Finding a balance between routine and spontaneity

Afterthoughts: Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

Afterthoughts: The Ride of a Lifetime by Bob Iger

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Over the last four months, I have (inadvertently) been experimenting with how much structure I find useful in a day. Ask anyone who has found success and a key element cited is often routine, and by extension structure. For all intents and purposes this means doing the same things everyday in the same order whether you are an athlete or a writer. The message distilled is often that structure contributes to sustained success, a fair enough proposition.

On the other hand, however, a life too regimented and unbending takes a toll on our wellbeing. The pursuit of perfection is riddled with sacrifice: our physical health, relationships, mental health. The question, therefore, is to strike a balance with having enough structure in a day to keep us on the path of progression but also factoring in time for spontaneity and for relaxation.

Before going any further, I feel it necessary to define the difference between structured time and unstructured time. The former are for tasks that you know you need to do: meeting, creating a presentation, researching a topic. By extension, they are things that weigh on your mind during the day, and get heavier the longer they remain incomplete. Once they are complete, however, the burden is lifted and we are free to spend the rest of our day doing whatever it is we desire. This may mean more research or more work, but crucially, anything achieved or accomplished is surplus to what we budgeted on doing and therefore doesn’t weigh on the mind. In many ways, unstructured time is when we play with “house money”.

For me, I have found the modern day myth of having to work eight hours a day the biggest contributor to my imbalance. The implication is that there is an expectation that humans can (and should) be focussed and working for the entire eight hours. What is often missed are the coffee runs, lunch, water-cooler conversations, and mental breaks. Taking all those out, the actual amount of deep work the average person does is closer to three hours. Once we know that, the objective of finding three hours a day in which to set aside for deep work is much more tolerable than trying to live up to eight. Not only that, but it makes life that much more interesting. Imagine how different your day could look like if you realise you could do whatever you want so long as the three hour minimum threshold for deep work was satisfied?

I have experimented with this by adjusting the things that I set out to do during the day. At one point, I had a combination of writing, running, creative writing, reading, and design daily objectives that took me on average around five to six hours a day of deep work to complete. I did this for 30 days and found myself burnt out and stressed by the end of it. What wore me down was not the fact it took five or six hours a day to complete, but rather the anxiety of not having completed it in the mornings. I would wake up, and go about doing a bit of of the non-creative writing and running. Throughout this, the weight of knowing I still “had” to do the creative writing and design tasks for the day came to be a lot to bear. After the thirty days, I dropped the creative writing, reading, and design elements of my routine. It made a world of difference. My deep work duration each day would be around three hours, but now I could tackle the creative writing, reading, and design stuff with “house money”.

I recognise that re-framing my day in this way is not immediately accessible especially with the constraints of full-time work, but I believe that this perspective can still be applied in that circumstance. It is all about reducing the mental load we carry of what we “expect” to accomplish in a day. The sooner we get into the playing-with-house-money mindset in a given day, the better for our overall wellbeing, or so that has been my experience.

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