The Role of Routine

“I will either wake up and get ready for work or get ready for class; that includes showering, coffee - yes, always coffee.  I will usually have my lunch prepared from the night before, but I don’t really eat breakfast; it’s usually just coffee,” UC Berkeley senior Evan Ruiz admits with a guilty chuckle.  

Ruiz’s description of his morning routine is nothing new to many of us returning to hectic days filled with various academic, professional, and social obligations.  As an extremely involved Berkeley student also juggling a full-time job with a PR firm in San Francisco, Ruiz keeps a tight schedule from day to day.  As a Media Studies major, he enjoys the guaranteed time he gets to check social media and browse the internet during his work commute and lunch break.  He also gushes about his obsession with using Google Calendar to preserve his sanity as the app outlines his plans for the day in neat, color-coded squares.  

Ruiz, like many creative greats, stresses the necessity of a fixed routine in finding both professional and personal satisfaction.  But then why, when asked about his feelings toward the concept of routine, did he respond so negatively, admitting that he is “frustrated,” for lack of a better word, by the absence of variety in his daily life?   

We often hear variations on the Steve Jobs narrative that glorifies the entrepreneur who spontaneously drops out of a comfortable collegiate environment to live in a commune and cultivate his creative genius through spiritual enlightenment. As a result, we are left with a fundamental internal dissonance in how we perceive the role of routine.

As Ruiz demonstrates, it’s easy to overlook the paradox of routine: the idea that structure and discipline can actually promote freedom. A harmful consequence of not understanding this paradox is a cynical attitude toward the repetitive nature of routine. This mindset can create a serious barrier to finding fulfillment in daily life and honing the skills about which we are most passionate.   

Mason Currey’s “Daily Rituals” offers a glimpse into the highly regimented lives of artists and thinkers like Haruki Murakami, Maya Angelou, and Charles Darwin. Some of these routines include some notably eccentric activities, as Victor Hugo recorded taking an “ice bath on the roof” from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. everyday, and Beethoven claimed to drink his coffee every morning with “exactly sixty beans per cup.” Regardless of their idiosyncrasies, each schedule demonstrates how these great minds constructed their lives according to their work and followed their regimens to a T.  

An interesting pattern that emerged through observing all of their routines was the relatively small fraction of the day each person spent on “day job/admin” in comparison to “creative work,”  as outlined in Podio’s “The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People.”  “Creative work” included writing, painting, composing, and studying, while “day job/admin” included lecturing, giving music lessons, and writing correspondence.  Perhaps it is simply a difference in mindset that causes us to categorize what these creative greats would call “creative work” as tedious obligations necessary to maintain – or in our case as students, obtain –  a decent livelihood.  Academic writing and studying can easily fall into the trap of being categorized as “admin” if we regard our classes as mundane obligations rather than means by which we can pursue the subjects about which we are most passionate.  

Or perhaps we are so severely limited by our circumstances that our routines, by necessity, consist mostly of “day job/admin,” leaving little or no time for passion projects. Dr. Ann Swidler, a professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, points out that the upper classes maintain the privilege of being able to use money to “routinize” certain practical tasks that socioeconomically disadvantaged groups cannot.  Swidler brings up the issue of the daily commute to work: while a wealthier individual likely has a car they use to get to work, an individual without a car may struggle to maintain a consistent day to day mode of transportation because public transportation and carpool are not always reliable options.  

From this perspective, the upper class, or those with what may be considered more “creative” jobs, actually have a more highly routinized life, whereas disadvantaged classes have to do more improvising on a daily basis to accomplish practical tasks. Those with creative jobs have time in their days carved out specifically for imaginative and experimental work, ultimately reducing their chances of experiencing creative spontaneity altogether. This class-based understanding of the role of routine further complicates the traditional association of routine with a lack of creativity and visa versa.  

If circumstance determines so much, maybe the key to altering our attitudes is accepting that differentiation between the day job and the creative project, and resolving to use the former to our advantage. Structured routine provides us with the temporary distance needed from our passions to ensure that what we produce during our creative hours is the best product possible. Contemporary composer Philip Glass worked as both a taxi driver and furniture mover precisely for this reason, according to Fast Company’s article, “10 Famous Creative Minds That Didn’t Quit Their Day Jobs.” These celebrated figures understood the paradoxical benefits of structure in fostering the creative process. Brain power can only take us so far, and there comes a point when our minds need a relatively stationary prop to lean on to keep us from stretching our minds too thin. A day job can also keep us accountable for our time, motivating us to get up and running when nothing else will.

