How can I get myself into a routine?

If I vacuum the house on the same day every week, will that give me a feeling of order?

Published October 30, 2009 12:27AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Over the past 18 months my life has been seriously upheaved. My husband left abruptly; I terminated a pregnancy with a man who later tried to dump me via text message; and I carried on a deep emotional affair with my (married) best friend. I have slogged through many hard days and smiled through many tears. I've been cited by the city for not mowing my grass and I ran my first 5K race. I have written many letters I will never send and I have placed many late-night calls and I have been so lucky to have friends and family who pick up the phone. I have a long way to go but I'm proud of what I've accomplished ... And the yard looks a whole lot better.

My question is this: I crave a routine. I have never really had one. There was no daily routine in my parents' house. My husband and I both had hectic work schedules and I was never able to fully establish one there. I still work 9 to 5 and have a part-time job trying to rebuild savings lost from the dissolution of my marriage.

I want to wake up at a certain time and vacuum on a certain day and treat myself to a latte on a certain day ... I want to feel a sort of continuity in my life that I am lacking. I know that the easy answer is to just "do" it. Just start a routine. Keep it up for 21 days until it becomes a habit. But I haven't been successful with that. Do you have any advice or resources for me to kick-start the tedium that I so desire?

Yoda says "There is no try"

Dear Yoda Says,

I wanted to get some control over how I was using my time. First, I had to find out where my time was going. So I got a weekly calendar and made a few photocopies, and then began recording what I was doing at 15-minute intervals throughout each day.

Making a time map had unexpected benefits. In writing down what I was doing from one interval to the next, I became aware of time. I saw the patterns, which allowed me to schedule, but something else happened, too.

I began to feel differently about time. In the same way that if we sit and become conscious of our breath, we are taken to a point of stillness in the body, so if we become conscious of time, we can find a still point in the medium of time, in its flow; we can feel whether it is flowing around us, like water in a river, or whether we are floating in it, moving at the same speed, or whether, perhaps, it is not moving at all. I found that time is not moving at all.

As we think about time, we first find that what we are thinking about is not actually time but our measurement of time. Our idea of time is a readout from a measuring machine. That is what we call time: our measuring of it. It is not time itself, any more than a spoon is the sugar that it holds.

As we jot down on our time map the activities that fill our day, we become aware of the minutes, and find something behind them, a stillness, a point rather than a line. We encounter the moment, which is not a highway we are traveling along but a point of light around which everything else is swirling.

We find that time itself is not moving. What is moving is our machine of measurement.

We squeeze time out through our machines, and administer to ourselves measured doses. But do we taste the time itself?

That is what we are after: We want to taste time, we want to catch it and savor it like honey; we want to catch it like lightning bugs in a bottle and bring it inside where it will delight us as night falls.

OK, as to the practical, there are two very good books about time.  I am too disorganized to find them and in too much of a hurry to look for them. But I know they exist. I have seen them and read them.

They are "Time Management From the Inside Out" by Julie Morgenstern and "The Lifelong Activist" by Hillary Rettig. I will now disclose a huge conflict of interest as regards the Rettig book: I plan to host Hillary Rettig in my home in January so she can conduct a two-day workshop on overcoming writers block and avoiding procrastination. This relationship represents a conflict of interest that perhaps should be paralyzing and yet about which I feel curiously blasé. I don't know why that is. Perhaps I trust you to make up your own mind. I think she has a good thing and want to support what she does. Write to her at if you are interested in her workshop. (I have no relationship with Julie Morgenstern; I just found her book useful.)

Oh, and one more thing, which comes with another conflict-of-interest tag: my personal creativity coach, Martha Zlatar, recommends that if you want a routine, name your days. You can have Money Wednesday, Scheduling Tuesday, Vacuuming Thursday, that sort of thing. Give it a try.

And now, a word about anxiety:

When I am anxious, I find it hard to become organized and hard to schedule. I will move from one task to the next, and not find time to sit still in one place and organize my activities.

Creating order in time and in space are related.

Anxiety is not just a problem or symptom. It is a method, a way of accomplishing what we want. What do we want? We want to not be aware of something. Pain, often. Or fear. To stop and sit and be honest and say, I feel abandoned, I feel bereft, I feel fear.

So anxious behavior, chaos, disorganization, these can be ways of avoiding unpleasant truth or unpleasant tasks, such as opening the mail and paying the bills, or returning phone calls. It can be a way of keeping the world at bay.

 Then as we try to change, we throw things into disarray.

Organizing time and organizing objects are related.

Organizing objects brings with it a dread like the dread of death itself. Disorganized objects represent waste and unconsciousness. They are often entombed in boxes in dark rooms. Meanwhile, the sun is shining and one could be out enjoying an ice cream cone.

Somewhere people are laughing in a cafe. But I am looking in a cardboard box for a tax file from 1987. As I look for the tax file, I find a solitary button in a cellophane wrapper and try to decide whether to keep the button, and if so, whether to leave it in the box of tax files or whether to find a new place for the button, and if so, where that place would be, and then I examine the button, noting its deep brown color and then I see that it is broken, and I wonder, Well, this button is broken, and yet the package is not opened, what shall I do?

Thusly are the hours of our days flushed down the toilet. Thusly do we feel the crushing, deathly weight of meaninglessness. Thusly do we abandon forthwith any such project of getting organized. We go out into the sunshine and it is still beautiful. We sit in a cafe and laugh. We come home and there are still boxes on the floor. We sit among them and weep and curse the gods.

I suspect I am not alone in this.

Thus we seek to simply become aware of the qualities of time, and the qualities of space, and try to live in this world as it is.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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