What with the process of tricking your hindbrain through repetitive micromanagement while you scramble around for the wherewithal to keep up, forming a routine isn’t easy. The tedium of doing chores may hit you when you least expect it, slump days will follow, and then you’ll find yourself in a low-level fugue wondering why. Why are you taking this on when you could just melt, flee, disappear, a memory soon forgotten?
Being functional is an excellent motivation, but it isn’t aspirational in the sense of glamor or prestige. And without aspiration, without dreams decked out in all their ridiculous pomp, the fugue beckons towards a vegetative stillness. There’s a reason aspiration sells the way it does, despite our collective agreement that it’s all smoke and mirrors anyway. Aspiration fuels our dreams, and dreams, even the least practical of the lot, pull you out of the fugue. You know the secret ambition you keep squirreled away and only scrape the dust off to examine and adore when no one’s watching? Make that your motivation, because it’s precious to you. It will seem laughably far off at first, and ridiculous for the longest time after that, but when you make that impossible dream your motivation, you begin to navigate the ponderous trail towards it. I grew up in a dysfunctional family so my dreams were always of home and love, yet I felt singularly ill equipped for them. How could I possibly care for another when I when I couldn’t even look after myself, a blundering, crashing and particularly grimy Wile E. Coyote of hygiene? I started small, with a daily shower at first, and then aided by micromanagement and Might As Well, went on to housework, social contact, blogging, learning a language, and finally, writing. I looked inwards to the microcosm as, unbeknownst to my faculties, it transformed into a reflection of the universe I’d only hoped for. I didn’t even realize as the changes stacked up and slotted in that the maps they plotted marked my dream of a home, family, and farm. I was just trying to be functional as I gazed at that distant constellation every night, and frankly, I’m still astonished.
After all that musing on the nature of aspiration, it’s a bit anticlimactic to have to come crashing down to the packed earth of time and energy management again, but these are the foundations that build up to our stars. A routine is of no use if it can’t help you efficiently manage your time and energy, and since your energy levels will vary to their inscrutable whims, your routine has to be flexible to your limitations and needs: All days aren’t made the same. Some days, you might feel full of energy. On others, it could be a serious task to just drag yourself out of bed. I always make the most of my high-energy days by fitting in more tasks than usual so that I’m not lost in a sea of deadlines and emails when I crash later on.
It’s crucially important to not be hard on yourself, even, or especially when, you can’t accomplish what you’d set out to do, or anything at all. If you, like me, have low self esteem, beating yourself up is the most immediate response to failure. It’s because of how your brain is wired, as any therapist would tell you: Self-flagellation has literally been wired into your neural pathways, and deliberately reminding yourself of this is the first step towards ceasing that internal violence. Rewiring brains is a long process, as is finding trust in yourself. I still beat myself up terribly, but I also try and give myself a chance to disprove that cruel voice inside. There’s only one me, and the one me just has one life. If I don’t give myself a chance to fix things, who will?
It might sound aphoristic to say that “tomorrow is another day,” but it’s the one motto that convinces me I’m not a lost cause when I’m buried under the covers in yesterday’s pajamas with takeout. Remind yourself that this structure you’re trying to create is absolutely novel to your brain and body, and that time and practice are key to developing any skill.
When I see things going well, I tend to pile on too much at once and then crash. Moving backwards a bit is helpful because it puts my brain back in a place it’s familiar and comfortable with, and then I can think of moving forward again. I don’t handle change very well, most people with anxiety don’t. The idea is to introduce everything gradually and take time familiarizing yourself with them. If you find that you’re skipping out on your goals several days in a row, take things down a notch. Go back to an earlier version of your routine that was easier to handle. I’m going to use a cringeworthy simile here, but you know how your computer tries to do a system restore after a disk failure? That’s exactly what you do after a routine failure.
A routine isn’t a set of commandments that you have to follow to the letter or be damned to perdition, so don’t be afraid of switching things up every so often. You might discover better systems of organization, find that you tend to work better in short bursts than longer stretches, or realize that your concentration is at peak levels in the middle of the night because background noise really gets to you. Remember the juggler who can juggle any number of things any which way because they are practiced, sure, and confident that they will not fail. Eventually, your routine will eventually have a core set of tasks that won’t need any fine-tuning. Use them as your anchor and launch yourself into newer, stranger, more exciting things: a new skill, unexplored branches of knowledge, fascinating new people! Your boring chores will be your safe space by then, the space where you sit back, dig your heels in, and unpick all the sights and sounds of the world as your autopilot quietly whirs on. And that, to me at least, is the greatest comfort.
A bit of patience, some kindness towards and trust in yourself go very far in sketching the bones of a structure you can fill in, embellish, upcycle, and renew until your routine reaches beyond the everyday and holds you up to face your dreams. If your dreams exist to give you a purpose, your daily routine is a microcosm of that purpose. And there is nothing quotidian about that. ♦