Lessons Learned from Losing All Routine

We finally finished moving into our new apartment. During the ten days it took to arrange the new place, I noticed how strong I’m bound to my routines, and what it means to lose all of them at once for a period of time.

There was a daily workout routine, where I hit the gym twice a day on four days each week for both strength training and cardio. In total, I had at least 10 workout sessions per week. Before the morning workouts, I used to write for at least one fixed hour. In the evening I used to have weekly recurring appointments at work where I help organize a team of student advisors or help students with writing tasks and presentations. Also, the evening was my most productive time: I would either continue writing for a bit or dive straight into programming tasks.

With the dawn of the last weekend of March, nearly all of these routines collapsed.

wrecked workplace
Photo Credit: soho42 via Compfight cc

I’m moving in with a good friend. We share a small apartment in the city. There were only the two of us, and we had just one medium-sized car at our disposal. Unfortunately, none of us cared to ask a sufficient amount of acquaintances for help or additional vehicles.

Over the weekend, we put the furniture from our old apartments into the new one. It was exhausting. The new apartment is on the 4th floor – I bet you can imagine how hard it sucked to carry all the luggage up there.

But you can’t, really. Trust me. It’s worse than you imagine.

In the end, I was completely wasted the days after. Physically, I regenerated quite fast, for I was already used to lifting weights, but mentally, not so much.

I can only guess what happened to my mind. Here are a few possible factors:

  • The kind of physical stress was new. I’m not accustomed to so much carrying over a period of 3 days without much pause. Since I served in the German army a few years ago, I had a pretty relaxed life compared to the 20 hours of physical activity each day back then.
  • All the weight in my clenched hands did probably fatigue my central nervous system. This is just anecdotal wisdom or even broscience: to make a fist triggers a fight response. That’s tiring.
  • Also, because my work routine was halted from Monday to Wednesday, I didn’t to anything mentally challenging. My brain could have simply shut down.
  • Neither did I do anything fulfilling, which makes me feel bad after a while.
  • Instead, I was (and partially I still am) confronted with lots and lots of tiny decisions. They drain my energy pretty fast it seems.

I know about the phenomenon of ego depletion and decision fatigue. Yet I’m surprised how quickly I was completely drained. I had expected both that it would take longer and that such small decisions wouldn’t have so big an impact. The size of a decision, however measured, doesn’t matter in the end. Maybe lots of tiny decisions are even worse because we don’t get a sense of accomplishment.

I guess the combination of all these factors, plus the new and alien environment, threw me off balance. Overall, I was just tired, and I was hungry, and I just felt bad and couldn’t do a thing about it.

Thankfully, I felt better after I finished a few tasks in the apartment like installing the kitchen sink and the washing machine. This puzzled me at first for I’m no plumber and had zero experience beforehand, but it turned out fine.

There’s still some stuff to be done, like renewing the carpet in the corridor. These tiny open loops still suck at my overall energy a bit, but they don’t suck as hard as the stuff from last week did. I can look past the tasks.

The takeaway for me is this: next time I move, I will try harder to invite people to help. And I think that I’m going to need someone who mostly does the organizing and less of the lifting; this might as well be me, but then someone else has to carry more of the furniture.

I can’t help but ask myself: am I just a sissy?

Let me try to refute this accusation.

Some people may think they grew accustomed to their mentally challenging tasks. They don’t make a fuss about the challenging work. Instead, they get a good night’s sleep and all. At least that’s what they say. So why am I such a baby?

I guess a lot of us over-estimate our abilities to cope with the daily chores of work. Why else do so many fall for alcohol and other mind-numbing (so-called) relaxants?

I was fortunate to have a pretty balanced life before the move. That’s more than most can claim. I don’t take no drugs. I don’t even allow myself to eat fast food or sugary stuff. So there wasn’t much fake alleviation of the stress and uneasiness at my disposal. I could meditate, sleep, and hope to being cared for and loved. I think that this is a more sustainable approach to deal with negative situations than relying on fake relievers, but this ultimately takes a lot of time. A candy bar takes a minute to make you feel all jazzed-up.

So I’d say that I was neither accustomed to the stress, nor did I have any of the usual ways to relieve it, which was a pretty bad combo to deal with days worth of work.

I don’t suggest that you start and take drugs, drink to elevation, or eat candy bars ‘till happy. Instead we should try to get rid of the background noise in our lives which is made of constant distress by making less decisions every day. We can lean against routines instead. They make us productive and relaxed for we can form strong expectations. This is what I’m going to do again.

And when it comes to doing a lot of hard stuff all at once, I should listen to my gut and share the work with others so I don’t over-load myself again. Over-estimating how much work we can and should take seems to be all too common. We can’t all be over-achievers; doing too much will ultimately take its toll.

Some of this applies to writing as well, of course.

Daily writing practice will make writing easier. Although you won’t write faster or better magically, you will write something at all and on a regular basis. This lowers the hurdle to get words out on schedule. Then there are methods of self-observation to keep us motivated, like counting words.

Sometimes, this is all it takes: strict appointments with ourselves to do the stuff we really care about, and doing a bit less than we expect from ourselves.

Next time we’ll be back to our regular schedule.

Until then, tell me: how do you keep up with knowledge work and stay ahead in times of trouble?

Also consider to participate in the great discussion on nvALT and Zettelkasten software in general.