Annie Dillard once said, ‘a schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labour with both hands at sections of time.’
Yet it seems so many of us make it through our days without such nets. When I invite people to be interviewed for Extraordinary Routines, roughly 70% of people will reply with some iteration of the cry, “BUT I DON’T HAVE A ROUTINE!”
It’s a comforting admission – given I have the same feeling about my own shambolic schedule – but it also speaks to an idea that perhaps it’s possible to remain productive and engaged throughout our days without the scaffolding of a routine. It could be possible that for some of us, the net of a routine fits with ease, and for others, we simply become entangled by our attempts or hopes to have a routine.
Why do some people take easily to routine, and others don’t?
Despite my best efforts, experiments, and interviews on the topic, attempting to build a steady daily routine feels akin to building a Jenga tower only to see it crash over and over. Nothing seems to hold strong.
For whatever reason, routines may not be for everyone. The reason may be difficult to determine. For journalist and author Oliver Burkeman, there is an interesting psychoanalytical question we can ask ourselves: what emotional purpose is being served by your style of managing daily tasks?
“I could imagine for somebody who has an absolute horror of being constrained, a sense of routine or commitment doing the same thing every day would be intolerable – you would want to rebel against it to assert your freedom,” says Burkeman.
On the other hand, routine can help meet other emotional purposes – for better or for worse, he explains. “In my case, for whatever reason, I really want to feel like I am in control of my time and that I am doing my best, being good and dutiful – and what is that about? That goes way back no doubt!”
The futility of constantly striving for routine
I have a penchant for coming up with new schemes and plots for my daily routine – setting out fresh pages of notes with timetables and designated blocks of time for specific tasks. I also have a penchant for never sticking to such schemes!
In other words, if there were a scale that depicted having a routine versus having no routine, I’d be somewhere off to the side in the category of “constantly beating myself up for not having one.”
Burkeman can relate but reveals that he has eased up on himself quite a bit. “Once you have tried to impose a regime on yourself for the hundredth time and it hasn't worked, you start to think maybe the problem is not that I failed to follow the regime, but that I’m too obsessed with trying to impose a regime in the first instance.”
When we glorify routine and constantly strive, plot and plan our perfect lives for the future, what we are really doing is setting ourselves up for failure.
Instead of beating ourselves up for not sticking to a routine, Burkeman suggests asking ourselves what it is we are scared of if we were to just do what we felt like doing at a given moment.
For illustrator Marc Martin, he embraces the flexibility inherent in a creative freelancer’s schedule rather than striving for a fixed routine.
“One of the greatest things about freelancing is being able to make my own rules – I don’t like the idea of having to be at the same place at exactly the same time every day just because somebody said so! Being flexible with times and routines helps me feel in control of my life – if I want to work from home in the morning, or come into the studio later, I’ll do that too.”
Read more: A day in the life of Marc Martin
Flexibility could be the key to managing our daily whims and distractions.
We will evitable ‘bunk off’ during our days
Another reason we fail to stick to our ‘perfect’ routine is that we don’t account for daydreaming or ‘bunking off’ in our schedule.
“The thing that disappoints me about myself in this experience is that I apparently still have some need to spend at least some time every day bunking off,” admits Burkeman. “I don't mean bunking off like taking a lovely, healthy walk in the park. I mean staring at Twitter or something I don't consider very useful.”
Writer Jocelyn K. Glei recommends building white space into your schedule such as napping, walking, letting your mind wander, meditating and more.
“We need white space in our daily lives just as much as we need it in our designs because the concept carries over: If our lives are over-cluttered and over-booked, we can’t focus properly on anything. What’s more, this way of working actually shrinks our ability to think creatively.”
Sometimes we will have a routine, sometimes we won’t
As a co-founder of the start-up Working Not Working, at times Justin Gignac feels like he is flying by the seat of his pants.
“I’m a little scattered, I’m a little distracted. I need to create a better routine to find focus, but have yet to do it in a way that is working for me.”
It’s during these busy periods – when a routine could provide some kind of scaffolding for our daily lives – that we often abandon it.
Previously Gignac knew he worked best a night and wasn't much of a morning person. “I worked at the times I was most productive, but now I feel like there is too much work to be able to do that.”
Gignac wants to debunk the busyness trap. “Maybe there isn’t too much work. Maybe there is this illusion that there is so much to get done, but really I need to get better at prioritizing and delegating rather than feeling like I need to do everything.”
Until he finds a rhythm that suits his current work, he is working on appreciating where he's at now, rather than fixating on everything he didn’t accomplish on a given day or daydreaming about a future with a perfect set of routines.
