Patterns and Routines


Why do certain chores feel more time consuming when we do them a different way? If we mow the lawn in a different pattern, chances are it will still take around 45 minutes if everything else remains constant. We thought if we mowed in a different direction, it might shave a couple minutes here and there, but it doesn’t. The perimeter equation of a rectangle remains constant regardless how we do it. Our primary goal was not to shave minutes. It was to do this tedious chore different. We don’t get too far into the mow before it dawns on us that this tedious chore appears to be taking longer. It isn’t, and some part of us knows it isn’t, but we can’t shake the perception. On those occasions when we mowed in our typical pattern, it flew by because we were probably sleepwalking through it. How many typical patterns and routines do we sleepwalk through in this manner? How many times do we wake up with the realization that it’s July, and we forgot to appreciate the beautiful month of June for what it was. How many times do we realize that we’re almost fifty, and we forgot to appreciate our forties for what they were? How much time do we lose following typical patterns and routines?

I saw a bunch of bright yellow bananas in a supermarket bin on Monday, and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into its brand-new solidity. I thought about that first bite a couple times in the store, and on the short drive home, but by the time Tuesday rolled around, I realized I slipped Monday’s banana into the routine of eating breakfast that Monday. I normally eat two eggs, toast, and I drink a glass of orange juice for breakfast. Then I top it off with a banana. I absently ate that banana as part of my breakfast routine, and I totally missed its freshness. When I bit into Tuesday’s banana, it was delicious, and I tried to appreciate it, but I couldn’t help but think about how much more fresh and delicious that recently purchased banana might’ve been if I remembered to appreciate it.

Most of us hate to admit that our lives have fallen into patterns and routines, but to those who might argue that they’re an exception, I say add a dog to your life. Dogs spend so much of their lives studying our patterns that when they peg them, they can often tell us what we’re about to do before we decide. On that note, my primary takeaway from the movie My Dinner with Andre was that we should try to break routines and patterns whenever we can. If we can break a couple of rituals one on day, we might feel more aware of one Monday before we turn fifty. In that movie, one of characters talked about opening the door with his left hand for a day or two just to break that routine in a way that might lead to other breaks. The gist of that exchange was that we have so many patterns and routines that some of the times we accidentally sleep walk through life.

One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid falling too deep into routine is a grueling workout. I’m not talking about a simple workout, because some of the times we workout so often that working out becomes nothing more than a part of our routine. I’m talking about a grueling workout that leaves the buns and thighs burning, and when the buns are burning, the brain cells are burning just as bright. This idea led me to believe that a grueling work out might provide a brief, temporary cure to what ails us.

When too many Mondays melt into Tuesdays without notice, the best way to break the routine is to push our body beyond our otherwise lazy boundaries. If we’re feeling excessive fatigue, we can burn our brain and body bright with a long and grueling workout. I’ve expressed variations of this cure so often that some people say it before I do, to mock me for routinely advising that this is the ideal way to break up routines. The footnote I now add to that routine advice is before we put our mind and bodies through a rigorous workout, we need to make sure we’re happy first. It doesn’t happen after one grueling workout, of course, and it might take a regular routine of three workouts a week, with at least one grueling workout mixed in, but after a while, we might start to become more aware of the choices we’ve made in life. We need to make sure we’ve attended to life’s matters, because the acute awareness grueling workouts provide can make us happier than we’ve ever been, but they can also make us angrier and more depressed. If we have dotted our I’s and crossed out T’s, a grueling workout can cause us to appreciate life a little more than we did yesterday, but it can also lead to some painful critiques.

I’ve snapped at people on a Tuesday for something that didn’t bother me that Monday, and the only difference was I had a grueling workout the night before. My various computer chairs were comfortable for years before I decided to discipline myself to working my buns rock hard. I’ve always liked Peanut M&M’s, but after a couple of grueling sessions, I considered the candy so delicious that I thought of eating them by the pound. I also realized how unproductive my job was in the grand scheme, how fraudulent my bosses were, and how I had little to no home life to look forward to once my excruciatingly slow workday ended. The grueling workouts made me more aware of the little things life has to offer, and some of them made me happier, but others made me so angry and depressed that I realized one of the reasons that people drink so much and smoke so often is to dull their brain to a point that they don’t question the choices they’ve made in life.

The mantra of patterns is, “If at first you don’t succeed try, try, and try again.” An addendum to this quote, that some attribute to W.C. Fields, suggests, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try—and then quit! No use being a fool about it.” A quote by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and published in 1917, suggests that, “If you can’t do a thing, more or less, the first time you try, you will never do it. Try something else while there is yet time.” My addendum to this line of thought is, “if one thing doesn’t work try another.” If you can’t jam a square into a round hole, there’s no sense in making a fool out of yourself by continuing to jam it home. Try something else, or look at the thing and realize that it’s never going home. How many people make fools out of themselves by screaming at the manufacturer of the shapes? We scream to gain distance from our personal failing, “It ain’t me. Don’t look at me. The instructions say do this and that should fix it.” We throw a fiery temper tantrum to distract from the fact that we’re incompetent. We just fixed something just last week with wonderful aplomb. There’s nothing different about us with this particular project. It’s the manufacturer. “That’s fine, but have you tried a way other than just jamming it home? Try another way.” We then paraphrase Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is trying one thing one way, over and over, and expecting different results.”

We’ve all heard the phrase life is short, enjoy every minute you’re alive, because before you know it you’ll be on the other side of fifty thinking about how much life you’ve missed. “I agree with that in principle,” a person in pain told me, “but, at times, life seems to take forever.” No one wants to be in pain, and when the conversation switches to that topic, most people say, “Pull the plug.” I don’t want to face that scenario, but if I do, I believe I might think that I want another 45 minutes of being alive in an otherwise pattern life of too many routines.  Mowing the lawn might be a poor example for this scenario, for no matter how one mows a lawn, the results will always be the same. Unless we push a mower faster, it’s always going to take the same amount of time, and unless we change the levels, it’s always going to mow the same length. Nothing will change in other words, unless we realize that we’re not sleepwalking through it in the manner we normally do. On this particular mow, I thought about how much time we lose by adhering to the routines we develop. I was thinking about writing this piece too, and while writing this piece might not add much to my life, it’s different from anything I’ve written before.

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