Feb 24, 2017

How I Succumbed to the Soothing Repetition of Routine (and Why I'm Happy About It)

I used to hate when things were the same. I grew up in a family where everything was always changing. We never ate the same thing twice, we had no hallowed holiday traditions, no yearly vacation spot, no alarm clocks, no bedtimes, no church, no chore chart or laundry days. We did everything ad hoc, on the fly, winging it from sun up to sunset.

Sometimes, on a weekend morning, we'd leave the house, all of us together, with some vague destination in mind – maybe a museum or a park – and end up somewhere completely different (a cemetery or a different state). If we went out to dinner to celebrate a birthday, we usually chose the restaurant in the car, on the way to the restaurant, amid furious bickering, haggling, and back-seat negotiations.

I can't say exactly why our family was like this. Definitely I think our immigrant identity played a big role. We didn't have an extended family support structure to make routine easy or enjoyable. My experience with immigration (although I was born in the U.S., just barely) was one of uprooting. When my parents came here they made a clean break and a fresh start, but that meant there was no playbook to go by, no set plays to repeat.

And for a long time, I embraced that. In many ways, growing up semi-itinerant makes you improvisationally gifted. I prided myself on my ability to adapt to any situation, make decisions in the moment, and deal with ambiguity. Spontaneity is fun, useful, and invigorating. But for me, it came at the cost of discipline, and so, over the last year, I've started re-learning how to follow a pattern.

And I love it.

Here's how it happened.

In 2016, I decided I would try to meditate every weekday morning at 6 am. Mind you, I'm someone who has basically never used an alarm clock. The thought of waking up at the same time, every day, was almost painful to me. It's not that I like to sleep in, I used to wake up at reasonable hours anyway; I just did it with no plan ... no consistency.

Oddly enough, it came pretty easily to me. I started by setting my alarm at 6:45, which was close to when I was normally getting up (or when my kids would get me up). And then I began moving the time up a few minutes every other day. When my clock would ring, I'd go downstairs, stretch a little, and then sit quietly for a while (anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes, depending on how I was feeling).

This bit is important, or at least it was for me. I left some flexibility in the routine, something I could adjust, something not fixed in stone. Repetition (waking up at 6am) is the path to discipline, but too many restrictions add too much pressure, and that would have made my goal too hard to achieve. So I meditated for however long I felt like, as long as I meditated.

And I did it every weekday ... not every single day of the week. Again, I think I just needed to give myself a mental break, an opportunity to go off the script. If I had tried to do it every day, I think I would have found myself breaking the commitment too often, and feeling like I wasn't able to follow through. No use setting yourself up for failure.

The routine changed me relatively quickly. When I talk to friends about it, they often want to know how the meditation affected me. But – maybe I was doing it wrong – the meditation didn't change me nearly as much as the practice of meditation did. The act of committing to doing it every weekday morning, and of doing it at the same time, that was transformative. Having a reason to get out of bed when I really just wanted to hit the snooze button, that was transformative. I was proving to myself that I could follow a routine, commit to a goal, and make it happen, bit by bit.

For me, this was an incremental, but in many ways, life-changing discovery. That I could just choose a small, achievable daily practice and over a long period achieve something that felt huge and substantive. It changed the way I think about myself.

So over the course of 2016, I became a person who learned to love his routine. A morning person! An alarm-clock person! This year I spent a little more time thinking about what I wanted to do with my newfound super-power, and came up with a slightly different approach.

In 2017, I wake up every weekday morning at 5:40am. I go downstairs, put water in the electric teakettle, and start a timer on my phone. While the water heats up, I take out the coffee-making stuff (we use the Aeropress, which makes an incredibly good cup, if you've never tried it) and set out the mugs (same two every day). When the timer reads 3:30, the water is hot enough, and I brew the first cup. While that's going, I grind beans for my wife's coffee (she'll be down later, having not yet adopted my point of view when it comes to alarm clocks). Once coffee is done, I sit at the kitchen counter with my laptop, open up a blank page, and write.

Even when it comes to making coffee, I've become someone who embraces repetition!

This pattern – the making the coffee the exact same way every day, trying to do it with precision and skill, making the fewest movements, the least noise, getting the timing just right – has become extremely gratifying. It doesn't feel boring or repetitive to me at all. In fact, quite the opposite, every morning I find myself absorbed by trying to perfect my routine a little bit more, comforted by the familiar steps, but looking for ways to make it slightly better.

I have begun to understand, now, what people mean when they say humans are creatures of habit. Habits get a bad wrap, usually, because we think of only the bad ones. But good habits are just as powerful as bad ones, just as easy to develop (in tiny steps), and just as difficult to break.

What's your morning routine? How'd you come to adopt it? What scares you about routine? What do you love about it?



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Normand McDonald on Mar 08, 2017:

Life is a journey and you have improved your journey by adding routines to it. I have no idea how old you are but no matter what age we find ourselves in, it is NEVER too late to pick up " good " habits along the way. All the best.

bruno on Mar 08, 2017:

@normand - thanks for the comment, I really appreciate it! I wouldn't say I'm a strict routine follower by any stretch, but I have started to appreciate them a little more than I used to.

Normand McDonald on Mar 07, 2017:

Hello Bruno,
Having been a Trappist Monk many years ago taught me all about routines ( and meditation). I enjoyed reading of your transformation and how it gradually came about. Good for you. I am MUCH older now and I must admit I have "relaxed" my ability and desire to follow strict routines. Having said that,your story caused me to pause and examine my life as it is now. I guess it is made up of fewer routines and not necessarily early morning routines.HA! HA! I must admit overall I do function better when I stick to routines. Keep up the good work and thank you for sharing your story with us.

bruno on Mar 07, 2017:

@deb :)

Deborah Spirn on Mar 07, 2017:

no morning routine. must have come from the same family!!

Abhijit Dey on Mar 07, 2017:

Hi Bruno,
I am Abhijit, a management teacher by profession, but diyer/tinkerer at heart. I came across your blog on diy and was hooked to it. I am a very early morning person (4.00 a.m). my day starts with a cup of coffee (instant) , going through web, riding my bike(cycle), coming back to home doing daily chores. Preparing myself for classes. It was great feeling to read about your routine.

bruno on Feb 25, 2017:

Thanks Leticia! I really appreciate the comment.

Leticia on Feb 25, 2017:

Preaching the converted: I love routines! I think of them as a way to program myself to deal with things in a way that doesn't really involve my brain. To put systems in place and thinker with them so I can focus my mental energy on what matters to me.

My whole wake up, shower, get dressed, have coffee, read feeds, get bag, get out to work is one routine that I can do with my eyes closed. My laundry routine is once a month, for instance - something I realized was better for a person living alone than the traditional weekly one as it allows me to have enough clothes to separate a full load of each type.

That doesn't mean that I can't adapt or travel or be spontaneous. I just have this systems in place so I can be more efficient most of the time and save my energy for enjoying life.