Routine is a tool, not the point
I seem to have given off the impression that my routine is the most important thing in the world to me and while this is partially true on the surface; it is for wholly different reasons than most people think. I think folks might view me as having this rigid, highly-disciplined, approach to constructing my day. And that deviation from it causes me severe distress. From my perspective, I’ve developed routines as a tool to ensure that I manage to fit in the things which are important to me.
Contrary to what neoliberal “self-help” books say to you, we don’t each have the same 24 hours a day. The ruling classes have staff and people they pay to do labour. Beyoncé has a staff to deal with mundane things so she can focus on what’s important to her either personally or professionally. This means that within a given rotation of the planet some people have several hundred hours of other people’s time feeding into their lives, and 24h to do what they want. Some of us (probably most of us) don’t even necessarily have a full 24h or even 18h to ourselves (18h presumes only a 6h sleep by the way). We work (notably for others), we have responsibilities of care, to feed ourselves, to provide for a family (whatever shape your family has).
Not all of this work is drudgery, and is an essential part of being human. The work that we enjoy naturally energises us and the work we hate naturally exhausts us. I’d also argue that sometimes it’s more complicated than that and something we hate doing under certain combinations of circumstance becomes something we look forward to doing under different conditions. For example; I thoroughly enjoy cooking for myself and others but if I’ve had to work late I often dislike the fact that now I need to spend some of my previous evening time just feeding myself to be able to work the next day.
Often it’s little things that can keep us going. Small moments to take for ourselves to feed our wellbeing. We’re told this all the time through the class-war that is self-help, and even through well-meaning interactions with others (usually Liberals).
What is not often talked about is the stress that comes about when you’ve done the reflecting and have arrived at a bunch of things that you know make you feel better; but you’ve been unable to fit them in because of X or Y. You then get to experience the underlying problem of not having the space for feeding your well-being (which was the problem in the first place) but now you’ve got an additional level of stress caused by the fact that you now know you could’ve felt better and what you could’ve done to achieve this if only things were a little different.
In my experience something about knowing this makes it feel worse; you can now imagine how you could’ve felt just a little better as you deal with the next round of things-you-have-to-do. Does eating spicy pizza once a fortnight/week/month make you feel good? Does meditation, running, or strength training? Maybe you like to go to the pub for a quiet drink at the end of week, or a local gig. Good on you for knowing this (seriously) but now you also know you haven’t been able to do these things. Ignorance wasn’t bliss, but this now feels a little sad and you can feel yourself fraying at the edges.
Routine is the way I manage to actually fit a few of my favourite things in. I’m not inflexible at all and in fact, given the appropriate space, will fall into more of a natural rhythm than anything resembling a routine. I know that exercise is one of the foundation stones to making myself feel well. I get up at an early hour and don’t stay up late because that’s what’s necessary to being able to fit it in consistently and in a way that makes me happy. I know that spending some time alone during the week reading or watching a movie on my laptop is essential to keeping me sane, so that’s why I’ve drawn a line around some of my evenings.
It can come across as rigid, as if the routine itself is what keeps me going - but it’s the activities within it that I care about. The routine is the tool, not the point. In order to do what I love and feel non-alienated from certain elements of my life I need to feed my soul. In order to feed my soul I need to create the time to do so. Except we cannot create time. So I draw a line in the sand based on my needs.
For some things it’s not even about time but just scheduling things on certain days to ensure I get around to them. I have a bunch of favourite foods and while I enjoy most things, there are certain things that transcend culinary pleasure into a joy. Sometimes it’s pizza, or sometimes it’s sushi. You get the point. I seem to have a rough schedule of eating these things on particular nights to the point where it seems quite funny to outsiders. Friday, for example, is spicy-veggie-bbq pizza night. Sunday lunchtime is veggie-sausage-wraps. Every second Thursday I give up my evening to do activism, so I buy in some sushi. It’s not that I need to have these things on those exact days - it’s just roughly the best time I’ve chosen to fit them in and ensure I get around to eating my favourite foods. Is it weird to make sure you eat your favourite foods? I hope not. I enjoy most food and actually only eat things I like; but certain foods just make me feel warm and fuzzy inside and I kinda like feeling warm and fuzzy.
All of these things serve to put fuel in the tank. If I have enough fuel in my tank it means I can enjoy very spontaneous things or have energy to work really hard in a given direction for a while. If I’m enjoying myself and I’ve built up a good foundation, it doesn’t matter to me that I skip a single workout or don’t get to eat pizza for a few weeks. But every time I don’t, I lose a little bit of what I know makes me serene and happy in a particular way I need. It’s not that I don’t enjoy heading out to the Philippines for work, or staying up late at a pub quiz with friends – I just need the energy to do it. To get that energy I need to make time for things that put the fuel in the tank.
So yeah - my routine is my tool, not my point. I kinda just want to keep doing things I enjoy and in a world where I own less than 100% of my time I’m going to need to schedule them in. Thank you to everyone who’s patient with me when I say I can’t come out to play because I want to stay in and eat pizza before getting up for a 0600 strength training session in the park.