Freedom’s Just Another Word for I Don’t Want to Choose

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An unplanned day in Boston thanks to Hurricane Irene and a canceled flight out of Maine. Nothing on the agenda but wherever the day led us.

For at least a couple of years now, I’ve become what I would describe as “routine resistant,” which is probably what the layman would just call undisciplined.

But what does the layman know anyway? Screw that guy.

I have been loud and proud when proclaiming my disdain for having a “regular routine.”

Get up at 6:00 a.m., run, shower, eat breakfast.

At desk by 8:00, done with email and start writing by 8:30.

Lunch at noon.

Work from 1 until 5:30 p.m.

Scheduled errands and chores.

Dinner at 7 p.m.

Read, relax or more writing until 9:30.

In bed by 10.

Sounds great, right? To me, it feels more like prison.

The last time I had a 9-5 office job, I hated the tedium of the morning rush, the same commute, the same office walls, the usual lunch rotation, the same boring meeting, then commute home, dinner, bed, repeat. Whenever I open the calendar app on my phone that I share with my husband, I recoil when I see too many appointments dotting too many days in a row. How are the next three weekends already booked? Ack!

 I think this way even when I see commitments that I will enjoy and happily agreed to. I know what I races I have signed up for several months in advance, but I only plan my workouts a week (or less) in advance to trick myself into not feeling too pinned down or overwhelmed. I don’t generally go to bed, get up or eat meals at the same time every day. On vacation, I never follow a strict schedule, unless I am traveling with someone who doesn’t understand that I don’t follow a strict schedule. Even then, I don’t comply happily.

Maybe not every day—but many days are a blank slate where I can say to myself, Well, Jessica, which items on the “To Do List” will we do today? (I love “To Do Lists.” I have several. Maybe more than several. I might actually have a problem with a long name and a longer definition.)

Don’t misunderstand me: I like to stay busy. I respect responsibilities and deadlines…mostly. I just don’t want to be an ant marching or an automaton going through the motions. I think I am scared that at some point the routine will become so dominant that it will no longer serve me, I will serve it. And eventually, I may not even recognize my life any more. I will lose touch with all sense of intentional living and appreciation for the opportunities offered by the present moment.

Some of my friends might be surprised by this confession because I’m not what anyone would describe as “spontaneous,” and I definitely tend to be a planner. I am just a planner who is also a commitment phobe. I don’t understand either. Life is a mystery.

Anyway, I recently have started to reconsider my hardline stance about routines. A couple of months ago, I read Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, which tackles the question of how can we actually cultivate and keep good habits that work for us? Her approach actually breaks down people into types and offers approaches that work for each identified type. I don’t know that I am completely sold on her ideas. (She would probably classify me as a “Questioner” using the personality types she explains in the book, but that’s a different blog for a different day.)

What I found interesting is that Gretchen Rubin loves routine. I mean, she really seems to adore it. I found this curious, especially because some of her reasons for enjoying routine are the same reasons I loathe it. I didn’t quite understand until I read her discussion about self-control.

She explains that self-control plays a central role in happiness and success, and yet so many people fail at maintaining self-discipline over the long haul even when they know it will lead to more contentment. Her contention is that we each have a limited amount of self-control available, and every choice we have to make—to go to the gym, to eat right, to meet a deadline—taxes our reserves of self-discipline. Once we have worn down our control reserves, we are more likely to make a poor decision and break a good habit.

BUT she has an answer. She believes that we can use our habits and routines to “conserve” our self-control. Because of the repetitive nature of a habit, our routines make good behaviors automatic. And when we do the right thing out of habit without having to stress over making a decision, we conserve our will power—saving it for when we really need it to battle the heavyweight temptations. She states:

“I concluded that the real key to habits is decision making—or, more accurately, the lack of decision making. A habit requires no decision from me, because I’ve already decided. Am I going to brush my teeth when I wake up? Am I going to take this pill? I decide, then I don’t decide; mindfully, then mindlessly. I shouldn’t worry about making healthy choices. I should make one healthy choice, and then stop choosing. This freedom from decision making is crucial, because when I have to decide—which often involves resisting temptation or postponing gratification—I tax my self-control.”

The word that caught my attention was freedom. What has always bugged me about routine is the perceived lack of freedom. I believed the rote nature of habitual living somehow eclipsed free will. But in reality, her description of the burden of self-discipline—when you have to keep making the same choice over and over again—hit a little too close to home.

Some days my wide-open schedule wasn’t a welcome sight. It was a burden. How to prioritize? Do I make time for the gym today? Am I cooking dinner tonight? Which freelance assignment should I start first?

Some days I am frozen into inaction because there are just too many choices. Lately, I have felt dread not freedom, stress not happiness. I have felt my will power eroding under the weight of too many hard choices.

Could my belief that I was giving myself more freedom and living a more intentional life actually be flawed? Was it plain false? I had to acknowledge that my belief and reality weren’t exactly lining up. Maybe there was something redeemable about routine.

So I have decided to come up with a few daily rituals to test drive. I am calling them “rituals” instead of “routines” to trick myself, and to imbue them with a mystical sense of deeper spiritual significance and meaning. We’ll see. I may never be a card-carrying, Gretchen Rubinesque habit follower, but there is definitely room in my life for a little more discipline … and maybe a more grownup definition of freedom. Or at least one that feels a little easier to carry.

2 thoughts on “Freedom’s Just Another Word for I Don’t Want to Choose”

  1. This is something that I struggle with. I want to have more and better routines but I am not in the habit of living that way so it is super hard. I think one key might be accountability. At the same time I don’t want to tell anyone what I’m trying to do so they can’t call me on it if I fail It is a vicious cycle.

    1. I feel ya on that one. I told the FB world that I was going to start with a morning and bedtime routine, and so far, I have failed at both despite accountability. Maybe it’s because I don’t care if I am called out? 😀

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