The holidays have passed and now ‘tis the season of resolutions. Our culture tells us that we need to be constantly improving, always working to better ourselves. And what better way to do that than to commit to a routine? “I’m going to meditate every day.” “I’ll only have alcohol one day a week.” “I want to run a 5k by summer and I have to run ___ miles a week to be ready for it.” We’re told that routines are the secret to getting the results we want and we’re certainly good at talking about them, but are they actually good for us?
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with routines. For so much of my life, school gave me a routine without even asking if I wanted one. During summer breaks I would oscillate between relishing the flexibility of free time and floundering in the lack of structure. I’ve always struggled with anxiety and trying to create stability has historically been a major coping mechanism for me. Spring of 2020 found me quite routine-less. I had just graduated from college, was moving out of my parents’ house to live alone and had landed in a remote job with no set hours. I was worried. How was I going to manage my time? Was I capable of making and holding myself to a schedule? Could I create the structure I believed I needed?
It’s no secret that routines are beneficial for a person’s wellbeing. Having a steady routine can improve circadian rhythm and subsequently mental wellbeing. Creating consistency in your day can remove the need for repetitive decision making, leaving you with more energy to spend in places you’d rather spend it. Even the process of developing a routine can help you get to know yourself better through working with your quirks and natural tendencies.
Routines create consistency, consistency creates stability, and stability creates comfort. Consistency can also box you in – It can prevent you from seeing the wonder around you. If you are too fixated on getting in your morning push-ups, you might miss the robin building a nest outside your window. What is the flip side to this? Freedom allows for flexibility, and flexibility creates room for imagination, and imagination can lead to all kinds of cool shit you never would have dreamt up otherwise. With freedom, we have the space to experience things we wouldn’t otherwise – both pleasant and less so. Do we want to be comfortable and bored, or imaginative and maybe a little anxious?
Despite my long-standing relationship with it, I knew that I was over being comfortable. I had a conversation with a wise soul in my life in the midst of this transition (cough, cough, Dr. Campbell), and she encouraged me to lean into the discomfort and opportunity provided by a lack of structure. Perhaps I would enjoy it more than I anticipated if I just gave it a chance.
It turns out that I have learned to really love the freedom afforded to me by my current situation. However, the engineer side of my brain still questions what some elements of routine might do for me. I find it’s hard to make time to exercise and meditate if I don’t put them on some kind of schedule. I’m learning that there is a balance to be found here. Perhaps there is such a thing as a soft routine – one where you set a structure for yourself, but you leave room for a bit of give and take on the daily. Say you’d like to meditate. An example of a soft routine here might look like: “I’m going to meditate at least 5 days a week for an average of 5 minutes.” In this scenario, you allow yourself a couple of days off for the times when life gets in the way, and flexibility in your actual mediations for those days where you can only find a few moments on the toilet instead of the 20 quiet minutes you’d hoped for. I like to think of it as a set of steady practices with guidelines and framework rather than strict rules and regulations.
Routines are meant to help you, so let them do their job. If a routine feels too restrictive, if you find yourself sacrificing your wellbeing in the name of routine, then it’s not serving its purpose. Find a structure that prioritizes what you value. Perhaps a steady workout routine is really important to you, or a regular creativity hour does wonders. Notice the things you have always gravitated towards in your days. Maybe you have a fondness for reading a chapter before bed, or your days always feel a bit easier when it begins with some fresh air. Your body will let you know what to include in your daily practices. There is no need to pin yourself down and force your beautiful being into something it’s not. Give yourself room to breathe, to express, to live. Adjust your expectations for yourself. Remember, this is all for you.