The truth about routines
How my mornings have become a luxury item, plus a bonus Adrian Chiles x OnlyFans collab. Kind of.
Call it one last rage against the dying of the light of my youth, or whatever, but when I thought of routines, I thought of rigidity. Routines were order, humdrum, uninspiring and the antithesis of spontaneous. When you’re young, you’re supposed to crave spontaneity, aren’t you? You can do anything! Allegedly. If life is a mess, then, no big deal; you have time to become organised when you get old, which is a million years in the future.
Well, guess what, it’s a million years later and I’ve changed my mind. I’ve flirted with keeping to a schedule before. I’m disciplined in many things, but fourteen years of freelancing means I’ve had to embrace flexibility. I can’t say no when something comes in, so I have to accommodate. If the wind changes, I go with it. You can’t write books and hit your deadlines – which I always do – without some kind of schedule to tell you where you are. But one part of my life was always free of order. Mornings.
I’m an aspiring morning person. I like the idea. Slates wiped clean, the air fresh, the day as yet unsure whether it will be a comedy or a tragedy. I like the ceremony of rolling up the blind in the living room, the first click of the kettle, chucking back my vitamin D placebo, and turning the tap of the shower. Being up early feels like I’m on holiday, given I spent my teenage year and twenties slouching about in bobbly dressing gowns. (I slept naked from the age of about 16 to 30-something, which fascinates and horrifies me now; who WAS that person?) But like most people, mornings have always been ruled by obligations, rather than pleasure. When I had an office job, it would be commuting (something I’ve never minded much, except when I worked in Slough) and once I went freelance, my mornings would be dictated by outstanding work, if I was lucky enough to have any.
As social media began showing me the highly airbrushed existence of richer creatives, I saw routines in a new light. I’d seen them as drudgery, or emotional prisons. You often hear new parents or dog owners talking about getting their charge into a ‘routine’, which seems to involve never doing anything you actually want to do ever again, and going on Instagram looking tired and posting things like ‘Caffeine Is My LIFE!!!’ But routines were now being presented to me as a huge luxury. To have that time, and headspace, to devise and follow a routine.
Remember those ‘life in the day’ pieces Sunday supplements used to run, featuring demented CEOs getting up at 4am for a HIIT class, or wellness magnates attempting to portray disordered eating and juice cleanses as aspirational? (Do those still exist or have we woken up to the grift?) These people used to be aberrations, outliers, but now even the most run-of-the-mill beige-sofa social media personality seems to be on the bandwagon.
Yet so many people don’t have the hours, energy and ability. Most people are flinging themselves bodily from one obligation to another, hoping they don’t lose their job, die, or go more overdrawn while doing it. Drawing up a schedule, or a to-do list where ticking things off was more or less optional? Incredible. Treating deadlines like some abstract concept, a distant horizon you may reach eventually? Not relatable. Bragging about how you only manage to write 500 words a day and take three-hour lunches like you’re Hemingway? As alien to me as buying an Olly Murs album.
Economically, and creatively, this kind of routine made no sense to me and made me feel nouveau and parochial. Yet I couldn’t live my life like I part-owned a health spa and vineyard; I had to work to live. Plus their lives sounded boring. So I decided to stop gobbling up this content and work out how I could do something for myself that was mildly aspirational yet wouldn’t require knowing Rupert Murdoch’s PIN. It took me a few years to get there. Lockdown brought new routines in an effort to stay sane and healthy, but once normality began to leak back into our lives, they fizzled out.
I started again on New Year’s Day. Let’s not call it a resolution because I’m not interested in manufactured failure. It was the third ‘anniversary’ of my not drinking alcohol anymore. I realised if I didn't start better curating my mornings – CURATING, ha, I put that in on purpose to troll you, please don’t think I’ve lost the plot – I’d be wasting them. I always felt like I had no time, so I had to create it. I decided to get up with the alarm, no snooze button whack-a-mole, make tea, grab a notebook and handwrite three pages of… well, whatever, really. (‘Morning Pages’ are a trick from an ancient book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron; I’ll write about this more one day, but the rules say they must be written almost as soon as you wake up.) After that, exercise of some description. (I don’t really go to the gym anymore, for very boring reasons). Every single day.
It started well. But I was going to bed too late, so would set the alarm later to compensate, sometimes doing Morning Pages at 11am, long after my shower. I was disappointed this routine wasn’t helping me make the most of my mornings; I’d added another half-hearted chore. So, mid-January, I rethought.
The routine, I realised, had to start the night before. I go to bed at more or less the same time every night. I now always wake up at least half an hour before my alarm and my rule is I must get up on waking unless it’s insanely early. After scribbling, if I have tea still in the mug, I look at socials until it’s gone. Then, twenty minutes of yoga with a man on YouTube with a pleasingly monotonous voice, or a guy on Fiton who goes too fast through his chaturangas for my liking. Yoga. I mean. I know. I did it during lockdown but my enthusiasm petered out. It feels like a morning person thing to do. And I like it. But I can’t believe I do it. After that, I swing weights about for 10–15 minutes, but not every day. Then I sit eating my breakfast really smug, like the kind of person who cleans out their kitchen cupboards on the 27th of every month or has rich parents. I then shower, dress, and start work, at exactly the same time I used to, give or take fifteen minutes, yet I’ve already done much more. Weekends are different: instead of Morning Pages I write a review of the Guardian Blind Date; there are bike rides. This is how I find myself hurtling round Hyde Park on a rickety Santander cycle at 8am on a Sunday.
I’m lucky to have this time. I had to steal it back from myself, the person who would rather gently braise their own balls in chianti than listen to someone bore on about their reinvigorating morning routine. I had to convince myself that shivering under blankets writing absolute nonsense in a notebook – no heating on in this house, nope – was worth it. And it was. It all sounds twee and vanilla and like I’m pivoting to burbling things like ‘#blessed’, I know, but I’ve had a tough few months, for one reason or another, and now I feel a bit more together.
Now all I have to do is find yet another bloody routine – that also doesn’t cost anything – to stop me sitting on my arse for three hours a night scrolling belligerent bollocks on social media. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but perhaps if Romulus and Remus had spent twenty minutes wobbling their way through a vinyasa flow every morning, it might have risen from the ground a little quicker.
The free part of the newsletter ends here. After the ‘jump’, paying subscribers can see ‘Chiles-watch’, my semi-regular roundup of what the Guardian’s star columnist and unelected president of whimsy, Adrian Chiles, has been chatting about recently.
Read my latest Guardian Blind date review – it was a bit 😬
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