It’s Not About Routine, but About Practice
You don’t need to wake up at 5 a.m. every day, but you do need some building blocks for your life
In a world where everything is uncertain, where things are changing quickly, where chaos reigns, what we need is simple.
We need practices.
I’m not talking about routines. Although daily routines are important and many of us rely on them, the truth is that routines are fragile. Hasn’t this pandemic shown that? You’re no longer taking your kids to school, commuting to the office, or going to your favorite gym at your favorite time. All the parts of your routine that were triggered by those actions have shifted, like tectonic plates after an earthquake.
Practices are different. Practices are things you do regularly — perhaps daily, perhaps not — but in no particular order. They are things you return to, time and time again, to center yourself. To reset. To reconnect. To focus.
Waking up every day at 6 a.m. and watching the news while you have your coffee? That’s part of a routine. Prayer or meditation? A practice. Going to the 9 a.m. CrossFit class is a routine. Exercising regularly is a practice.
The difference is in the flexibility: One can be ruined by something as simple as hitting the snooze button one too many times or getting called into work unexpectedly. The other can adapt accordingly. One is about daily rhythm, while the other is a lifelong pursuit. One is something you made up, the other is something you do.
On studying the routines of creative people, Austin Kleon writes, “It’s a wild collage of human behavior. Reading about the habits of writers alone is like visiting a human zoo.” Some artists like the quiet before everyone else wakes up, while others like the quiet after everyone has gone to sleep. Some treat their work as a 9-to-5, while others put in hours like shift workers. Some break up their days with a nap, others with a run. No two routines are the same.
And yet the key practices are nearly universal:
- quiet moments of reflection
- taking walks
Winston Churchill is a great example of how a good life should have both routines and practices. When at Chartwell, his estate, he liked to wake up at the same time and do the same things each day, especially when he was writing. There was the time he took his afternoon nap, the time he poured his first drink, the time he took his bath. That was part of the routine.
But the bedrock practices — reading history and poetry, painting, bricklaying — these things transcended the day. They were lifelong pursuits. They were things he turned to regardless of whether a war was breaking out or his depression was creeping back into view.
When we talk about stillness, we don’t mean the absence of activity. In fact, what we are referring to are activities that create stillness while the world is spinning out of control. In The Method of Zen, Eugen Herrigal writes about Buddhists who calmly meditated through a terrible earthquake. That’s what practice can give us.
There is not a lot of good that can come out of a pandemic, but one thing we can do with this time is to use it to reset and reorganize the building blocks of our days and lives. Because in a world filled with despair and chaos, what we need is hope and dependability. We have the power to create rituals and the moments of peace that ripple out from them.
Your routines have probably been blown apart. Mine, too. It reminds me of what I experienced when I had kids. As much as I would like for parenting to be simple and controllable, it isn’t. I had to work to loosen my grip on the routines I’ve built over time and focus more on practices that don’t depend on my ability to do the same thing every day in a precise way to be “successful.”
Wherever I am, whatever is going on, what I know is that I am able to make time to journal, to exercise, to walk, to write. The order can change, but the activities remain the same. I have rules, too. For instance, no touching the phone for one hour after I wake up. I don’t watch television news. I’m only reachable through three channels. I never put more than three things on my calendar per day if I can help it. I fast for 16 hours. I don’t buy Wi-Fi on planes. I always carry a book with me. And if I am unable to do these things or if the rules are violated, my productivity and my mental health suffer.
The Stoics said we are what we repeatedly do — when or how we manage to squeeze our practices in is less important than our religious commitment to their continued existence. Maybe your kids are home with you. Maybe your work is shift-based and you don’t know your schedule for next week. Maybe everything is uncertain. It doesn’t matter. Routine might be out of reach, but practices never are.