Why routines rule

It's 8 p.m. right now, which means that Dan and I have finished dinner, cleaned the kitchen, and retreated to our offices.  At 9 p.m. we'll head to the couch to watch a show together--The Good Wife or Revenge on a Monday, Scandal on a Friday or Saturday.  More days than not look the same for us.  We eat dinner at the same time unless we need to stay late for work, we each cook on our assigned nights, we do laundry on weekends and fold the clean clothes in front of the TV.

My eyes practically glaze over when I rehearse our schedule.  I wonder: Is there such thing as too much routine?  Can routine become a hindrance more than a help, suffocating rather than life giving?

Routine is in my blood and my bones.  I am an Episcopalian, after all, part of a tradition that prides itself on its highly structured liturgy, where the philosophy is, if it's not mentioned in the prayer book, we don't need it. During my childhood, my family ate regular dinners together and rearranged our furniture around the same way each year when we chose our Christmas tree.  We ate Krispy Kreme donuts the day before school began and bought the exact same kind of vanilla ice cream every time we went to the grocery store.  Familiarity trumped novelty times a million.

So this routine thing is not something new, but the degree to which I live according to routine may have reached an unprecedented level.  I can name plenty of reasons why routines help us, but I wonder at what point there are diminishing returns.  If routines can

  • reduce the number of decisions we have to make each day
  • allow us to structure our time more effectively (by reducing said decisions and combining errands and similar tasks)
  • relieve our anxiety about unknowns
  • provide us with opportunities to anticipate pleasant parts of the future
  • and, most importantly, give meaning to the chaos of our seemingly random lives,

then, is the reverse extreme not also true?  Routines hold the capacity to

  • render us unable to see choice or decision in our day
  • discourage spontaneity and opportunities for refreshment
  • eliminate mystery and surprise
  • provide us with opportunities to fear and dread unpleasant parts of the future
  • and predetermine the meaning of our lives.

It's a thought experiment, overstated for effect, but it raises questions worth asking.  I will not explore those questions here because right now, I simply want to revel in the healing power of routine.

The amount of change Dan and I have experienced in the past five years--deaths of loved ones, deployment, major moves, new jobs, renovations, major illnesses striking important people in our lives--has made routine all the more essential.  Our homes, our cities, our careers, and our families, nearly every one of our sources of stability, may change, but there are some things we can always count on, rituals which tether us to one another and keep us from floating away into a world of complete randomness and chaos. 

The Google Calendar-synced grocery list, for me, is not simply about habit or time management or healthy living goals, although I suppose it is all those things.  It is sacred.  It is as sacred as the prayers we read on Sunday at church or the "I love you" my family says before hanging up the phone. 

Emily Rowell Brown