An involuntary self-experiment with routine

When my rather organised husband left for a 2 week trip, I ended up participating in an involuntary self-experiment leading to an interesting realization. Here’s a glimpse into how it all unfolded.

As a kid, I was highly organised, neat and tidy. My grandfather (whom I spent chunk of my time with) ensured I followed a set routine: from waking up everyday at a set time (be it weekday or weekend), to packing my bag, polishing my shoes and ironing my uniform the night before. I was a happy, active and creative kid topping the class, participating in extra curriculars and winning prizes in art competitions. I remained so up until my undergrad.

Then one day, I packed my bags and moved to a whole new country for my post graduate studies. Here, by myself, living in a hostel and having classes barely 2–3 times a week, I ended up having a lot of time to myself. I exploited it. I slept odd hours, I whiled away time on the internet. I said ‘screw you’ to routine — having gotten tired of it and riding on the high of freedom from home rules and routines. My academic performance dropped. I attributed it to kids in my class being much older and experienced than I was. And left it at that.

As time passed, I began to feel increasingly inefficient, bored and clueless about what I was doing and where my life was heading. Again, I attributed it to ‘quarter life crisis’ and let it be. This went on, until I finally got married to a guy temperamentally very different from me. He was calm, controlled, creative and a whole new level of organised.

He followed a rigid routine — irrespective of weekend or weekday. From waking up at 5.30am everyday, to going for a run. From the way he dressed up for work to the way he cleaned up the kitchen. It was all a set pattern. Gradually this rubbed off on me too and I began having a set routine of my own (because waking up at 5.30am and going for a run is still very painful for me!).

Life got better. I felt more efficient, like I had found my missing childhood mojo. My existential issues minimized. This time I attributed it to just ‘growing up’ and handling things better.

But recently, when the husband left for a 2 week trip, leaving me alone in an empty house, my ‘id’ from the past post graduate days’ kicked back in. Again, that need for freedom from home rules and routines crept in and I didn’t resist. I spent a few days ditching my routine only to find out that it did me absolutely no good.

I would sit idle, trying to figure out what to do next only to end up doing nothing and procrastinating. I barely got any work done — be it at work or just simply the household chores. I woke up feeling disoriented, spending a few moments just to recall and work out what day it was and what I was to do that day.

And then it struck me. All this while, whenever I ‘slipped up’, it was because I lacked a routine. Back during my school and undergrad days, living with family meant following a set household routine, listening to my grandfather and parents. When I went off for my post graduate, there were no set classes, no activities lined up, no parents / grandparents to pester me into doing things. I slept when I wanted to. I went out when I wanted to. I studied when I wanted to. There was no way to predict how my next day would be, what I would do or not do. There was no routine.

I did some basic reading online, corroborating my hypothesis. Turns out people who have achieved something substantial in life, tend to follow a rigid routine. Contrary to what you’d think, it does not put you into a rut or diminish creativity. Instead, it helps enhance it. How?

Morning routine [Image credit: Muffet, on Flickr]

Social psychologists say, routine gives us mental freedom to think about what is actually important. Routinizing mundane tasks makes for increased efficiency as it means you are now free to concentrate on getting other things done. It helps you plan better by letting you focus on impending deadlines rather than the everyday small stuff. It is an exercise for the mind and helps build drive to accomplish other things.

There are other benefits to routine. Routine means you to hold onto specific certainties in an otherwise uncertain world, simplifying it for you. If you are living with someone, routines are a way to communicate and build a bond. Like asking the other person what they want to eat — everyday, or helping them with their tie / folding up sleeves, or the daily evening catch up chat or just simply, watching TV together.

Creating a routine can be difficult — but once you overcome the initial laziness, stop giving into the impulse for a more ‘exciting’ life, the power of routine will make its presence felt.