Routine and discipline can be your friends
I’ve had a “bad attitude” for a lot of my life. I put that in scare quotes because, in actuality, I think I have a generally great attitude? I’m friendly and cheerful and energetic. But I had a long history in my early adulthood of having pronounced and prolonged issues with authority.
As a therapist put it to me at one point, “You strike me as someone who needs a lot of unstructured time.” It resonated deeply, and it seemed like it confirmed something I felt intuitively about myself: that I didn’t do well within the confines of typical structures and rules. That I was different, perhaps somewhat special. Surely this was why normal employment was such a poor fit for 20-30yo me.
And I really took that “unstructured time” mindset to heart! To a fault. For a long long time — like, literally for the first fifteen or so years of my full-time career in music — I pointedly eschewed discipline and structure. Don’t get me wrong, I worked constantly and very hard — but I did so in a quasi-random sort of way, following my nose where it led me.
And I got some good results! I advanced my career and I learned a lot. But, also, I missed things. In my quasi-compulsive need not to let any aspect of work feel structured — you know, like work — I missed opportunities to get into grooves. To find a sustainable rhythm to my work, and within that to create opportunities for intentional learning in a context of experimentation. To have not just work, but a practice.
The pandemic is what broke me — and I’m so grateful for it. With all other outlets taken off the table, I just worked. Add to that the stress and anxiety of not just the pandemic but also the 2020 United States presidential election, and things got unsustainable fast. I realized in retrospect that I’d been mistaking activity for productivity — and that I’d been using busy-ness addictively.
So Shannon and I did the unthinkable: we started introducing some little structures into our previously unstructured existence! We started taking regular weekends. That was a game-changer; it gave the work some contrast and relief, some perspective. I refocused my morning exercise routine around pilates; Shannon got back into yoga in a regular way, and then I started joining her for that too. I’d forgotten how centering focusing on one’s breathing can be, particularly first thing in the morning. It’s great to start the day with an intentional check-in.
And, as I started refocusing on how my body felt, I also started actually paying nuanced attention to how my work felt. Some subsequent experimentation led me to realize that it can be hugely helpful for me to separate tasks by type: right-brain tasks in the first part of the day, left-brain tasks later in the day. That opened up a huge portal for me. I realized that, in addition to work emails and editing and rote tasks, I could also do research and formalized learning in that right-brain part of the day — and then do applied experimentation in the evening based on what I’d learned in the first part of the day. Mastering took off for me in this time — there’s such a necessarily right-brain aspect to it, and I’d been doing it at the wrong time, because I’d been misinterpreting it as mainly left-brain work!
What I’ve come to realize over this last couple of years is that I actually work better when I’m working in a somewhat structured way. I’ve managed to find efficiencies by grouping similar types of tasks, and I’ve created a situation where, by doing certain types of work at certain times, there is a rhythm and a natural balance to my work life.
I look forward to things more now, because I am intentionally creating moments where I’m not doing them, which allows me to miss them and get excited for them again. As opposed to what I used to do, which was to do everything all the time and get burned out on all of it.
Are there places in your creative work life where some more structure and routine — or a different arrangement of structure and routine — might refresh your outlook?
Still not setting an alarm though — jamie