Creature of habit

I’m proud to be a creature of habit. This has taken me a long time to come to terms with. For most of my life, I wanted to be the fun-loving, free-spirited girl known for her spontaneity. Call in sick to work and go sky diving? I’m in! Adopt a puppy on the way home from dinner? Absolutely! As much as I wanted to be that girl, though, it just wasn’t me. Looking back, this should have been clear from the diaries I kept as a kid. In them are pages of daily, minute-by-minute schedules that include activities like “Play with Barbies” and “Water fight with neighbors”. Apparently, these things can easily slip your mind when you’re seven.

I wanted to be spontaneous because spontaneity is sexy and fun. Spontaneity is like that friend you had in college who was the life of the party, never stressed about studying, and quit her summer job the day before it started to hop on a plane to Europe. Routines, on the other hand, are more like your boring cousin who refused to run after the ice cream truck with you because he was saving his spending money, kept a spreadsheet of his comic book collection, and always picked the same movie when it was his turn to choose.

And yet…routines make me happy. They are the touchpoints in my day. In our era of maximum distraction, they help me to locate myself in a bigger, undefined block of time to understand what I should be doing in that moment. They help me move from one activity to the next with a sense of purpose. In this way, routines can feel like a spiritual practice. Even small things, like setting out everything my son needs for school the night before, take on meaning when I think about the intention behind them—in this case the ability to stay focused on him and the precious hour we have together before work and school, rather than running around tracking down shoes, jackets, and snacks.

As sparkly and enticing as spontaneity is, it’s routines that have gotten me through the hard times in my life. I have learned that when life is upended, the best thing is to do the next thing you would normally do. Go to work. Go to the gym. Cook dinner. Read your kids a bedtime story. I promise there will be time in between these activities to figure everything else out. For me, the real problem comes when there is no “normal” day and thus no script to follow. If that’s the case, there is nothing to keep me from spinning wildly into the future like a satellite that’s been knocked out of orbit.

Routine is also the reason my marriage works, because marriage is all about managing expectations. For my husband and me, many of our routines happened naturally because they are things we enjoy. Sushi on Friday nights because we’re tired and it’s a treat at the end of a long week. Scheduling one of our vacations to the same place every year because the familiarity relaxes us. Others happened out of necessity. After our son was born, I spent a lot of time scorekeeping; tallying up the hours I spent “on duty” versus my husband. If I’d spent the last two mornings getting the baby up and ready for daycare, I simply expected that the next day he’d do it. Things would then inevitably implode as we both scrambled to get out the door to work, each one thinking the other was in charge. So, to the extent possible the routine is now that I’m in charge of mornings and he’s in charge of evenings. Likewise, on the weekends we were both getting to Sunday night feeling short on patience and frustrated that we hadn’t had any time to ourselves. So, now my husband in charge on Saturday mornings, I’m charge in the afternoon, and Sunday is family day.

Our life doesn’t always work that way, of course. There are days when all order goes out the window because someone is sick, it’s a special occasion, or it’s full moon and the Toddler Planet is in retrograde. That, though, is the beauty of routines. They can be fluid. Within them there is room for spur-of-the-moment decisions and (gasp!) fun. That, my friends, is the secret it took me so long to learn: That I don’t have to be either that crazy college friend (because she ends up broke and living in someone’s basement) or the boring cousin (who ends up too set in his ways to ever have a meaningful relationship). I can love my routines and love ditching them on the days when they’re not serving me.

So, while maybe I’ll miss out on some spur-of-the-moment bungee jumping, I’m fine with that. Because, at the end of the day my habits make me happy. I’m carefree because I have a plan. And you can pry my calendar out of my cold, dead hands.

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