Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ode to the Comfort and Stability of Routine

A man with black top hat escaping the waters

Routine is often maligned and assigned with a number of negative epithets and labels, such as boring, repetitive, or it may be simply seen and designated as a waste of time and energy. Many people shun the admittedly duller aspects of routine and try to escape their quotidian life by going on vacation, by changing jobs and schedules, or by outright moving abroad for a couple of months or even years.

But I believe many overlook the intrinsic value of routine. In fact, to begin with most of us have various routine expectations for the day. We usually expect to get to work and see the front door or gate open and to meet and greet our coworkers or clients at our respective workplace.

When we arrive and there is no one there, that usually will make us feel anxious and may fill our heads with wild speculations, such as perhaps having missed the latest daylight saving time adjustment, or getting our holidays mixed up, or worse, finding out that the company, unbeknownst to us, has gone bankrupt overnight.

Routine can suddenly be broken in other negative ways. We may wake up with the flu unable to do much (except lying in bed and drinking hot tea) for the duration of the day. When we feel so terrible, we would much prefer to go to work and have routine return with a vengeance. Or we may get stuck, in an elevator, traffic, or public transport (have your pick).

Recently, I had a very unexpected turn against my own routine, one that bound my hands and feet and made it impossible for me to get anything done at work. As a teacher I have come to understand the value of my voice; as pretty much anything, we do not realize these things until we end up losing them.

So after my massive voice loss, I could not make myself heard. This came again as a surprise and shock and I am still trying to recover the voice I had (rest assured it is back for the most part at least). In the meantime, I see people speaking and laughing at full volume, which they take for granted of course, while I continue to feel envious of those who can speak loud and clear. I cannot wait for my routine to kick in again with my regular voice levels.

When the hands of routine are running the show, everything is as expected. People are where they are supposed to be and they are doing what they are supposed to be doing while the whole day is seen as a normal day. Sure, there will be occasional unexpected glitches, a locked door here or there to which we lack a key, a photocopier that jams or a computer that does not turn on or spouts unintelligible code. Those events break the routine, and more often than not, they increase our stress levels.

We can conclude that routine is the opposite of the unexpected, to have voice versus not having one or to wake up with a very hoarse voice. To me routine comes rather naturally; it is the normal state of things. My body, like the machine it is (no disrespect meant here) thrives on routine: I wake up at the same time in the morning (alas even on weekends!), have the same breakfast (I sometimes switch up my coffee brands), and I take the same bus in the morning, which means I more often than not run into familiar faces (bus driver, passengers, panhandlers, newspaper distributors, Jehovah's witnesses).

I do not talk to them (I used to but have lost interest in it especially in the mornings and it is not due to or related with my voice loss) but I welcome their presence and worry if I do not see them in their usual spot at the usual time (there is an elderly homeless person I have not seen for a while and this worries me). I like it that my work schedule has found its steady rhythm and that the curriculum is generally the same (occasional tweaks and adjustments aside).

When I arrive at my workplace (half an hour early), I know exactly what to do. I greet the secretary (when she is at her desk) and chat with my boss (when he is at my campus), make my photocopies for the day and head to the classroom.

The photocopier tends to jam in the mornings, but that has happened so often by now that I know the remedy and am very quick at fixing it (similar to a pit-stop I can generally handle the minor issues under thirty seconds!). My life, all in all, could follow a similar pace, at least in terms of routine, to Kant's who liked to follow a very tight schedule. But that's pretty much as far as the analogy goes.

I know that some hate routine because it bores them. Those people often may end up choosing jobs that defy routine, such as medical staff in the ER department, police officers or fire fighters. For those jobs, the unexpected is their call for action, whereas routine is equated with idleness. But even they expect their equipment to work, be it medical equipment at the hospital or the fire hose or gun to quell sudden bursts of emergencies.

So it is not routine itself, but our perception and reaction to it that is negative. Routine has many good and often not perceived qualities. The occasional challenge is welcome and fruitful, but if it becomes a constant then that can be rather stressful. Routine can be the comfort and stability that we crave sometimes. For example, we usually go to our favorite restaurant and order our favorite dishes because we do not want to be disappointed by taking risks.

In its more extreme form, those who travel abroad may avoid the local food and find solace in known and trusted, albeit unhealthy, fast food chains. It is not so much because of ignorance but simply because in a strange and unfamiliar place, it feels soothing and comforting to spot a known logo.

In fact, most of our lives comes down to routine tasks. We pay bills, check our emails, post on facebook, do our shopping and the laundry. The list of chores and daily actions and habits is endless. And after decades and decades of it, one day, it is our time to retire.

Many look forward to that day, but when it comes they become desperate. What is one supposed to do, especially if one has lived a long life of steady routine, of working to earn a living. How can one suddenly turn a switch and start enjoying a carefree and idle life?

And what would happen after a while, when the new lifestyle becomes just another case of a different type of routine? Best to treat routine as a friend (whom we occasionally and respectfully avoid so they do not become bothersome) or as a life-long companion and not as our sworn enemy or nemesis.


Vincent said...

A fine piece and an important topic. Indeed most of our lives is routine, and when one retires (I've been retired about seven years now) the chance may come to hone that routine into something that suits one perfectly.

I think the negative connotations of routine arise from their being thrust upon us. The worst aspect of my working life was the commuting. Never was it within walking distance. The routine of driving, developed over fifty years, means I can jump in a car and go without thinking about it, but actually I don't like it at all, and now my routine mostly obviates driving at all as I walk everywhere. In the States, I imagine, you would have to be very poor or very privileged to routinely walk everywhere.

And while it is true that some people like to work in ER (which we call A&E (accident & emergency), those who do must develop their own personal routines to cope with it. And over here, under the NHS, few doctors like to work in A&E: you don't develop an ongoing relationship with your patient. they have to recruit from far afield and still there is a crisis in the excess of demand over supply, especially in winter.

My younger son, who manages a pub, had the idea (after he dropped out of his psychology course at university) of joining the Fire Service or the Police - because he hated the thought of a desk job and the sense of routine which that evokes. Now as he is more senior he finds it monotonous to manage the staff and customers, so well does he know how to do it. But this is because of course he has established an efficient routine. His boredom results from instinctive ambition.

And finally I would observe that a large part of religious observance lies in routine, though they call it ritual or liturgy. Part of its attraction (says Vincent the non-believer and non practiser) is to leave you free, whilst practising the increasingly well-known rituals, to think of nothing at all, to empty yourself of worldly concerns, and thus free your soul to merge with the eternal and infinite.

Don't you think that routine can be another name for mastery?

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thanks for your observations, Vincent! To start with an answer to your question, I would say no, I do not think routine can be fully equated with mastery.

The reason for this is that mastery to me is generally related and connected to passion, which is, of course, the opposite of boredom, the latter being a general reaction to routine. For example, a tennis or hockey pro or even blogger may define and label their repeated exercise and output not as routine but as practice, which, as the saying goes, makes perfect.

From an outside perspective, it may look the same, but psychologically they are different. If you drive for say almost fifty years, you will become an efficient and competent driver, but you did not master it; it came part and parcel of something imposed, namely as a routine task.

On the issue of rituals, I must say, you are spot on though. Routine or rather its repetitive nature ends up dulling the mind, it becomes second nature or automatic and one is less aware of its implications.

Finally, I also am not much of a driver either and prefer to walk. Here in Canada I can get around generally fine with my feet and the public transit. And I rather enjoy public transit as one can read, meditate, or watch people, which overall makes the routine a kind of pleasant break from work.