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  How Much Time?
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  Free Time
> Routine
  Urgent vs. Important


For most people, most of the time, having a routine isn't something that requires thinking about. We grow up in school, where we have to be in certain classes at certain times, and we end up at work, where, again, we pretty much have to be there at certain times. There are intervals that are less structured—weekends, vacations (notably summer vacations), and perhaps college, depending on one's attitude about going to class—but then there's no need and no desire for routine.

However, it is possible to find yourself in a situation in which you have so much unstructured time that you begin to think about imposing a routine on yourself. You might be working intermittently, as I am now, or out of work; or you might be retired, which is similar but not quite the same. Or, you might be in academia. I got a taste of that when I was in graduate school; it certainly would have been helpful to me then if I'd had a better understanding of the value of routine.

If you've never been in such a situation, you may find it hard to imagine that it's possible to have too much unstructured time. I doubt I can explain what it feels like, but I'll give it a try anyway. So, imagine that you have some things you want or need to do, but also that you have all the time in the world, so that nothing is urgent, nothing needs to be done today. And, sure, every day you think about the things, and maybe work on them a little here and there, but somehow in the end nothing gets done. Time passes, and all you can do is thrash around.

Having a routine, I claim, is a way to get around that. Don't take my word for it, though—I wouldn't. If you find yourself with a lot of free time, by all means enjoy yourself and thrash around for a while. All I'm trying to do here is help you recognize what's going on more quickly than I did, and give you some ideas as to what you can do about it.

Now I'm going to tell you all about my current routine. It's not perfect, of course, but it's the best that I've come up with after years of trial and error.

There is one central fact on which the whole thing depends: I've never been able to impose arbitrary rules on myself. I can accept an arbitrary rule imposed by an external authority, like an employer requiring me to start work at 9 AM, but if I try to impose the exact same rule on myself, within a week I'll be thinking, “screw that, I'm sleeping in”.

So, for me, there has to be a reason for every aspect of the routine. Many of the reasons, or “design points” if you like, are explained in Free Time, so you might want to read that to see how everything fits together. Also, please remember that my reasons are specific to me. Unlike many people, for example, I like to work in the morning. So, if you want to set up a routine, you need to understand what works for you, and figure out a routine that provides it.

So, anyway, here's what my current routine looks like. Note that I didn't say it was a harsh routine, and that even so, I don't always follow it. Far from it! In fact, I'd say half the fun of having a routine comes from breaking it.

8 AMGet up, wash, have breakfast. Don't read the paper or anything else, just eat and become more awake.
9 AMWork on the current project. Sometimes, I'll become enthusiastic, or just be in the middle of something, and will end up working until 1 or 2 PM. That is good.
noonHave lunch, do whatever I want. I get sleepy after lunch, so I'll often take a short nap in the afternoon. That fits right in with the next step.
4 PMDo other productive things. If I want to do creative work, that's fine, but it's equally useful to do mindless things like washing the dishes and taking out the trash. The point is to take care of things that if allowed to accumulate would sooner or later weigh on my mind.
6 PMHave dinner, do whatever I want. From here on out, I have to avoid caffeine, otherwise I'll be tossing and turning until 3 AM … and that's no fun.
10 PMCatch up on my journal. That's an essential step because it gets my mind off things.
10:30Do some yoga, or maybe go for a short walk. That gets rid of any physical twitchiness, and so helps me sleep more soundly.
11 PMGo to bed. The goal is to go right to sleep, without thinking about anything at all.

The exact times aren't super-important, but they are important; that took me a long time to realize. If I have a specific time in mind, I can shift it around with no harm done, but if I just have a vague idea that I'll do something “some time”, it often doesn't happen at all.

How does the routine fit in with the calendar week? Well, since everyone else is working during the week, I can't get anyone to come out and play with me, so I figure I might as well work during the week too. So, that's what I do … follow the routine on weekdays, and take the weekends off. And, like everyone else, I move the part of the routine that falls on Friday night onto Sunday night instead. In other words, although the routine seems to enclose a day, in fact what it really encloses is a night.

The last component of the routine is that there are a couple of rules that apply to the “do whatever I want” parts of the day, and tell me what not to do.

In general, negative rules don't work very well, because, like the rule “don't think about pink elephants”, they keep reminding you of the very thing you're trying to avoid. If you want to postpone eating a lollipop, the correct solution is not to stare at it and think, “I mustn't eat this”, but to put it away and go do something else. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to figure out any way to cast these rules into positive form. So, although they don't work very well, they're the best I have.

The problem is, there are some compulsive behaviors that it's very easy for me to get caught up in. The examples I have on hand fall into three categories.

  • Checking. Email is a good example of this. I'm not permanently connected to the internet, so I don't receive email notifications; I have to actually dial up and check for it. And, if I get in the “right” frame of mind, I can end up doing stupid things like checking for email every five minutes … because, you know, there could be new email.

    By the way, I don't think receiving notifications would be an improvement. They would just interrupt, and distract me from whatever else I was doing.

    I run into the same problem with weblogs, and with any other kind of web site that gets updated frequently and unpredictably. That, in turn, is similar to the problem I have with newspapers, which is that I like to read them cover to cover to see what's new in the world, even though in practice not much is new.

  • Watching. Television is the perfect example of this. It's so easy to sit and watch whatever random garbage comes on, without really absorbing anything from it! Fortunately, I'm safe from television, since I don't have cable or satellite.

    By the way, television also leads to checking. You must know how that goes … surely there must be something good on somewhere! And then, by the time you've flipped through all the channels, it's fifteen minutes or half an hour later, and new shows will be coming on in just a few minutes.

    Even though the medium isn't as passive, it's still easy for me to get stuck in the same kind of watching behavior online. I can spend hours looking for interesting new things to read, all without really absorbing anything … but I imagine you're familiar with what that feels like.

  • Playing. I sometimes get caught up in playing simple repetitive games like Minesweeper and FreeCell. Fortunately, that's not a problem right now … believe it or not, a while back I played them both so much that I actually had had enough. Now I can hardly bear to look at them.

Anyway, the point is, because of all that, I've come up with two negative rules. First, no checking email more than once or twice a day, unless I'm expecting a particular and urgent message; second, no surfing except on Wednesdays and weekends. (Why Wednesdays? Because “no surfing except on weekends” turned out to be too stringent, and Wednesday is in the middle of the week.) And, of course, neither is allowed until after I'm done with the morning's work.

In the second rule, it's important to distinguish between looking things up online, which has a goal, and is allowed, and surfing (checking or watching), which does not, and is not.


  See Also

  Free Time
  Monthly Tasks
  Physical Awareness

@ September (2004)