Intersections of Creativity and Productivity: Routine

I’ve written about productivity before on this blog and all three links in this sentence will open up new tabs to past posts. As someone with attention and focus issues, I’m always looking for ways to stay organized and on task. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you probably noticed that I’ve been bulletjournaling since May. I’ve been meaning to do a post on that, but then I had a lot of thoughts, and so many feelings, so here we are.

This is going to be a four-part productivity and creativity series of posts. I’ll post once a day over four business days. Don’t look for a particular strategy there: I’m away at a book festival this weekend and I want to be around to talk about these things with you all. It’s purely selfish. I typed that “shellfish” at first. Do you see what I mean about attention and focus issues?

The first post was about productivity loops, how to watch for them, and how to get out of them without denying yourself the truest pleasure of diving into productivity blackholes (while reading about productivity…this blog series *might* be exactly what I’m warning against). The second post is about routines, and how I set a routine as a writer with a demanding full-time dayjob and mental health issues. The third post will be sharing some other resources for whom these posts aren’t working. And the fourth post (Monday) will be about bullet journaling and how I use it as a Person and as a Writer.

Because we all know Writers aren’t People. We are Cylons, sitting amongst you, eavesdropping and stealing bits of your life and dialogue. Now you know.

Just kidding.

Welcome to Part Two.

Routines

Today I was reading a blog about morning routines (I love this blog and I do think it’s interesting and helpful, but I try to read on my lunch break and not when I’m supposed to be doing other stuff). I learned two things from my read today:

  1. There are actual people in the world who have had the same morning routine for 14 straight years and the thought actually turned my stomach
  2. I don’t want or need routine in when I perform tasks as much as I need, crave, want routine inside of the task itself.

These were lightbulb moments for me. I knew that I liked routine because I am a creature of habit, through and through. I almost never alter what I order at a favorite restaurant, I get the same Starbucks drink every day, I use the same bathroom stall at work, I walk in the same pattern through Barnes and Noble, etc. I would make a bad spy and an easy target. I am a highly predictable person.

(I realize that the statement “I would make a bad spy and an easy target” is such a writer thing to say.)

The reason why routine works for a lot of people is it trains the brain to expect a certain task and to wring as much productivity or as best of a performance out of that time as possible. It’s the brain’s version of muscle memory. You hear writers talk about this Training the Brain or Brain Muscle Memory concept a lot, especially when talking about sitting down at the same time every day.

But I hadn’t expected such a visceral reaction to fourteen years of doing the same thing. And that’s when the above realizations from that blog post hit me. I like routine within a task itself, but the overall routine of my day can flux, and must flux.

Here’s why: If my daily routines become too structured, my brain becomes fixated on that instead of the task. This is likely a by-product of OCD and anxiety, but regardless of the cause, it remains an immutable fact of my neurochemistry. My days must be structured enough to provide me guidance and knowledge of what’s to come, but flexible enough to handle change. If my days aren’t flexible and something goes wrong, the inability to do the task at the intended time prevents me from doing the task at all.

My days end up structured to some extent by happenstance. I work a dayjob. This requires me to leave the house by 8:15 AM at the absolute latest, and means I get home at about 5:15 PM depending on traffic. I prefer to write in the mornings or during the day and edit at night, but I don’t always have that luxury and I’m a terrible person at mornings, so I sometimes make do with words I write at night.

But because my routine is about how I get my writing done, and not about when, I have that choice. Some mornings I can get up early and get my words done, especially if I get my lazy butt out of the door and go to a coffee shop first. Other times, I write at night. Sometimes I get to write over my lunch break.

What do I mean by my routine within my task or how I get my writing done? I use SelfControl, the app that blocks everything on the internet, Forest for my phone, and I need headphones with or without music. All that matters is my ears are covered (when I’ve forgotten headphones for some reason, headbands also work, so I keep one in the glove compartment of my car.)

Some people need the time routine. They need to write at the same time every day the same way they go to their dayjobs every day, or maybe that’s because they’re lucky enough to be writing full time. For some people, that works. And I get it. I’m sure it WOULD work for me in terms of productivity…but only as long as it ran smoothly forever. And maybe most people’s lives run smoothly. But mine doesn’t, whether it be an external obligation or an internal issue like mental health, so I am learning to allow for that.

There are other ways to build routine into a task and create that same muscle memory, even if you don’t sit down and write at the same time every day. Don’t despair. Don’t not write because you can’t write every day or your best productivity hours are 11am-2pm and you happen to work a 9-5 dayjob. Just find other ways to train your brain. A certain song, or working at a coffee shop, or an exercise before you start writing. There’s always something to produce a similar result. A routine within the task, instead of a routine of the task.

Tweet me and share your routines, or leave a comment below! I hope you’re enjoying this series.

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