In our culture that places productivity on a pedestal, an optimised routine has been sold as the salve to all kinds of dilemmas. Lost your job? Stick to your routine. Experiencing anxiety, depression, or grief? Find a routine. Living through a pandemic? Get a new routine.
Sometimes we do need the support of a schedule. Routines are beneficial – they appear solid, they promise order, they seem reliable. They can be comforting, providing a sense of certainty and control in a world that offers neither. For some, a routine is crucial to reduce decision fatigue and simply get through the day, but for others the constant vigilance is exhausting.
In our pursuit of improvement, we are often told that if we could just be more consistent, more disciplined, more productive, we could be better. But a perfectly optimised routine is rarely the grand solution it promises to be, precisely because it is so often aspirational.
Like so many in our overactive, overambitious world, I’ve been drawn to the allure of a shiny new routine: I’ve eaten the frog, put butter in my morning coffee, bought the new planner, divided my day into 45-minute blocks. These popular systems can be useful for some, and I’ve found there’s even a juicy pleasure in trying the latest hack. But they can also create another thing to stumble over. Failing to perfectly adhere to a perfect routine is yet another reason to feel overwhelmed, burnt out, and inadequate.
My penchant for trying to perfect my routine – and the resulting shame I felt for perpetually failing – led me to interview hundreds of people about how they construct their days. I spent more than five years speaking to successful people about their daily routines for my blog, Extraordinary Routines, and my podcast, Routines and Ruts. What I soon realised from sifting through so many peoples’ routines was there is no one routine that fits all.
Not only do our days vary; we vary within them. We all get 24 hours, but they are not available for each of us in the same way: we may work nine-to-five, care for young children, pile one gig upon another, have a longer commute, or have the flexibility of freelancing.
Obsessing over productivity can mean ignoring the variances in our circumstances – be it our health, financial position, or responsibilities. We can’t expect to recreate the same recipe when we don’t have the same ingredients.
In my hopeless search for the perfect routine, I found a new hope: what if I could accept the inevitable variances in myself, and each day? Speaking with fashion designer Jenny Kee crystallised for me that it’s OK to be “higgledy-piggledy”. Recovering from a back injury and adrenal fatigue, she told me she needed to spend the majority of her week without a routine, in order to be open to the pendulum swing her health might create. “I’m higgledy-piggledy, but that’s how I am. I like my day to be a bit free. I’m nearly 70 and I don’t think it’s going to change.”
Interestingly, when I stopped trying to negate the ebb and flow of a day, I found myself more engaged, even more – perish the thought – productive. But perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. Often when we accept ourselves, and forgive our various foibles, we are better placed to turn our attention to what can be done, instead of guilt-spiralling over what hasn’t been.
Speaking to the milliner Richard Nylon, I learned that it’s possible to shrug it off when things don’t run to schedule: “I know there are people who really thrive off having this done at that hour, and they get annoyed if this or that isn’t happening,” he told me. “Whereas if something doesn’t happen, I just shrug my shoulders and get on with it.” When we recognise there will be inevitable distractions, curveballs, and interruptions, we can be better placed to work with them.
That said, we may still need structures to help us get through the day. While having no set pattern can bring more freedom, it also brings uncertainty. So how do we best set ourselves up to do the things we need to do, without tripping into rigid ideals?
In place of elaborate routines, many people I’ve interviewed create anchors that can be flexible within their days. For example, instead of scheduling every parcel of the day, we can bookend it. When I interviewed writer and critic Kylie Maslen, she told me she has rules and rituals for the evening and morning. “Routines at either end of the day are really important for me and it’s a way of looking after my physical and mental health, but it’s also really important for me to put full stops at the end of the workday.”
Another memorable approach is the “portable routine” of artist and author Austin Kleon. On any given day, he aims to journal, write, read and walk. Those activities don’t follow a particular order, nor do they always happen, but when he does those four things, it’s a good day.
This checklist approach can also help compound momentum. In Kleon’s example, he writes a short blog post each day, which goes into his weekly newsletter. Over time, he starts to notice themes forming, which may develop into a talk, and that talk might become the foundation for a book. One ticked checkbox fuels others, while offering small rewards along the way.
Doing things in the right order does not improve our days – being present to whatever is in them does. Sometimes that means leaving a checkbox unticked; sometimes it means giving yourself permission to do another thing, instead of feeling guilty about the thing you’re not doing. Sometimes it means allowing the day to unfold how it unfolds. Perhaps we can have the routine, the to-do list, but hold it lightly instead of constantly falling short of an aspiration placed on a shonky pedestal.
Besides, do we really want a totally streamlined day? A perfectly ordered and optimised life – the one productivity hacks and listicles promise – would be a rather dull one. Imperfections are inevitable, but they’re also what we can most relate to and learn from in our days.