The Joy & Opportunity Of Dropping A Routine

Who cares? If the answer isn’t, “I care about this thing, and I care about it a lot,” why are you doing it?

by Madeleine Aggeler
Originally Published: 
You can find a lot of joy and opportunity in letting go of rigid routines.
Yaroslav Danylchenko/Stocksy

A list, in no particular order, of the routines I have adopted and discarded in the past three months alone: morning kickboxing classes; afternoon Pilates; meal prepping on Sundays; parting my hair on the right; parting my hair on the left; going on three dates a week; going on no dates a week; intermittent fasting; morning meditation; evening meditation; using the Pomodoro technique; only checking social media in the morning; only checking social media at night; moisturizing twice a day; and foam rolling myself into physical and mental oblivion every night while I watch old seasons of Love Island.

Some of these routines lasted a couple of months; some barely survived a couple of days. “Well, no wonder they didn’t work,” you might say. “Haven’t you heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit? Or maybe it was 66. Was it 200? Whatever, the point is, you’re clearly not giving these things enough of a shot to allow them a chance to become real routines.” A great point well made, if not fully researched. To which I would say: Who cares?

Really. Who cares? It’s a question I don’t think we ask ourselves enough in the process of designing our lives. It sounds pat and dismissive, but it is probably one of the most important inquiries we can make. If the answer isn’t, “I care about this thing, actually, and I care about it a lot,” why are you doing it?

There is already so much we have to do every day — piercing alarms we have to set so we can make it to all of the interminable meetings we have to attend, tedious work we need to complete so we can pay our never-ending bills, thrice-daily walks we have to take our dogs on because we love and adore them and also they haven’t yet learned to pee in the toilet when it’s raining. All of this stuff takes up so much space and time in our lives, there’s really no need to fill our remaining moments of freedom trying desperately to incorporate juicing into your day because you think you maybe read an article one time about Jennifer Aniston doing it.

Admittedly, this laissez-faire attitude has not always been my approach. A psychic once told me she sensed that I was too inflexible in my routines, a comment I found grating because it came half an hour after I had planned for our session to end and I was late for my usual afternoon snack of peanut butter on toast. I used to think a routine was a secret, magical formula, and that only one correct version for me existed. Once I finally cracked the code, I figured, I would become my best self — a perfect, beautiful, calm, successful, and unflappable version of myself who would stay perfect, beautiful, calm, successful and unflappable forevermore because she had figured out her Routine and she never strayed from it ever again.

What I really wanted this Routine to provide — besides beauty, success, and calm — was certainty. I clung to the belief that if I planned my day just so, I could control how it unfolded. And yet — and I truly apologize here for for using the phrase “if the past two years have taught us anything...” — if the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that everything can change in an instant, control is an illusion, and we have to seize whatever opportunities we have for joy and connection. Time spent doing dreary stuff you don’t really care about that you don’t even need to do is time wasted.

This is not a sweeping indictment of routines. I have many I care about deeply. Some are relatively new, some I haven’t broken for decades. I say a prayer in my head every night before bed. I spend time every Sunday afternoon calling friends and family who live far away from me. I take my dog to the dog park every evening after work so she can run and play and I can gossip with my neighbors. I do my elaborate nightly skin care regimen even though I think most of the serums and creams and elixirs do nothing at all, but I like the meditative quality of it. These routines are easy to keep because I enjoy them and they keep me connected to myself and the people I love, or whoever happens to show up at the dog park that day.

Increasingly, I’ve seen my daily routine not just as a way to create structure, but a space in which to experiment and figure out which habits and behaviors will make my life the easiest and/or the most enjoyable. Maybe I will try out a hobby or a beauty regimen that does, in fact, completely change how I structure my days and my life. More likely, though, I’ll try out something for a while, get bored of it, and discard it like all the other abandoned routines. And how lucky it is when that happens, because it means I have more space in my life to welcome in something I actually enjoy.

I’m training for a half marathon right now, and the process has reshaped my routine. I have a rigid training and cross-training schedule, I read running blogs, I consume vast amounts of vanilla flavored protein powder. A lot of the process doesn’t technically feel good, and yet I want it so much and it brings me so much joy that I’m happy to put up with the leg-melting long runs and occasional blisters. Will I want to keep up a running routine after I complete the race? I don’t know yet. I’ll have to ask myself at that point: Who cares?

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