“There is always going to be something else to do today, so sometimes you've just got to say, 'okay I’ll do it tomorrow because I don’t want to be a slave to my inbox and my to-do list.' Both are like an avalanche and you can always be behind.”
Every day is different
We will also have parts of our lives or work process that have built-in routines, but other parts that don’t.
As artist Del Kathryn Barton says, "It is all a bit contradictory in a way, but I think the working life has to be – I'm a dogged hard-worker, but my work also has to have an elasticity to it."
Read more: A day in the life of Del Kathryn Barton
For Frankie Ratford of The Design Kids who travels around the world, breakfast is the only constant each day: “My main problem with my routine is my lack of one – I feel like every day is starting from scratch – where am I staying, eating, showering, washing my clothes, working from?”
Read more: A day in the life of Frankie Ratford
Often, it’s our flaws that are the most reoccurring elements in our days, and that’s okay. As musician Ella Hooper reassures us, “I'm not set in my ways, I welcome change to my routine, but I do have some things that I do every day – and they are mainly my foibles.”
Read more: A day in the life of Ella Hooper
We can sometimes have a routine, sometimes not. We can have some constants and some changes. We can have periods of flux. We can have moments where we wish we meditated more or exercised every day. We can bunk off and we can feel too busy. We can try to build a net for catching our days, but also know that life will sometimes feel more like a trembling tower of Jenga.
Tips to master everyday life when you don’t have a daily routine
1. Start small: build pockets of routine into your day
While the glorification of routine may be unwarranted, there is something to be said for setting aside small blocks of time in your day to enable your creative practice to flourish.
Having a baby has thrown Oliver Burkeman’s system of dividing up the day into different chunks of tasks – he may not have always stuck to that vision in the past, but it was there.
Now, it’s a matter of sticking to one block of dedicated writing time each day. “Now, from about eight-thirty or nine to about twelve-thirty every single morning will be my sacrosanct writing time. It's only 3.5 to 4 hours and it’s not the only work I do, but that will be the part of the day that I move heaven and earth to write.”
“The point is to hold just a very few hours each day as close to completely ring-fenced as I can, not because it is enough to continue my career, but it is a very big difference in terms of actually writing."
Founder of Kester Black Anna Ross also sets aside quiet working time by rising at 5am. “It’s taken a while for me to find my rhythm, but it works so well. I have three hours in the morning completely to myself and I can do whatever I want.”
Read more: A day in the life of Anna Ross
2. Notice how ambition influences your daily outlook
Much like endless streams of emails and to-do lists, ambition itself can create an avalanche of dissatisfaction with ourselves and our days, explains Justin Gignac.
“With constant ambition, you've never made it. A lot of the time there is this idea that I’ll be happy when I achieve this goal or that, but you finish each day unsatisfied.”
Daily reminders – not routines – can help keep dissatisfaction in check. “I’ve been trying to be grateful for what I have and what happens on any given day."
He continues. “Having gratitude for where I’m at right now distracts me from my usual habit to be focused on ambition and goals. They are good to have, but they shouldn’t be blinders to what we have today.”
3. Be okay with being higgledy-piggledy
When it comes to her routine, designer Jenny Kee prioritises her health and spiritual practice, but the rest is ‘higgledy-piggledy’.
“For the rest of the week, I don’t have a routine, except either walking or swimming. I have a severe dysfunction in my sacrum, so if I don't stretch my body every day I'd be crippled and my back would seize up. I'm higgledy-piggledy, but that's how I am. I like my day to be a bit free. When I stopped the shop and the strict routine that went with it, I just started drifting and letting life just come to me. I'm nearly 70 and I don't think it's going to change!”
Read more: A day in the life of Jenny Kee
4. Buy a hammock
Noticing that he had little room in his routine to relax, Gignac has recently been laying in his newly-bought hammock each night after work.
“I light a couple of candles and then I just lay in the hammock and don’t do anything and it's amazing,” he says.
He can already see how his daily hammock routine is helping him to see the bigger picture in his business.
“Giving my brain that space is so crucial and has helped me to learn to survey the whole field, not just the thing that is directly in front of me.”
5. Accept that some habits or routines aren’t for you
It’s easy to compare our lives to others and think if only we could wake up at 5am like Anna Ross, we too could run a successful, ethical manicure and skincare brand!
But such comparison is not only the thief of joy, it’s futile.
Helping to give the rest of us permission, founder of Jacky Winter, Jeremy Wortsman admits he will never master his morning. “My whole morning routine is something I have been struggling with my entire life. It’s the one area I have no control over because I just love sleeping so much.”
Read more: A day in the life of Jeremy Wortsman
Not every habit or routine fits everyone human being – we will have different strengths, preferences, body clocks, energy levels, talents, and interests. It’s what makes anyone’s routine extraordinary – it’s their own!