Why schedules and routines are bad for my mental health
Let me take you inside the computer of somebody with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I have access because the computer is mine. I’m the person who struggles with obsessive thoughts, rituals and organisational patterns every single day. Admitting that no longer fazes me.
On my MacBook, I have innumerable spreadsheets and diagrams, process maps and expectation benchmarks. I have random notes from books and obscure ideas that occurred unexpectedly. If I did not write them down, they may have escaped forever, and nobody wants that. The ravings of a neurotic introvert rarely make for great entertainment.
What are these documents used for, I hear you ask? To run a company or manage a project? Well, something like that. Those things are certainly included. You see, I have timelines and routines for absolutely everything, from morning habits and content strategies to life plans and cities I would like to visit. I even have one overarching taxonomy that maps my ideal life – or at least a life, captured amid the torturous smog of psychological boiling point - until 2065. If you want to book an appointment, I should be free for most of February that year.
I have checklists of novels to read and brainstorms of potential articles for the next thirty years. I have mind maps of qualifications to attain and rankings of every street in Bromborough based on my ideal living criteria. I have abandoned social media content calendars and forgotten studies into the greatest baseball player who ever lived. There is no end to my planning, scheming and worrying. Life cannot continue without this level of intricate care and foresight. God forbid something fell through the net.
Why schedules don't work for me
More than anything else, I have obsessed over time. Never having enough of it. Wanting it to move too quickly. Trying to fashion it from thin air. On so many occasions, I have attempted to quantify every minute of every day, breaking it down into associated tasks and orders of completion. Alarm, antidepressants, coffee, breakfast, writing, shower, clothes, work. It never ends. Also, it never works. In attempting to streamline my responsibilities and manage my time, I succeed only in stoking my anxieties and generating nonsensical pressure.
After years of trying to hone a perfect routine – one that provides a sweet work-life balance and is filled with mindfulness, meditation, yoga and exercise – I have given up on such a notion. Or at least, I would like to give up, if only OCD would allow such sacrilege. Trying to schedule life is logically redundant, anyway. The clue is in the title – life. You never figure it out, and that is what makes it great. That is what makes it life.
At the base of all my problems is a ferocious ambition. I want to achieve so much, in so many spaces, in so many ways, that some kind of structure is needed to save me from going totally mad. There has to be an outlet for the ceaseless pipeline of potentiality. There has to be a hub around which the recurring chaos of creativity orbits. There has to be a plan. But when life becomes the plan, or more accurately becomes the planning, it is easy to fall into those familiar depths of despair. When you see that bus to Meltdown City, sometimes you have to let it pass.
Why January can be the hardest month for people with OCD
January can be the hardest month for those who struggle with OCD. Everyone has a new routine. All of your friends are on diets. Your partner wants to join the gym and cook avocado at any given opportunity. The New Year – capitalised for ominous effect - brings an expectation of renewal.
The calendar flips, and we are suddenly expected to streamline everything and parse the rough edges of our existence for the benefit of everybody else. Sitting on the couch and pondering life is no longer optional. Get up. Get up now. There are calories to burn and demons to beat. There is no time for idle thinking. Those who do not push themselves are inadequate. You have a half-marathon to run in two months, damnit.
January is a month of social-wrought obligation, and for those of us already brimming with obligation – largely self-constructed within the fragile mind – each drop of expectation water takes the emotional glass closer to overflowing. We have to eat less and exercise more. We have to buy new clothes and throw the old ones away. We have to make career plans and become vegan. Now. Now. Now. Change. Change. Change.
The unbearable pressure of progress
Gary Vaynerchuk tells us that, unless we are being locked out of Instagram every day for sending too many direct messages asking for opportunities, we are not trying hard enough. And so we pencil that into our hectic routines, perhaps just after breakfast, or maybe slightly before.
Neil Patel tells us that, unless we are writing fifteen articles per week about the most innocuous thing in our niche, our businesses will die. And so we add that to our routine as well, either just before bed or occasionally while eating our lunch.
Our therapist tells us that, unless we chill out and learn to relax, we will succumb to the meaninglessness of it all. And so we set aside eight minutes in which to enjoy that guided meditation class on YouTube, probably when we are on the toilet.
Then we have dozens of other competing interests, bidding for time and attention. Your accountant wants that spreadsheet. Your boss wants that report. Your mum just wants you to FaceTime her every once in a while. Is that really too much to ask?
