We’re living in a Golden Age of Aspirational Routines.
I remember reading a morning routine a few years ago by—who else?—a wellness influencer, who packed more in the hours between 5-8am than I’ve done during a 7-day retreat. There was a long meditation involved, a card-pulling ceremony to set an intention of the day, at least three pages of journaling, food prepping, yoga, front-porch-juice-drinking-and-contemplating, and who knows what else I’m forgetting: daily letter-writing to her inner child? A sunrise hike?
It was too unattainable to make me feel bad about myself; we were just so clearly totally different species when it came to our daybreak capabilities. But reading about others’ routines through the years have set me into an anxious spiral of retroactive regret: Instead of inspiring me toward future growth, reading about other people’s routines makes me question, "How many books would I have written by now if I just swapped coffee for celery juice? Would I be completely rid of my insecurities if I only set an intention on my balcony every day?" and so forth.
Every interview I read with every artist or writer asked a question devoted to routine, and every artist or writer offered a flawless answer. They’d sing the praises of a routine, often citing that they need to reserve brain space for creativity. Like Obama’s commitment to a blue or grey suit, streamlining his day so he can budget focus for more important matters, artists and writers glorified a routine as a tool to keep their minds open and breezy and hospitable to ideas.
I’ve certainly tried to cultivate an impeccable, fabulous, all-encompassing morning routine. Why exactly? As a sort of status symbol? As a way to become the person I’ve always wanted to be—the type of person who, I don’t know, goes out in the forest and plants a tree every morning? As something to talk about at a cocktail party that would represent a composite of everything I value? “Per my morning routine, you’ll see that I’m a grateful, spiritual, interesting, loving, self-reflective person who has magnificently evolved past the use of a phone.”
It took me a long time to realize why a routine wasn't sticking for me...because I thought I must be the problem.
What I didn’t realize about routines is this: It wasn’t that I wasn't disciplined enough to follow one. What I’m bad at is forcing a routine that I don't actually like very much. I didn’t keep in mind that we often get into a routine totally organically—we repeatedly do the things we like to do because they feel good. I forgot that a routine should, uh, make sense for my life.
For instance, writing is a physical activity for me. I have to be totally alert, comfortable, and energetic in order to create--period. So, introducing a routine of Morning Pages, though a brilliant concept, ended up frustrating me. I thought I just must be lacking some essential writer gene, but in fact I just can't write when I'm half-asleep. Some can! I can't! No thank you!
With all of the elaborate routines I’ve tried, I was always coercing a ritual into my day that didn’t want to be there—not at that time, not at that frequency. If I’m actively resenting a gratitude list, for instance, then it’s probably not benefitting me. If drinking a cup of hot water with lemon first thing in the morning makes me feel sick, that's not a winning way to start the day.
Everything I’ve learned about routine, I’ve learned from my very dear friend Madeleine Dore, whom I met when she interviewed me about, yes, my routine! There is nothing I admire more in a person than their willingness to grow and change their minds, and I adore that Madeleine devoted years to observing the routines of creatives, to ultimately discover that a routine doesn’t always allow for the beautifully fluid aspects of life that make life juicy in the first place: changes in body, changes in location, changes in season, drifts in priorities, tugs in different directions, drops in energy, surges of inspiration, growth in one area, neglect of another, rises in emotion, increase in needs, dampening of spirit, floods of joy.
As Madeleine said on her recent podcast episode about the inevitability of changes in routine, "While we live in a linear society, with linear schedules, and linear expectations about careers, our time, our emotions, our bodies...we are not linear. We do not move through our days in straight lines. We wobble, tilt, and shift in cycles and patterns."
How liberating to remember that we are animals and not iPads! Such the ever-changing, sensitive little critters that we are, we can't do the same thing every single day without fail! I don't need to commit to a three-hour morning routine after all!
Madeleine notes that we will all inevitably wobble--I bet even the wellness influencer skips a page of journaling some days--so may we instead invite a tilting to our hours, leaning toward that which nudges and pulls us deeper into our days, allowing for randomness and chaos and maybe a different lunch once in a while.
But where does that leave me, someone who wants to weave some semblance of a pattern through my days?
I find comfort in monotony, and always liked having a stable office job where there was a nice structure to my hours and some free spaces to fill them in. I thought of my office days like a piano melody: one hand keeping the rhythm and melody, the other hand improvising and adding pizzazz.
Alack, that's not my reality now. The nature of my work at the moment is that I struggle to find any right hand melody. Depending on what I’m working on, my days will naturally look and feel very different: not only a new melody every day, but often a totally different instrument or new genre.
With no melody in sight, I'm embracing the surprise and mess of my work, rather than attempting to keep confining it. This is not a time in my life for routines.
To introduce another metaphor: While I admire a manicured garden, my days right now are more of a wildflower field--and there's no sense in trying to instill order around seeds scattered by the wind. The poppies will grow where they may, unorganized and inconvenient, and also stunning and colorful.
As I've written about, I’ve found solace in committing to ritual rather than routine, which feels more liberating as it punctuates my day with purpose, not obligation. I've set up my rituals to give my hours some oomph, and it's never a big deal if I miss a day or seven.
My rituals will look very different from month to month, as my energy darts around on a line graph charting big bursts and dramatic dips. I'm also a person with ever-changing priorities (often based on the latest podcast episode I listened to), so sometimes I'm far more interested in solitude than socializing, and vice versa. I've had seasons where my rituals made me feel more spirit than human, and seasons where I needed to ground myself in practicality.
Here are rituals I am committed to in this season:
A Sunday Routine: Okay so I know this…contradicts everything I just said…but I consider my Sunday routine a ritual because it’s not a series of actions; it’s a series of purposeful customs to encourage contemplation, devotion, and rest. Those are the priorities. I begin by commuting to church, and after the service I notice where my feet take me: most often to a coffee shop to work (but restful work, to align with my Sabbath), and then later to a bar for a coupe of champagne and my journal. I prepare for my week ahead with groceries, laundry, and ice cream in bed.
Noticed List: I wrote about my Noticed List here, and I’m committed to writing it every day. Whether it happens in the morning, evening, or middle of the night when I jolt awake because I can’t believe I forgot to actively notice all day, I feel a difference when I do it. I feel a difference when I don’t.
I’ve found that the Silk & Sonder journals make this really easy: I put my Noticed List in the spaces allotted for each day (rather than use it as a planner), and I also record other details from my day in the food journal and habit tracker—which I use for joyful purposes (like recording the most delicious thing I ate all day, or how many times I said “I love you” during the week).
Weekly Anchors: Since my days can feel like unruly boats adrift at sea (how many metaphors can I pack in this newsletter??), I like having 'anchors,' which are the grounding moments I know will happen in a week no matter what. Whenever I set goals, I try to create an anchor for it. Like, I want to get better at Spanish this year --> meet with a conversation partner a couple times a week. I love going to restaurants and want to try more --> Go to a restaurant every Friday. Whether they always happen or not, having a recurring calendar item feels centering for someone like me: an artist/writer who sometimes wishes she had an office job.
If you're interested in reading more about routines (or embracing the lack thereof!), do give yourself a most wonderful New Year gift, and pre-order Madeleine Dore's spectacular book, I Didn't Do The Thing Today: Letting Go Of Productivity! I was lucky enough to read it already and Madeleine's insights quite literally changed my life (because they changed my days), but I've also pre-ordered myself a copy so I can have this wise and enthusing companion with me to begin my 2022.
I will probably never have a routine to speak of, so I hope that we will soon enter a Golden Age of something else besides Aspirational Routines: an age of noticing, following, enriching, enjoying, being, letting, ritualizing, anchoring.