In the same vein, routine plays a vital role in preserving mental health. Author and depression counselor Douglas Bloch praises routine as an important mechanism for coping with depression and anxiety as it encourages regular socialization. Decision-making is also made easier with a regular routine, giving us the freedom to focus our energy on what we choose rather than experiencing anxiety about tasks that we face daily. Rather than worry about preparing his lunch, Ruiz spends those precious morning minutes planning spontaneous social events for the evening.  Routine both creates opportunities we want and absorbs the tasks we don’t.

If we are always striving for progress and yet remain unfulfilled, perhaps we should reevaluate what we perceive to be our constraint, i.e. routine, and its fundamental role in our idea of progress entirely. In the Netflix documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,”  world-renowned sushi chef and owner of a Japanese three-Michelin-star sushi restaurant, Jiro Ono constructs his daily routine around the art of sushi-making, his life’s calling. In fact, he finds so much pleasure and satisfaction in following this routine that he dislikes holidays because they break him away from it. His two sons followed in his footsteps and became masters of sushi-making as well, but only after lifetimes of intense, highly disciplined training from their father.

In a society like ours that prioritizes individualism so heavily, we don’t often think of maintaining a strict routine as a means of achieving that individuality. We shy away from routine because we want to be unique, but a society characterized by constant competition can easily lead us to romanticize a false conception of progress. We are terrified of plateauing, and yet we let ourselves fall into that exact trap by shying away from the crucial discipline needed to improve. Jiro shows us an alternate path, one that contradicts that of Steve Jobs, in which life-long repetition plays an important part in achieving what he believes to be his life’s goal: to master his craft. Ambition and structured routine are not mutually exclusive, and to treat them as such is short-sighted.  

Japanese culture may be partially responsible for Jiro’s work ethic. According to Dr. Swidler, in Japan, the average person is under much more surveillance in general. “A great deal of Japanese life is organized so that everyone else can see what you’re doing all the time.  So for example, when you sort your garbage for recycling, you sort it in clear, plastic bags, so that if you have not sorted it correctly, your neighbors can come and chastise you.”  As a consequence of this environment, a level of restraint is present in everyday life that Americans would find uncomfortable. And yet it is the environment in which Jiro thrived and from which he emerged as an incredibly unique individual.

Drawing from her experiences in Japan and studies of the area, Swidler also believes that although adult life in Japan tends to be characterized by conformity because of their highly ritualized and routinized lifestyles, the Japanese “are less conformist than Westerners are internally: because there are so many rules for the exterior – about how you’re supposed to look, behave, conduct yourself – there are fewer rules that suggest that your true self is what you are expressing all the time, whereas Americans tend to believe that what you do and how you behave reflects who you really are.” Americans, on the other hand, spend a large amount of time and effort trying to make their inner-selves consistent with their external image and behavior. For example, intense anger is aroused in the American masses when a politician’s actions seem to be inconsistent with their actions in the past, because the inconsistency is attributed to weak character. In other words, the Japanese have an internal freedom that Americans do not. One is left free of the burden that is created when one’s actions are always expected to be spontaneous, voluntary, and reflective of our “true” desires.

On the other hand, Japan is not exempt from the pressures of a global economy.  Institutional responses to their ongoing recession have increased the number of part-time workers and minimized the portion of the workforce with guaranteed lifetime employment.  Those who are not included in this share of the economy must deviate from the norm and find alternate ways of adapting to a shifting economy.  In this way, the pressures of a global economy increasingly encourage individualism and entrepreneurship in all parts of the world.  

In an increasingly globalized society that glorifies creativity and spontaneity, routine gets a bad rap, despite evidence showing its benefits for both long-term success and daily satisfaction.  This disconnect between attitudes about routine and its essential role in everyday life can have disastrous effects: in failing to look past stigmas about the notions of structure and repetition and realize that they are what allow creativity and spontaneity, we run the risk of forgoing that which we glorify the most.  Freedom can be found in accepting the limitations of the present moment and using them to our advantage.  A daily routine can and should be tailored to the individual, so find out what works for you and stick to it.  There is value and significance to routine, even if it begins with a cup of coffee.

Opinion, OtherMieko Anders