For the obsessive-compulsive, life often becomes an exercise in completing things and honouring routines rather than feeling emotions and enjoying experiences. We become besotted with the means because we are petrified of the ends. Planning things, and repeatedly executing against a brutal schedule, is our way of feigning control over life, which is fundamentally uncontrollable.
How schedules and routines impact our mental health
A schedule is the bridge from intention to action. I get that. At times, in short bursts, prioritising tasks has helped me manage projects and achieve goals. However, if your action is motivated by appeasing other people or gaining associated approval, the intention is corrupt in the first place and it will always remain so. In such a scenario, your schedule becomes merely a portal from one strain of discontentment to another.
Moreover, by living in accordance with relentless routines, we train our brains to live in fictional futures as opposed to profound presents. There is always another appointment. There is always another meeting. Like a snooker player plotting his way around the table, we think four or five shots ahead, planning strategy and merely attempting to survive. If mindfulness is good for our mental health, anchoring us in the current moment, following a rigorous diary is - by deduction - hurtful to our psychological wellbeing because it speeds up the mind and eats away at our sense of emotional gravity.
Sure, we still need to meet people and attend events. We still need to work at certain times and do things we would not necessarily choose to do. The world is so far down the path to capitalist immolation, those baseline criteria are never likely to change. Doing things in line with overarching ecosystems of profit will always make the world go around, but we must manage our own strain and stop overloading ourselves with meaningless commitments that have minimal in common with our thoughts, values and desires.
How to stop chasing happiness and live in the moment
When we fall mindlessly into the rat race, blindly chasing the next thing to the detriment of the current thing, happiness becomes but a mirage on the horizon. It can never be attained. Happiness is often a state of surprised contentment. It relies on a certain degree of spontaneity. Obsessing over routines and carefully curating every inch of your existence strangles spontaneity, diminishing the likelihood of happiness or disabling it entirely.
In this regard, setting goals ranks among the most ridiculously taxing, self-capitulatory activities we can undertake. By setting goals, be they long-term aspirations or short-term resolutions, we enter into a complex world of expectation relations. We agonise over details that, in the wider context of humanity, are pitifully irrelevant. Say we happen to reach our target weight, for instance. Then what? We simply set another goal and the whole cycle begins again.
I’m writing this article not out of logistic obligation, but rather because I stood up from the couch and had an idea. I wanted to share that idea and get it off my chest. Some people call it creative inspiration, but I’m less inclined to pander to such concepts of structured productivity these days. Nevertheless, I’m quite happy with how the words are flowing here. Passion courses through my pen, and that improves the end result. I’m proud of the article that is taking shape, and if a few other people are, too, then great. Fantastic. Happy days.
However, in the past, I have created toxic writing schedules, saddling myself with gross demands and unrealistic expectations. Write about mental health on Mondays. Write about Tranmere on Tuesdays. Working on larger pieces, completing 200 words every day has been a frequent target, for some insane rationale that seemed great at the time. It all amounts to contrived bullshit lacking soul. There is no achievement beyond the ticking of a box and the scratching of a to-do list. Nobody cares, but I care more than anything else. That dichotomy is a recipe for dissatisfaction and disaster.
What is the meaning of life?
You see, in truth, there is no innate meaning to life itself. We must create purpose and construct narratives to ward off the encroachment of nihilism. Creating milestones, backed by vacuous rewards and tenuous punishments, makes us feel more human, more in control of this random void bequeathed to us. By developing some kind of structure, we defend against the onset of hopelessness and distract ourselves from the utterly confounding reasoning for our existence on this planet at all.
Here, I believe we have made a huge mistake. Or, more accurately, we have made a raft of huge mistakes, one after the other after the other. If we are just making up all of this shit to keep boredom at bay and pass time before the coming Apocalypse, we may as well find something more creative and fun to focus on than interminable Skype meetings about corporate social responsibility initiatives and dinner table conferences on our plans to create a 2020 Vision for sustainable plastic alternatives.
Fuck structure. Forget conformity. Embrace the shitshow and live as you see fit. Rip up your schedule. Cross out your routine. Hell, have a lie-in every now and then. Unless you really want to get up at 05:37 to jog in the darkness, why are you doing it?
The time of rigid expectation has passed. The reign of stoic compliance is over. Open your eyes, declutter your mind, and do only what you feel like doing right this second. Nothing more and nothing less. Everything else can wait, because what does not kill you barely matters anyway, and what you perceive to be important is actually rather immaterial when all is said and done.