When I was younger, I had an aversion to routines. Perhaps it was due to how scheduled life is during school.
Just think about it for a moment. You receive a schedule where each day of the week is divided into small boxes. One “school hour” – meaning one lesson – is 40 minutes. Some boxes were double lessons. Somewhere there are breaks for lunch and recess inserted where you are allowed to escape for a while.
Each of these boxes then get a name attached (a subject). Later on also a separate room and teacher per subject. And then you wander around according to this schedule imposed on you from above, from room to room, subject to subject, whether it suits you or not. If you don’t follow the schedule, the police will come and get you and put you back (it’s illegal to not attend the basic school in my country – homeschooling is not allowed).
To me, the word routine was synonymous with acting like a robot. Mindlessness. No thought. No awareness. No choice.
So when I began life on my own after leaving school, it was no wonder that I created a no-routine environment for myself.
It’s not like I was living day to day unplanned, floating without direction in short-sighted impulsiveness. I have always been the planner type, and spontaneous actions is something I have needed to work on to become better at (still do). But I revelled in my freedom to make – and change – my own plans.
Freedom to change my plans
One of my favourite sayings is that plans are useless but planning indispensable.
The only reason to have a plan is to know what you are going to do next. All the other steps in your plan are up for re-evaluation and recalculation any time. They are not guaranteed.
Depending on how much work you put into your planning, they may have a bigger or smaller probability of happening. But beyond the next immediate step, you cannot guarantee anything (and perhaps not even that).
What I would do is that I would make a rough weekly schedule. Do this on Wednesday, go for a run on Thursday. And then when Thursday came around I’d change my mind, not go for a run, and take a gym class instead.
I remember my then boyfriend, now husband, thought I was a bit weird to do that. Why make up a plan if you don’t follow it? Why bother in the first place? And once you do it, why not stick to it? Why do all that work for nothing?
Because it made me feel free, that’s why. I loved the freedom feeling I got when I decided to do something else than previously planned.
When I look at this behaviour from outside, I realise that it was possible for me to do this because I already had a big discipline to rely on underneath. And a clear direction of where I wanted to go in the broader sense. I had my WHAT and my WHY. The only things I changed were the HOW and WHEN.
But this making and breaking of internal plans meant that I never had a proper daily or weekly routine. And to be fair, my general lifestyle and job choice wasn’t very supportive of it either.
A non-standard routine-free life
If you didn’t know it already, I worked as a freelance dancer. This meant training and rehearsals during daytime. And performances during evenings. My work time often coincided with “normal” people’s time off. Especially weekends, but also holidays in general.
I tried a couple of times joining dance companies as part of their group. But again and again I found myself resisting the fact that I had to follow a schedule set by somebody else.
I had no problem with making a plan and commitment with somebody else and follow through on that. Because I had chosen it myself. The gigs and contracts were always so short anyway that monotony would never have time to appear.
The freelancer life suited me well with all it’s variety. Unpredictable yes, but never boring.
Then I became a parent.
The ultimate challenge: parenting
First of all, there’s nothing that will wreak havoc on your previous way of life more than having a baby. In the beginning, there’s no chance of any kind of regularity or predictability at all. Your sleep cycle is just out the window.
And as a new parent, I kept hearing advice on how important a predictable routine is for the small child. Regular hours for food, snacks and sleep. I had quite a bit of internal struggle with this concept.
If I thought something was utterly boring, why on earth would I want to give that to my child? Why couldn’t the child get to eat when hungry and sleep when tired? And to create that kind of environment for my child meant that I had to adhere to the schedule too. The horror!
Later on, I came in contact with the Waldorf movement and their emphasis on building up a routine. They call it weekly and yearly rhythm. The whole year is planned with activities that follow the seasons, and the week is planned with themed days for each day of the week. Everyone knows what is done on Tuesdays, everyone knows what is done on Thursdays etc.
Now the word rhythm made sense to me. Even how they spoke of the rhythm of the day, with high energy activities early in the day, then lunch, then calm activities (naps for the smallest kids) etc. It all made sense.
Their schedule was not one of arbitrary square boxes placed over a grid of the weekdays. It was designed to ebb and flow with nature’s energies, and with our humanness.
I started to see a difference between the kind of schedule that is imposed on you from outside, and something that you create and choose for yourself.
The truth was, I needed structure in my life
As the years had flown by, I knew I needed some kind of structure for myself. Something I could rely on even though everything else was floating. This growing realisation had been in conflict with my inner strong resistance against schedules and routines.
Now I had a way to solve that inner conflict. Somehow the word rhythm unlocked something in me.
Today when I look at how any kindergarten would setup their schedule, I see that they too follow the same rhythm. Because that’s how we function as humans. Of course you’d have a calm period after lunch when the smallest ones take a nap. Duh.
It’s just that the way that the Waldorf pedagogy spoke about it’s choices touched me. It was deliberate. It felt conscious and aware.
Another big realisation came while I was recovering from my burnout. We were told at the rehab centre to create a good evening routine in order to facilitate winding down and being able to sleep. I studied a bit of mindfulness as well.
And when you look at it in a certain way, inserting awareness into a routine turns it into a ritual. Doing the same things, exactly the same things in the same order, becomes almost like casting a spell.
The chanting before a yoga session is this kind of ritual. Everything like the lights, the space, the actions and sounds, are designed to evoke a specific state of mind.
You can create these things for yourself too. Put an association around a specific set of actions, and you can enter that mind-space by performing those actions again.
I had practised that for years and years before. I had used this kind of mental training to handle stage nerves before performing. Now I could transfer that ability and way of thinking to my every day life.
Suddenly doing routines make you feel less like a robot and more like a magician!
The only missing thing is the deliberate awareness. You can even turn your standard washing up after dinner to something special to be experienced if you give it the right amount of attention and presence in the moment.
Structure and awareness gives a new kind of freedom
I also realised what a cognitive burden it was to always make a lot of micro decisions on what do to when. Creating something predictably weekly recurring helped me a lot, especially when my abilities were very low. For a while I even put our weekly dinners on schedule. Chicken on Wednesdays, soup on Thursdays etc.
From a completely free-form rebel against scheduling, I suddenly voluntarily put almost all my life into one. Less decision fatigue. Freeing up my brain to think about those things I care more about. When you can’t think, the schedule thinks for you.
My weekly routine today – or rhythm if you like – is a more normal one. Something I appreciate is to actually have weekends. Since any day was a work day before, I never got to have that weekend feeling of having a bit of time off.
I don’t resist having a weekly schedule any more. Instead I see it as yet another way of creating a life that I want. I get to create my weekly schedule, naturally in collaboration with clients/employer/daycare/school. But in creating it, I get to think thoroughly once and then free up future brain cycles to work on more important things.
And I no longer see routines as thoughtless trivialities, boring stuff you want to get rid of as much as possible. A supportive routine can make you go far.
What makes all the difference in the world is the amount of awareness and attention you give it. Lose that, and any schedule in the world will turn you into a mindless robot.
Keep it, and even something imposed on you from outside can enable you to become a magician.