It’s really hard to break the cycle
We tend to get into a routine in all facets of life. Routines are comfortable and efficient. They allow us to operate without having to think too much.
I wake up in the morning and make coffee and eat a bowl of cereal. Then I brush my teeth and get ready for my day. I leave for work at the same time and drive the same route. I probably don’t have a unique thought until I’m at my desk trying to figure which files need opening to begin my day. And if I’m being honest, calling anything I do at work a “unique thought” is a bit of a stretch.
At work the predictable cycle continues. I eat at the same time, go to the gym to see the same people, do the same workouts, and listen to the same playlists. Routine just works. Everyone knows when I arrive, when I’ll be away from my desk, and when I leave. There are no surprises.
My routine doesn’t really liven up after work either. I drive the same way home, put all my stuff back in its rightful place, and prepare a meal I’ve made before. We sit in the same places and watch our same shows. We might discuss our day and the frustrations that seem to keep repeating, or we might read books we know we’ll like and go to bed at our normal times.
In some ways not having to think can be great. I can be exhausted, sick, or otherwise preoccupied and I will make it through. My typical day barely requires my presence. It feels easy, which is owed entirely to the efficient routine I’ve developed fallen in to.
But there is a dark side
My days are boring! It’s the same freaking thing over and over. The same force that has made my days easy has also made my mind flabby and weak. I’ve gone soft. Breaking routine often feels like a chore. Actually even my breaks from routine have become routine. We typically go on whirlwind weekend trips to break the monotony. Yes it’s to new places, but really it’s the same trip over and over.
I enjoy these breaks so much that during the parts of my daily routine not requiring my presence I daydream about them. I google trip ideas and points and miles schemes to fulfill my newfound travel goals. Actually I spend a lot of my daily grind time thinking about how to escape the daily grind, which makes me wonder why I think of it as a grind at all?
I think that the reason older people describe time as having “flown” by is because they fall into a routine. Their days have been so similar that they just sort of blur together. Even in my life I’ve experienced this. The last 3 years at my job have flown by.
Any time we introduce change though, it seems to really slow time down. I don’t think many people would describe their first semester of college as having flown by. It’s just too novel, it requires too much of our attention to run away from us.
The same was true when I started my new job. It was in the same field yes, but the people, processes, and environment were all new. I was having so many original thoughts I was forced to pay attention. But this cycles out rather quickly. Our work system is set up to reward specialization. By definition that means to be a productive worker I can’t be doing new things. Instead I repeat the same tasks, becoming so efficient they no longer require my attention.
This drive toward efficiency bleeds into our personal lives. How can it not? I spend 9 hours a day perfecting specialization at work; of course I’ll carry this habit home with me. At the end of the day the time left over for me is so precious I have to maximize it. So I cook meals that are familiar and easy, do chores in just the same way, maybe even buy specialized equipment to do them even faster. This way I can free up my time to… watch tv? Oh boy, not quite the payoff I was looking for.
I’ve become so used to not thinking, and thus so exhausted by the prospect of picking up something challenging at the end of the day, that I just don’t bother. I’ve made my down time routine!
I made that all sound pretty dire. And to be completely honest it has me pretty down lately. The relentless routine causes me to both despair and dream (of ways out). I want to break from the status quo style of operating and live a different life, a fuller life. In my dreams this involves leaving the beat-down of specialized labor early, not 5 years early, but 30 (pursuit of this goal is why this site reads like a personal finance blog).
It’s all a work in progress, changing not just my habits but my attitude. I want to be mindful of what I’m doing and what is driving my behavior. Am I choosing a path or just following one? I also need to be realistic – while I deeply envy the free spirits who leave their possessions to live in vans or remote places of the Earth with little need for money, I just don’t know if that’s me. I can’t imagine myself thriving in that environment, so my task is not to identify a means of deliverance but a destination. The target needs to become clear before I can venture toward it, which is just another way of saying I’m waiting to be zapped.
Ok so I’ve rambled on and developed something of an ultimate goal – to leave the workforce early. But how does that get me through the routine days laid before me, how can I turn the passage of time into a stroll instead of a sprint?
For now I aspire to small rebellions. I want to inject novelty into my daily routine and create more moments of presence. Some mornings maybe I’ll go for an impromptu jog. Or make a giant breakfast and eat at our table, drinking my coffee from a mug instead of a to-go cup.
On my commute I might try a new podcast or completely new genre of music. Maybe I’ll go in an hour later, or an hour earlier. I might read about some completely new workout routine or even join a group class. I can approach my work day with enthusiasm instead of dread.
Perhaps I’ll challenge myself to prepare new recipes at home. We can vow to leave the television off, buy a board game we’ve never heard of, do a small project we’ve never thought of, or read a book pulled from the library at random.
The truth is I often feel a victim to routine, but this is misguided. Even if I feel stuck by provenance or lack of direction, I still control my own mindfulness. I can still choose to participate more in each day. Perhaps these tiny rebellions will lead to a greater understanding. Maybe the key to getting zapped isn’t a revelation but a personal revolution.
Or it could be that it won’t help. It could be that my problem is one of acceptance instead of refutation.
But I can’t know until I try. I can’t keep working with the same thoughts, I need some new ones. So why not start today? I am writing this post from my desk at the end of a work day, which means my drive home lies ahead. Look out station 97.7. I don’t know what your format is, but I’ll be bumpin’ your sounds the whole way home.
I doubt I’ll completely conquer the miles of routine that lie ahead, but if I can take back an inch, that’s a start.
I’d be remiss if I mentioned mindfulness in a post and didn’t include a link to Raptitude. David writes insightful and practical thoughts about “getting better at being human”. One of the posts that got me hooked was How to walk across a parking lot. I think it’s applicable here because even when we don’t have control over our routine we can find contentment with a healthy perspective.