Using routine the right way

Like seasons - recurring, yet beautiful

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the info I read recently about how making breakfast can make you more creative,  and I’ve realized that this approach has been helping me a great deal. I’ve been breaking up my established routines more, lately, and I think it’s been helping me learn better ways of dealing with my life in general, coming up with more creative solutions, and generally improving my performance at work.

I have to say, looking back at my job choices and performance in the years after my last TBI, I was nowhere near the level I should have been at. And my job choices showed it, too. I went from being a senior consultant type of person, to being a “plug and chug” person who could barely handle the most elemental of tasks. And a lot of them I didn’t handle. I just muddled through and hoped people wouldn’t notice that I was screwing up. And then I would take off when things got to be unsustainable and I was pretty sure everything was going to catch up with me, and they’d figure out that I was pretty impaired.

God, when I think back, I was just a WRECK at work. I just wasn’t doing a very good job at all. WTF?!

TBI, that’s WTF. One hell of a TBI.

It took me years to get back to a place where I was even capable of building myself back up. It took me years to stop screwing myself over and digging myself deeper and deeper holes I couldn’t climb out of.

But even after getting back on my feet again and “normalizing” to where I wasn’t shooting myself in the foot every other day… looking back at the last 18 months I’ve been at this job, there are so many things that I was tasked with doing that I just didn’t “get” how to do. It’s embarrassing to think about it now, looking back. Things like sending certain kinds of emails to people, performing certain tasks that I have been doing for years and years, and generally managing my workflow. It’s been a bit haphazard and chaotic, I’m embarrassed to say. And I’m not sure why they’ve tolerated that level of performance in me… unless they figured that I was still on a learning curve…

Wow. That’s a pretty long learning curve. And yet, they keep me around… I guess I must be doing something right.

Anyway, I’m really doing so much better than I have been before, and I think I know why that might be.

Basically, it’s because I have developed routines in my life. From the first moments that I wake up in the morning, to my preparation for going out into the day, to my schedule at work, to what I do in the evenings… and the weekends, too… I have a routine I follow. It probably sounds boring and uber-disciplined, but it has been my saving grace. By establishing what I’m going to do each day, and doing it the same way each day, I have “offloaded” the burden of having to re-think everything I do, and I have more time and energy to think about things that matter more to me — like better ways to do my job, better ways to live my life. I have more energy to repair the damage from before, because I’m not having to figure out what I’m going to have for breakfast each day… how to dress for work… what route to take to work… etc.

The time and energy I save on not having to re-think my breakfast each morning, is time and energy I have for thinking about my day and planning things I’m going to do. The time and energy I save on having a routine for my morning prep for work is time and energy I have for thinking through what I need to get accomplished and forming a picture in my mind of how to go about doing what I need to do.

Getting rid of all the hashing through minute details frees me up to actually have some depth of thought and consideration, so while I may look like I’m on autopilot, I’m actually able to think more in-depth about what I’m doing and experience it, not just “git ‘er done”.

So, my routines have helped me tremendously. They’ve also helped reduce the amount of stress in my life. Having to re-think everything constantly takes a lot of energy and it can become quite stressful, which put me into a constant fight-flight state of mind/body… and that was no good. I was always on  and the adrenaline marinade from having my proverbial foot on the pedal-to-the-metal, day in and day out, was kicking the crap out of me, frying my system, making me way too jumpy — and not helping my thought processes at all.

Another the way my routines help me, is when I break up my routine a little bit, now and then, and do things differently — like in the article about how making breakfast differently can help you become more creative. With my stress level down, and my foot taken off the fight-flight pedal, my system has been able to balance itself out, and I’ve been able to relax a whole lot more… which also makes it possible for my brain to learn.

When you’re really stressed, your brain just doesn’t learn as well as it does when it’s relaxed. So, having a regular routine that gives me a sense of comfort and stability has been critical to my ability to improve and change. It’s like, you need a routine and some “boring” stability to get settled down. Then when you’re settled down and your brain is receptive to new ideas, then you can try new things and shake things up a little bit.

But having that routine in place first is critical. Because when you’re shaking things up, you need to have some sort of mental safety net you can fall back on, if things get too stressful. If things are too chaotic and confusing and unpredictable, it’s easy to go into a mindset of panic and anxiety, and you end up losing ground. But if  — in the midst of your innovation — you have a safety net to fall back on, and you can just go back to your regular routine when you’re scared or stressed, then you have more freedom to experiment.

And you have more freedom to grow.

But you have to have a foundation first. You have to have stability and a sense of calm and comfort, in order to make real progress. At least, that’s my experience.

And it works for me.

Now, I know a lot of people think that routine is the opposite of creativity, but I have found that routine supports creativity. How can you be truly creative, unless you have freed your mind from the truly deadening burden of re-thinking even the most basic activities of your everyday? I know people who insist that they cannot stand routine, that they need to be “free” to go to bed whenever they like and get up whenever they like, spend their money however they feel “in the moment”, and drift in and out of relationships “as the spirit moves them.”

It may feel to them like they’re being creative, but I see a lot of them really suffering with problems and issues that never, ever go away. They get stuck in these cycles of personal problems that they never have time to really think deeply about, because all their energy is used up “being creative” about the smallest of details in their lives. And the result is chaos — personally and professionally. They go from one crisis to the next, over things that could be solved if they slowed down long enough to really look at what is going on with them, and if they gave some honest, extended consideration to how to fix those things.

But honesty scares them. And so does the idea of routine. So, they end up stuck. And they’re not nearly as creative as they’d like to be, because all their energy is used up performing low-level activities that can be put on auto-pilot.

And God forbid I suggest that they do things differently. It’s wild, seeing how intensely they defend their “creativity” when all it seems to be is a series of distractions that keep their minds off their troubles — troubles which never, ever go away.

Am I being harsh? I don’t think so. After all, I used to be like that. For real. I was so caught up in the low-level details of my everyday, that I never had any energy left over for the things that actually mattered or would let me get ahead. I was so stuck, and until I developed a routine for each day and stuck with it, I couldn’t get free.

Things are different now. Very different, indeed.

Routine is my friend.

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Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

4 thoughts on “Using routine the right way”

  1. Routine is a great tool. I agree that it really helps with increasing function. I put out my clothes the night before. Breakfast is a routine meal. I have three things I’ll make on a work day. On weekends, I might get a bit more creative or involved with cooking. Work is a hard transition. I’m only work part time. I find I have to relearn some of the computer based tasks and have more trouble with organization and I can’t multitask at all anymore. It’s getting better, though.

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  2. You’re right – getting set up for work the night before is a huge help. I don’t have many clothes, so deciding what to wear is pretty simple — I usually wear the same clothes on certain days of the week, so I don’t have to think about it. Monday I have the gray and blue combo. Tuesday I have the blue and red combo. Wednesday I have the black and gray combo. Thursday I have the brown and green combo. Friday is casual, so I have my jeans and maroon combo. I also try to pack my bag the night before.

    Yes, work is hard. I have just gotten in the habit of muddling through over and over again until I finally get things. As long as I look like I know what I’m doing and I intend to get it right, people seem to go for it. The thing that works in my favor is that most of the people I work with are way too self-absorbed to notice how much I’m struggling. I just keep at it, and eventually I manage to figure things out. Or I don’t, and I just keep trying — or I delegate the work to someone else (which may or may not work, but at least it can buy me some time).

    Thankfully, computers tend to be a lot more forgiving than people are.

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