Many of us are fascinated by routine — whether it’s making fun of a celebrity’s, well, ambitious schedule, or curating ours to maximise our time, there’s an entire sub-section of media devoted to detailing how “successful” people organise their days (in fact, those routines partially inspired Lifehacker’s Wake Up Week).
These glances into the lives of others can be illuminating, but they’re also incomplete. No one, even Marky Mark, spends each day in the same, productive way, nor should they. Your days vary because life is unpredictable. It’s perfectly fine to have (and want) a routine in place, but trying to hack together one based on what productivity experts advise isn’t likely to work for most people.
We often mock these insane schedules, but we wouldn’t be talking about them if there weren’t some underlying suspicion that having a strict routine is what we should be doing in order to be successful, to become these people we find inspiring. Having a jam-packed day has become a substitute for living a fulfilling life.
If you’re struggling to get your stuff done, and finding yourself alternately antsy, distracted, and tired, then try out this alternate approach to scheduling. Writer and podcaster David Kadavy organizes his tasks based on their mental load, separating high-level creative tasks like idea generation from less taxing ones like research, and more mundane ones like administration. Kadavy’s Medium post describes six kinds of mental work and how he arranges them in his weekly schedule.
Asking Different Questions
But jumping from one task to another precisely scheduled task isn’t necessarily going to turn us into whoever it is we want to be. Which is something writer Austin Kleon often talks about:
“What do you want your days to look like?” is a question I ask myself whenever I’m trying to make a decision about what to do next. In fact, I believe that most questions about what to do with one’s life can be replaced by this question.
What career should I choose? Should I go back to school? Where should I live? Should I get married? Should I have kids? Should I get a dog? Should I take up the piano?
“What do you want your days to look like?” forces you to imagine the day in, day out realities that making such choices will present you with.
In this case, Kleon’s point isn’t that hacking your routine is bad, but that considering what your ideal day is can help you figure out life’s larger questions. But it also suggests, to me, that there’s a better way to live than the one we’ve been conditioned to accept.
In a different post, Kleon quotes director Paul Thomas Anderson marveling at the fact that he gets to read books in the middle of the day for work:
I still have trouble reading a book during the day because it somehow feels indulging… You know, like oh, my – this is so naughty. I’m actually reading at 10 o’clock in the morning. I think it’s just your upbringing – something about like you got to go to work, and you’ve got to – and move on. And still even – this is how I make my living. I still feel guilty. 10 o’clock, I mean – and it’s – but I’ve sunken into the pleasure of it – to think, my God, I’ve got my life in a way where I can read a book in the middle of the day.
Here Anderson is detailing that internal struggle between what we think we should be doing, and what we’d prefer to be doing. It feels wrong to read — to have the luxury of time spent not producing something — and yet if many of us were to think about our ideal day, wouldn’t we spend it the same way? Why then do we think we need to reserve it only for special occasions?
There is certainly an amount of privilege here—many, if not most, of us don’t have the ability to spend our days how we’d choose to. But all of this is, in part, why my recent morning routine shake-up felt like a bigger change than simply setting back your day by one hour would first appear. I realised that I really didn’t want (or need) to spend my life rushing from one task to the next with no time to stop and, quite literally, have a cup of coffee. So I took some pressure off of my mornings. You might find that you enjoy waking up early and getting a head start on your tasks and activities for the day. And all of that is OK.
How to Structure Your Days
What isn’t OK is the guilt and shame associated with not being able to maximise every minute and become the same sort of “successful” person we’re emulating. Do you really want to spend your days structured into half-hour segments of ruthless efficiency? Where exactly is that leading you? Or, would you rather spend your days a different way?
What it boils down to, I think, is asking why we’re doing the things that we’re doing, about being more mindful about, well, being mindful. Are you training for a half-marathon because you actually want to run it, or because it symbolises some sort of box on a checklist you think you need to cross off? Are you getting into work early and staying after your boss leaves because you really enjoy it, or because you think it will get you brownie points? What’s the end game here?
If you truly want more out of your days, then hacking your schedule is one way to do that—other times, it’s OK to skip the cryo chamber recovery and read a book instead.