My daily structure—waking up early, daily showers, attending school—came undone with my mother’s death and my subsequent free-fall into depression. I lived in several apartments, all of which devolved into health hazards at alarming speed. My ex named my toenails “dragon claws,” and my fiancé christened them talons the first time we met. I went for a good seven years without brushing my teeth. (That’s one of the things we don’t speak of.) But everyone loves a good turnaround story, right? Fast-forward to now, and I still surprise myself with my spotless apartment (and teeth), marveling at my general togetherness. How I came to be this person is a long story riddled with mental illness, apathy, and the occasional intestinal parasite—this, however, is not that story. This is a guide to how YOU can coax yourself out of formlessness and put together a routine.
For most people, a routine comes prepackaged with family, school, and work, living as part of that larger machine that runs them through the day in efficient harmony across time zones and cultures. The following are some ideas for those who fall through the cogs for more reasons than I can list: dysfunctional families, psychological difficulties, or simply a need to function without the clutter and clamor of constant social navigation. Sometimes an isolated life isn’t just a comfort—it’s a necessity. But the finest strength of isolation is also its greatest drawback: the rolling vistas of empty time you’re saddled with. Since we’re so used to having that time structured for us, doing away with the rigging can plunge you into a free-falling free-for-all. Bedtime becomes a distant memory, meals are potato chips and convenience-store sandwiches, work is the hillock of books you don’t even have to try and ignore anymore…in fact, there are hillocks everywhere you look: hillocks of laundry, dishes, candy wrappers, and that unscalable mountain of apathy under whose shadows you lie, day upon day. But you can start somewhere, even if you feel that everything is fucked and there’s no hope left, you can start with that desolation and still get better.
Cherish your isolation: It has given you the space to survive. It is in that space that you’ll craft your life. I was in my final year of high school when I dropped out and realized that none of my friends had time for me unless I was there to match my steps with theirs. I floundered in their slipstream for most of my twenties before accepting that I had to unmake that world, and make a life for myself. Because that’s what you do, whether you’re homeschooled, chronically sick, or just prefer solitude: You make a life for yourself.
Here’s where you might be right now. You really have work to do, but you’d just rather…not. Mornings feel like such dead ends, productivity-wise, that they start unravelling the day from under you until evening takes you unawares. Reuse and repeat the next day, and before you know it, a week, a month, a decade is gone. Well, here’s what’s amazing about the human mind: Once you’ve managed to get a routine of sorts chugging along, it will run on autopilot if you just provide the spark.
Structuring your life is just like exercising a little-used muscle: You can’t expect it to start functioning at full potential from day one. That, I feel, is the biggest mistake people make when they try to create a routine, or the one I made, at the very least. Armed with visions of turning over a new leaf, a brand new improved Ragini v.2.0, I’d overwhelm myself with a barrage of tasks from the get-go and run out of steam shortly afterwards. It took me a very long time to understand that it’s simply not possible to wake up one morning with a fully kitted out to-do list and have it all ticked off by the end of the day. Think of running, or playing an instrument, or horseback riding—any skill that requires practice to develop. You wouldn’t just walk in through the doors and expect to ace a marathon, have a platinum album, or be a world-renowned jockey, would you? If we don’t place such absurd expectations on our bodies, why burden our minds that way? I like to think of building a routine as a juggler’s performance. The act begins with a single object tossed in the air, and then another, and one more till there’s a full set of pieces up in the air in an expert dance of unhurried motion. That’s what a routine is. And that’s what you’re aiming for.
Begin by charting out things that you actually enjoy doing. Not as a list, if you don’t feel up to it: Just run them over in your mind and pick one. Be it reading, writing, video games, sports, art, crafts—spend a tiny bit of time on your Thing every day. This is actually the hardest step if you’re struggling with your mental health, because it can be so difficult to remember anything being enjoyable. Try to think of something you used to enjoy once, something you might objectively, remotely remember enjoying, and schedule five minutes for it every day. Just five minutes till you can slip out of wakefulness and back into bed again, and you’ll end the day knowing that you accomplished A Thing. That’s a good feeling. Once you find yourself devoting time to your one enjoyable activity with fair regularity, take it up a bit. Add five more minutes. Add 15. Then add another enjoyable thing. Work up to your routine instead of letting it work you to exhaustion and defeat.
My day starts with making the bed, and I’ve discovered that if I can complete this one task, the rest follow with barely a complaint. This is the principle of Might As Well. I made the bed, so might as well do the dishes, and shower, and take some blog photos, and get back to that bit of writing. Might As Well is the queen of forces: Never underestimate its power, for it is singular in its capacity to motivate while maintaining the lowest of low-key profiles—you get stuff done practically without noticing. You got out of bed, so you might as well have a productive day.
Micromanagement can lend Might As Well an entire helping arm. Breaking things down is useful not just because it creates tiny little units to deal with at a time—it also gives your brain a recognizable pattern it can step into unthinkingly. Any thinking you save on is energy saved, which potentially leads to that pinnacle of efficiency: multitasking.
Let us take a moment now to consider my dishes. If I sound a tad obsessed with my dishes, it is merely because my understanding of micromanagement began with them. For the longest time, dishes stayed in the sink, wherefrom they were unearthed at times of great need. They were a tower of intimidation and filth I dared not rouse. Except, one day, I realized I could break that tower down to cutlery, plates, and pans, and I haven’t been scared of them since. I can do dishes in my sleep now because my hands have a body memory of them. My hands take over the housework, unassisted by my mind, which is then free to…solder this piece into being, for instance!
Since we’re on the theme of housework: A messy and cluttered environment is a difficult place to breed positivity and motivation, and junk has a way of multiplying almost overnight. If you’re starting off with a room, apartment, or house that needs “unfucking,” Unfuck Your Habitat is an invaluable resource that breaks down every step of the process to digestible bits.
Break down everything you can. Vanquish the dragons by reducing them to a sheepish lot of puppeteers in a painted canvas skin. Break down your coursework, your study schedule, your exam prep, your self-care. Break down emails, cleaning, socializing, unopened bills. Break down essays and term papers most of all because nothing works as well as having your sections in place before you fill them in. I was one of those people who’d tackle papers the night before the deadline in one panicked rush and later come down with the flu in exhaustion. A lack of confidence in my academic ability contributed a great deal to this, but it was also the idea of a gargantuan block of text I was somehow expected to author. And then came my MA dissertation: a 20,000 word monsterpiece I had to submit for my degree. I spent a good few supervisor meetings moaning to my professor how it could never be done before she put me under strict instructions to take on a single section of a single chapter at a time and submit the finished work before going on to the next. I started taking notes while I was reading, eventually on my phone because sitting at the laptop was significantly more mental strain than I could handle. All you have to do is read, I told myself, Read and take notes. It was the barest minimum, and its magic was that I’d have the bones of my chapter neatly laid out by the time I’d done my reading. Collating and editing and the actual grunt of writing was ever so painless after that because I always had my structure to look to—even in my worst bouts of anxiety, that structure of notes steadfastly propped me up. I ended up getting my degree contrary to all expectations, most of all mine. So scribble, jot, highlight and transcribe with a vengeance for your coursework and papers, it’s the best advice I’ve received in my five years of academic training. Even though I came late to it, good advice is like E-Z Cheez—it never spoils.