People need routines. It’s like a theme in music. But it also restricts your thoughts and actions and limits your freedom. It structures your priorities and in some cases distorts your logic.
— Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
It’s now trendy to demonize routine, as if doing the same thing repeatedly is intrinsically negative and life-defeating.
It’s true that if you don’t like your routine, then it can be hellish. There are certainly elements of my daily routine I’m not fond of. My commute from work, when I have to cram into an overcrowded metro car, is unpleasant. Lugging groceries up and down the steep hills of Cihangir is a pain. Cleaning floors is a mind numbing chore.
However, when you truly enjoy your routine, it is divine. In the summer months when I first moved to Istanbul, part of my routine at the end of every week was to pack a small bag with a book and a towel, board a ferry to the Princes Islands, then disembark on Burgazada and walk along the coast to a small neighborhood beach. There I would spend hours reading and swimming back and forth in the gentle Bosphorus waves and reading a book on the beach. For exercise I would routinely run circuits along Dolmabahçe Avenue, passing by the late Ottoman palace where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk passed away, or run along the waterfront to Sultanahmet. In the cold months, part of my nightly routine is cutting open a fresh pomegranate, brewing loose leaf green tea, and reading a book recommended to me by my friend or the local book club. On workday mornings, I walk down to the Bosphorus waterfront and watch the sun rise over the edge of the Asian continent, behind the floating Maiden’s Tower while waiting for my bus to roll up.
Routines allow us to do more by making low-level functions of life automatic and quick. We know from psychology and cognitive science that willpower is a limited resource. Because I know I can get home quickly by metro, and I can quickly relax and refresh by cutting open a pomegranate, I don’t have to expend limited mental resources figuring that out. I can spend that cognitive energy in other more valuable areas of life: on my students, on NGO volunteer work, on paintings, on writing blog posts, on meeting with friends. This is not to say that we shouldn’t maintain our adaptability and resiliency outside our comfort zones, or that we shouldn’t be spontaneous, or we shouldn’t seek opportunities to escape our routines through travel or otherwise. But every instance of spontaneity is founded on a basis of a secure routine through which we meet our basic needs and recharge our cognitive reserves of willpower. In this sense, routines are life-sustaining.
But the value of a routine really becomes apparent when it is interrupted, as happened to mine two weeks ago. I came home from work on the metro as usual but instead of going home and cooking dinner, I found my whole street alarmingly barricaded by police, firemen, ambulances, news vans, and crowds of onlookers while helicopters hovered overhead. A huge gas explosion had wreaked havoc on a building in near proximity to mine. While there were fortunately no fatalities or major injuries, the explosion was immense enough to gut two floors of an apartment building and shatter windows up and down the street, as well as loud enough to be heard in Kadiköy, across the strait on the Asian side.
A compassionate neighbor took me and my roommate into her home, fed us tea and simit until we recovered and made a plan of action. From this point on, I slowly had to rebuild my routine. Change my bus routes, my mealtimes, sanitation habits. Had to be ready at a moment’s call to let helpful but flighty municipal contractors and repairmen into the house. Had to call on generous and concerned friends to host not only myself, but a visitor from Germany. Had to sweep and dig endless shards of glass off the floor, counters and out of furniture, beds. Had to spend nights desperately trying to stay warm and taking cold sponge baths while waiting for my windows and furnace plumbing to be repaired.
Like all things, this period passed. I regained my routine–but I no longer take it for granted.
Photo, top: Broken windows and damaged furnace in our kitchen after the gas explosion earlier this month. Photo, middle: My origami chain hanging in front of a broken window.