Bangkok and for the first few days was utterly lost without the steady rhythm of wake, train, eat, nap, eat, train, eat, fun, sleep. Now I’ve managed to build a similar routine back home, interspersed with random excursions to the pub, cycling, gigs and whatever else happens to come along.
    Chaos rocks, but it rocks so much more when you have a routine to fall back on and let you recharge the batteries.

  7. ToppHogg says

    Routine is the tool by which your mind is eaten by the power elite.
    As you sink into deeper into routine, your life flies by so fast that you cannot distinguish one day from the next. I have been a graveyard worker in the past. Routine is the only way you get through most days because you are so sleep deprived you cannot function any other way. But your active mind never awakens, and before one knows it, it is years later and you wonder where it all went. You only realize it when friends and family reminisce about some event the zombie you attended and you can not remember anything about it.
    So use routine with great care – and deliberately, so that you remain in control of yourself.

  8. says

    “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.”
    That’s why I don’t wear any. ;)
    Seriously, though, I’m not one to judge. Different people are different. Just because I’m one of the people that thrives on chaos and can’t stands routines, that doesn’t in any way imply that other people would be better served by living more like me.
    In fact,from what I’ve seen, most people do much better with routines. There’s a reason why the word “insanity” is used in the place of “chaos” so often.
    Oh, and ToppHogg: I loved working graveyards. I wasn’t a sleep-deprived zombie at all. I just slept at a different time than most people do. Now, maybe I’m different than most people in that it’s not hard for me to just sleep during the day instead of at night, but the only people I’ve ever known who turned into zombie-sleepwalkers while working graveyards were the ones who tried to keep “normal” hours on the weekends (or whatever days they weren’t working). Yeah, dramatically shifting your sleep schedule twice a week will mess with most people pretty bad. Putting up heavy curtains and sleeping through the afternoon and evening, on the other hand, pretty much just means you do your grocery shopping at 24-hour super Wal-Marts and last a lot longer than your friends at parties.

  9. ToppHogg says

    You obviously have no young children in your immediate family, Rystefn! With school-aged children, one doesn’t get much sleep on a normal schedule much less a graveyard shift. And I did all the curtain and noise-canceling and air conditioning (I live in SoCal), and without fail I would be awakened by something. Across ten years of third shift, I maybe got two or three uninterrupted sleep sessions per year. No one was more overjoyed when I finally got off that shift than my family, whose elephant-stomping and television-blasting could resume without worrying that they might awaken me. And don’t get me started on all the family events I missed because I DIDN’T attempt to keep a normal schedule on weekends!
    Of course, continuing this topic takes the thread way off its original intent, so I move we just drop this one and forge ahead with the original one.

  10. Ainuvande says

    Really, what ToppHogg is saying is that having a life that exists on a different set of hours from people who depend on you is hard. It’s not the routine, but the fact that to work a graveyard shift, you have to reschedule your life out of sync with most of the rest of our culture. And it’s not a reschedule that is condusive to small children. Which is different than a routine.
    A routine can be any set of (usually commonplace) actions done repetatively, usually day after day. The order of actions in washing up before bed, or what order you clean yourself in the shower, are routines. In a larger sense, the sense people usually deride, “routine” refers to the overall shape of the days in your life. Do you wake up at about the same time, eat the same breakfasts, wear the same things to work, do the same work tasks, then reverse it all in the evening? Do you do the same things with your leisure time every day? These are the things derided because it means you never have new experiences. On the other hand, as Greta points out, routines allow our minds to focus on the big things and not where the spoons are kept or how to work the coffee-maker. But if we come home every day, watch the same TV shows, make dinner, and go to bed, we’re not out meeting new people and trying new things. But a regular routine could also be meeting up with people and going out to a different restaurant every Thursday night. Still a routine, just a different action. Which makes me wonder what about routines bothers those people who feel that routines are inherently evil. Usually, it’s not the regularity of the action but the nature of the action itself that is the cause of the indignation. Thus, it’s not the existence of a routine that bothered ToppHogg, but the fact that his job necessitated a routine that put him out of sync with his family. children, after all, are known to thrive on routine. Changing what the routine is does not change the existence of a routine, just the contents: removing the irritating/unhealthy bits and replacing them with something more pleasant.

  11. says

    Nope. No small children, nor any intent of ever changing that. Frankly, I can’t stand them. It surely makes my life a lot easier.
    Also, since I only own one glass, one plate, etc., it’s generally pretty easy to keep track of where they are without resorting to putting things in the same place all the time. It’s wherever I put it after my last meal. I don’t wash myself in the same order every time I shower, nor do I go to sleep at anything resembling the same time every day.
    Like I said: I know most people aren’t suited to it, and I’m not one to say most people (even any given person) should try to live the way I do… I was merely pointing out that while the defense of routine as a way to save time and get on with one’s life is valid in some cases, some people just can’t do things that way without driving themselves crazy.

  12. WScott says

    Well put, Greta. I would add: it’s not only the amount of desirable routine that varies from person to person, but also where you have your routines. To me, the idea of eating the same food, or even at the same restaurant, more than a couple of times a month is “boooriiing.” But my morning get-up-and-get-out-the-door process borders on autopilot. Some people may tolerate/cultivate routine in their jobs, to free up more brain cells for creativity in their personal lives. Or vice-versa.

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