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Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >In defence of monotony

There is a part of me that argues this is perhaps a phase I am going through. But I have gotten anal about having a routine. The disparaging may call it a monotonous existence. Be that as it may, defend it I must. Because as things are, I see an upside to routine that I hadn’t until a little over a year ago.

By way of perspective, allow me to point you to a piece that had appeared in Mint as part of this series last year. I had described there in some detail how I measure pretty much everything I do, including my levels of happiness on any given day. The idea comes from the you-cannot-manage-what-you-cannot-measure school of thought. If that doesn’t sound horribly monotonous, what does?

Sure, it is monotonous. But if you were to think about it as a set of accountability metrics, things begin to take a different spin. And these metrics begin to fall into place only if a set routine exists.

As I write this piece, for instance, I know of the 153-odd hours logged on my laptop since the beginning of this year; 67% were logged on tasks I’d define as highly productive. But I missed my stated goal on how I ought to invest in learning. A consolation is that until now I have managed to stay away from distractions pretty much all the time. Just in case you are wondering how I know this, it is because I use a tool called Rescue Time to keep track.

I suspect people close to me think me loony. I got away with arguing that all of these exercises ought to be part of any thinking individual’s staple. That said, I couldn’t quite begin to put a finger on my obsession until recently, when I stumbled on some pointers to maintaining a routine in a lovely article by Sarah Green of the Harvard Business Review.

“I was fascinated by the recent book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Author Mason Currey examines the schedules of 161 painters, writers, composers, as well as philosophers, scientists and other exceptional thinkers," she wrote. “As I read, I became convinced that for these geniuses, a routine was more than a luxury—it was essential to their work. As Currey puts it, ‘A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods’, I began to notice several common elements in the lives of the healthier geniuses (the ones who relied more on discipline than on, say, booze and Benzedrine) that allowed them to pursue the luxury of a productivity-enhancing routine."

I am not suggesting here that I am a remarkable individual by any yardstick. But I suspect I am more productive than most people I know. Green reinforces this when I place my behaviour in a manual of sorts that she outlines to describe what comprises strict routines.

1. A distraction-free workplace

2. Daily exercise

3. Accountability metrics

4. A supportive partner

5. A limited social life

Allow me to begin with my workplace. I maintain two. The primary one is my room at home, where I do most of my writing, thinking and brainstorming with the self. By now, everybody who lives there, including my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, knows they ought not to utter as much as a peep when I am locked in that space.

On days when it isn’t possible, for practical reasons, like when I need to share time with colleagues and accommodate formal meetings, a rented apartment close to where I live does the job.

In that space too, a sacred room with a small verandah exists where any one of us at the organization we work for has access to privacy. That includes the latitude to take a nap as well, because we maintain a well-furnished bedroom. It’s the kind of office tucked away in a corner of the world that is, for all practical purposes, free of all distractions.

That exercise is mandatory is now obvious to me. It is something I had written about in this series a couple of weeks ago. More on that endeavour will follow when I have something of consequence to report.

Suffice to say, after having been at it for this long, it is still painful on certain days to wake up at 4.30am, brace for what lies ahead, lace up those shoes, and head out to practice when I’d much rather be in bed. Oftentimes, when I am pounding the road, I ask, why am I doing this to myself?

At times like these, I take solace from Haruki Murakami’s memoir on running and writing What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you’ll expand the limits of what you’re able to do. Almost imperceptibly you’ll make the bar rise. This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner’s physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee the results will come."

I hold Murakami’s advice close. I can slowly but surely see my mileage increase every week even as I up the physical stress.

Talking of partners and a limited social life, I can’t imagine people as different as my wife and I are. She’s outgoing, gregarious, loves good company, is extroverted, religious, open-minded and forgiving. I, on the other hand, can’t stand being around people for too long; introversion comes naturally to me, as does a militant form of atheism; and I possess a horribly insular demeanour and am unforgiving.

Between our chalk and cheese personalities, a routine has set in over the years. She has come to accept as a fact of life that I will not accompany her anywhere—whether the occasion be a large family gathering or something as intimate as dinner at one of her friends’ places. I, on the other hand, expect her to give in to all of my demanding quirks—a function of the obsessive-compulsive personality disorder I was diagnosed with.

This means the tiniest of things can upset me. The order of clothes in my cupboard, for instance; or getting me the brand, fit and colour of T-shirts I like to wear. In the regular scheme of things, an adult as old as me ought to handle all of this. However, the fact is that I can’t. And I refuse to. I’d much rather she does all of this for me. If she doesn’t, I can go horribly foul and, chances are, will stop functioning to the extent where I won’t even be able to hit the keyboard and write a few lines.

It comes in the way of our social lives as well. I have a limited circle of friends to whom I talk. I mean it when I say I can count them on my fingers. Guests at home are usually unwanted.

On the rare occasion when I have made concessions that her friends come over, I leave to be someplace quiet. If she were to as much as ask me if I can hang around, a fuss and a fight is inevitable. But heck, my routine demands quiet and the missus has accommodated all of it, thus far. When we heckle each other on this count, she calls me an old and monotonous man set in his routine.

I look at it differently. Two things fascinate me: the creative process and writing. Everything else is a distraction. I need to expend all of my energies on these tasks. In following routine, I don’t need to think. I only follow what has been cast in stone. What I cannot handle is taken care of by the wife who I trust blindly. So, every ounce of energy can go into fuelling ideas for my new venture; and when I am not at it, on writing.

Is this the best way to be? I know it certainly isn’t. But I know of no other way that suits me right now either. Currey sums it up nicely. “...Scott Fitzgerald, whose early writing was crammed in around the strict schedule he followed as a young military officer. Those days were not as fabled as the gin-soaked nights in Paris that came later, but they were much more productive—and no doubt easier on his liver. Being forced to follow the ruts of someone else’s routine may grate, but they do make it easier to stay on the path.

“That of course is what a routine really is—the path we take through our day. Whether we break that trail ourselves or follow the path blazed by our constraints, perhaps what’s most important is that we keep walking."

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, a digitally-led media and learning platform for entrepreneurs. He tweets on @c_assisi

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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