I used to be a person of routine. I grew up in a home that was both rigid and chaotic, and I learned to use routines to my advantage. I knew exactly how long I could spend watching Speed Racer or roller skating and still have time to get through my daily routine of requisite chores before my mother got home. And because home was often a chaotic mess of emotions, I found comfort and stability in the routines of school; I think the fact that I did well in school had as much to do with this than with anything going on between my ears.
Somehow over the years, though, I’ve lost my talent for routines. I could blame this on my husband, who is a very laid-back person. But I know it’s not his fault (darn!). I could blame it on the fact that I spent so many years in university, which can be a very unstructured way of life. But I know that’s not it, either. Even after years of my husband’s influence and of being in school, I still had many routines—and some of them were even fun ones.
Having kids put me over the edge (yes, blame it on the kids!). Before they came along, my days were fairly predictable. It’s not that my life was boring—my courses changed, my assignments changed, there was always something new to learn and do—but I could plan my time with some certainty. Then Child One was born, and then Child Two, and we moved a few times and I started my business and volunteered too much and my mother started needing me more—and now, as I’ve written before, my days are full of interruptions. Instead of following well-thought-out routines, I sprint from one situation to the next.
I’ve tried to build new routines, but so far I haven’t been very successful. In part, I’m resisting my own efforts. I think I’m worried that routines will turn my life into a daily grind of chores, that I’ll always be looking at the clock to see how many more minutes of Speed Racer I’m allowed, that I’ll turn into a rigid person who is so focused on her routines that she has no room for spontaneity.
But, as I realized recently in what Hayley calls “a moment of clarity,” that’s not the whole story. As long as I take on too much, as long as I fail to build boundaries between my work and home life, as long as I lack enough self-respect to take care of myself, every routine I come up with is going to get waylaid by something that pops up.
For example, my weekly routine of writing a blog entry has, today, been interrupted by the arrival of the dishwasher repairman, a phone call, picking up my kids from school, reading school notices, taking my daughter’s temperature and discussing whether she should go to dance class with a cold, helping her with her homework, reading and responding to several emails about an upcoming soccer tournament, worrying about how I’m going to get my part of the book proposal Hayley and I are working on done today, and dealing with an email from a client, which involved a “quick” (hour-long) internet search for the source of a quote. Some of these interruptions were unavoidable—someone had to let the dishwasher guy in and the cats can’t reach the doorknob, nor can they pick the kids up, and of course I’ll drop what I’m doing if one of my children doesn’t feel well. But some of them definitely could have waited. How different would my day have felt if I had a regular writing time and a routine for answering email?
My life as I live it now is a daily grind. And it’s full of routines, but of the wrong type—they include running around looking for my keys and glasses, rushing to the store when I find out that one of my children needs a new protractor for school tomorrow, and looking at the clock and the calendar in a panic, wondering how I will fit everything in. I’m the one who allows my life to become this chaotic and I need to make a daily commitment to no longer do this.
There’s been a lot in the news recently about how daily stress affects your health; the most recent studies show a link between high levels of everyday stress and cervical cancer. This concerns me. My life is so stressful now that spending an hour in the dentist’s chair with a rubber dam stuck in my mouth feels like a vacation. No phone! No clients! No interruptions! Is this how I really want to live?
One of my major goals for my Year of Living Differently is to reduce my stress level. One of the most important ways to approach this is to establish some positive routines—not just for work and housework, but also for myself—and then to make sticking to them a priority.
I’m confident that having daily routines that help me get the basics of my life taken care of regularly and efficiently will not turn me into an uptight, rigid shrew who rules her day by clock and calendar. Just the opposite, in fact—it will give me more time and energy for the things I want to do and when an unexpected opportunity comes up, I’ll be more likely to be free for it if I’m not buried in a two-foot high stack of unfiled papers looking for a receipt or running to the grocery store because we’re out of milk again.
I’ve made a start. But given my track record, I know that it’s going to take a more fundamental change than starting a routine or two in order to break the habits that have led to my current state of disorganization. On a daily basis I need to recommit to myself and my priorities.
I find it kind of funny that, in the Year of Living Differently, I am not only finding new ways of doing things, but I’m realizing that in some cases I need to go back (way back) and rediscover what used to work for me.