Spontaneity is a terrifying word. Not only did it take me forty-seven keystrokes to finally spell it correctly, but my writing of the word was enough to give me the chills. Whenever that five-syllable monster—or its equally evil cousin, Spontaneous—appears, I shut my eyes, cower in fear, and repeat my own Hail Mary.
Routine. Routine. Routine.
It’s long been lauded as a good thing, but no matter how much I open my mind or stray from my routines, I can’t seem to adopt the way of spontaneity in my life. I fear this may be a bad thing, that I’ve dug myself so deep into a comfortable trench of routinization that I may be missing out on some of life’s greatest joys. The joy to adapt, the joy to grow, be malleable, change.
I develop routines in all new situations into which I’m thrown. In these new situations—jobs, places to live, schools—I find myself very anxious. Everything is new, every experience is different and felt for the first time, the result of every action is opaque or entirely unknown. It is, to me, a scary place to live: a world of uncertainty.
I’ve tried grounding techniques to cope. I’ve taken note of all the spaces in the room, itemizing everything around me. I’ve wiggled my toes and driven my heels into the ground. I’ve run my tongue around my mouth. I’ve taken deep, meditated breaths. I’ve resorted to micro-attacks of self-harm and pinched various parts of my body. But I’ve found the only technique that allows me to live as my unadulterated self, not an over-thinking mass of energy, is routine. When I know what to expect, which routine allows, I feel most at ease.
Here’s my Monday through Friday routine: I’m the first person in the office every day. I set my things down at my desk, fire up my computer, sign in, bring my lunch to the fridge, start grinding coffee beans, use the bathroom, put the coffee on once the beans are done grinding, and return to my desk, at which point my coworkers have started showing up. Nobody sees that early routine, but it happens every day.
What is seen, however, is my daily routine that follows. I time my cups of coffee and bottles of water (two cups of coffee by 9:15, then I transition to water, which is also timed accordingly but I won’t bore you with that). I drift over to our office candy bowl at 9:45 every morning and eat a mini Take 5 bar. I put in sticks of gum at the same time every day. I eat lunch at 11:30. Lunch is the same thing every day: a spinach salad with chicken. At 2:30 I find my way to the candy bowl again, and then the break room to pour a cup of afternoon coffee. Almost every minute of every day is planned. And, unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for others to notice. When one day a coworker lightly pointed it out, others chimed in and said how they’d noticed it for a while, too. I was embarrassed at first; it felt like my secret defense had been exposed and destroyed. Then feeling the pressure of an undivided jury, I had no choice but to admit to my neurotic routine.
At the end of my admission, I said, “Wasn’t it W.H. Auden who said, ‘Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.’ I’m not intelligent, but at least I have the routine part down.” (This Auden quote is forever emblazoned in my memory. When I first read it, I thought I was reading gospel.)
None of them had heard of W.H. Auden, nor did they dispute my claim of lacking intelligence. The conclusion by my coworkers was that I was not as compos mentis as I’d seemed, and I needed to lighten up a little. I couldn’t disagree with either of those.
In fact, it was at this job that I realized my rigorous routine following had perhaps devolved into something troubling. I had a coworker who came in every day at 8:18AM (one thing about being a devoted practitioner of the religion of routine is you pick up on others’ routines, sometimes without their knowing that they have a routine in the first place). She was a talkative type, to put it lightly. She came in every morning at 8:18 firing away with chatter. No time to settle in or establish yourself for the day; she was ready to talk about anything and everything.
This drove me crazy. I neurotically checked the clock every morning and prepared for her arrival. I knew that at 8:18 she was going to beep through the front doors and badger me with conversation. The most unsettling thing about this seemingly inconsequential anecdote, however, happened after this coworker left for another job. The first day she didn’t come through the doors at 8:18, I felt antsy. I found that although I bemoaned her talkativeness it had become a part of my routine. It was what I did at 8:18: I reluctantly listened. It took weeks of her absence to erase it from my daily routine. It was then I realized my daily routine had reached unconscious levels.
My routines go beyond the standard rinse, repeat cycle, too. I develop micro, one-time-use routines when the situation calls for it. If my friends and I plan on going to dinner and then the bars on a night out, I look ahead at the restaurant’s menu, find what I’m going to order, envision myself ordering, envision myself eating, scout out the local spots, see what bars we’ll hit, get a full understanding of everything that will happen in the night. I create a mini routine. It comforts me; I know what to expect. This is all true until the spontaneous nature of the smartphone comes into play and plans change. Somebody can’t make it, somebody wants to eat somewhere else. Plans change and everybody seems to adapt. But not me. The whole imaginative routine I created crumbles to the destructive blow of the group chat.
I try my best to keep cool and go with the improvisational flow, but I become fretful and start trying to plan the night anew. My friends have picked up on this and they’ve become annoyed. They tell me to relax, to be more open. What I want to tell them is that I was relaxed, and I was open—open to follow the routine I had concocted in my mind. I feel like a crazy person, and I’m the most pathetic kind: a self-aware one.
I don’t know when I developed this obsessive tendency. It seems that it may have been inculcated in me at a young age with the routinized schedules of school and extracurriculars. I always knew what day and time I had math class, English class, history class; what day and time I had baseball practice, offseason workouts. Everything was scheduled and I followed it, and it gave things a sense of order and meaning.
We’re stripped of routines as we grow older. We no longer need to report to Economics class every Monday through Friday right after the lunch bell rings; we no longer need to be at practice at the end of the school day; when we reach retirement we no longer need to report to work every day. Our freedom grows, and with it our routines dissolve like sugar in water.
It’s Friday evening as I write this. An old friend is in town and I spoke to him on the phone earlier. He told me he’d text me tonight and let me know where he is so I can meet him and catch up; we haven’t seen each other in almost two years. I was anxious when he told me this on the phone. I didn’t like the idea of not knowing how my night would go. I’ve run through a dozen different scenarios of tonight in my head, made myself mini routines. None of them may be correct. It looks to be a night of capital S Spontaneity—a terrifying word, still, but this time I cut down on the keystrokes.
Riley Winchester is from Michigan. His essays and stories have appeared in a number of journals.