Being an adult and using routines to your advantage

I feel like I’ve mad a monumental discovery recently. It’s kind of stupid, probably won’t mean much to anyone else, and I suspect the rest of you were onto this way before it’s occurred to me, because I can be a bit dim like that… but ROUTINES! Wow. They make life so much easier.

What the hell am I talking about? A bunch of things all kind of linked up in my brain recently. One is that I have a new evening routine when I’m shutting my house down and going to bed. Zoe now sleeps in her crate in the lounge with food and water and a toy to chew and a treat, Tonks has her food and water on the washing machine in the laundry. I’ve finally created this little nightly ritual of feeding and topping up water for both of them, letting Zoe outside for a pee, putting her to bed with a frozen treat from the freezer stuffed into her Kong toy (usually wet dog food or yoghurt frozen in ice cube trays). Then I wrap any food scraps in newspaper and put them in the green bin, and clean out the litter tray into newspaper and put that in the green bin. Lastly turn on drippers onto potted garden, lock doors, and close or open windows depending on the weather.

Obviously there’s other routines such as brushing teeth etc but I think of them as separate because this one is pretty new and anyone can do it eg Rose and I take it in turns or take on different parts of it if she’s staying over and I do it on my own if it’s just me here. The first few nights it took almost an hour to do everything, partly because I kept forgetting bits of it and going to bed and having to get back up, and partly because of things like the dog food was kept in the laundry even though the dog bowl is in the lounge, and I have probably 5 places I kept old newspaper none of which I could find.

Now it takes about 10 minutes. If it’s bin night I add in putting the bins out. If I’m feeling sick I skip the litter tray and leave it for the morning. Linking these tasks together and turning them into a routine is making them much easier. I don’t have to think, or even be very awake. I can do them even if I’m feeling very depressed or sick or in a fair amount of pain (up to a point). They don’t take very long because there’s a pattern – let the dog out the back to pee, while she’s outside top up the cat’s food and water, while letting the dog back inside walk past the freezer and refill her Kong – it all works together. I don’t have to worry about when I last checked the water bowl. If I skip something for one night I know that it’s only been skipped for a night. I get more time in bed and less time staggering around my house. It’s a system. It’s a procedure.

Another thing – I recently wrote a checklist of how to get rid of spam for the DI Open Group on facebook. I have never understood or liked the corporate world of policy and procedures but I am starting to suspect that is for a few specific reasons such as poorly written ones, having them used in situations that can’t be reduced to a checklist, and not being allowed to question them when they don’t seem appropriate. This checklist was just writing down the process I do every time I delete spam. There’s a bunch of steps and if you forget one and get the order wrong, you can’t go back and fix it. Eg. if you delete the post before reporting it to facebook as spam, too bad. Having it written down has made this process so much simpler for me! I don’t have to remember the steps. It’s easy, it can be followed, it makes sense.

Another thing – I’m working on a post about dissociative amnesia and did some re reading of the topic recently. It reminded me about the different types of memory and what is called ‘procedural memory’ which is kind of like things you remember with your body instead of your mind. Like being able to remember your password as long as you have a keyboard in front of you, because your fingers remember which keys to type. Without a keyboard you find you can’t remember it. Procedural memory is very, very interesting stuff. It’s what emergency drills are trying to help you create, because it’s far less effected by stress. If you have a body memory of unlocking the fire door and going down the escape and counting heads in the safe point on the ground floor, you’ve got a lot more chance of being able to do those things in a real fire.

And that got me thinking about how, when I moved into a unit after a bout of homelessness, I found that I had lost all my routines. I had to mentally think about and plan every step of my day. Showering. Getting dressed. Brushing my teeth. Preparing food. Eating it. Putting dishes in the sink. Without routines, this took forever. It was incredibly frustrating and made me feel very slow and stupid. It took time before these things became more routine for me, so that I could just do them without thinking about them. Then they became easier and quicker and I could start to use the time to think about other things. Like brushing my teeth and planning what I’d eat for dinner.

Undoubtedly being multiple has added significantly to the difficulties I’ve had in this area. I have to write to do lists and keep a diary because I couldn’t possibly track my life otherwise. I would forget to pay bills, forget to turn up to college, forget about dates. My internal memory system is like a series of separate filing cabinets in different rooms. I can’t easily cross reference files. If I’m standing in one room looking at a file, it’s difficult to access any information from a different room. But, because I’m fairly co-conscious, some information is shared. It filters through all the rooms. Not in it’s entirety, not like sharing a file with all the rooms, more like an intercom in the rooms. A voice comes over explaining that a new addition has been made to a file. If you want more details, if you want photos and a blow-by-blow description of the file, you’ll have to go and look at it.

Procedural memory is not entirely shared either. One of the things that used to stress us is that when we used to sign to use our credit card, the signature was different depending on which part was out. Having said there, there is some overlap for my system. Many of us know how to drive, for instance, even if we have our own style and need the seat and mirrors to be at different positions. Routines in some ways seem to take this burden off other parts of our mind. We don’t have to think each step through and remember it all because it’s written down, and/or it’s in our procedural memory instead.

Lastly, this idea of growing up, and what it means to be grown up, the ways in which an adult and their place in the world is different from a child. I think a lot about this because it’s highly relevant to the way my system formed and the reason for being split. One of the things that seems to define adulthood is this notion of responsibility. Adults need to keep their own world running. They need to be able to pay bills and earn money and negotiate leases and pick up after themselves. They seem to be at risk from two different possibilities – one is not learning these skills and living a very chaotic existence, often at the expense of people around them who do a lot of picking up after them. The other is taking on these roles too much and losing what was childlike about themselves – no more play, or fun, or freedom – life becomes a routine that cannot be broken and that exists to serve the routine.

I feel like I’m starting to figure out that learning all these skills in the service of freedom and fun and play, is the goal. So I can go camping and walk in wild places because I’ve saved and bought good equipment and have a well stocked first aid kit and a lot of outdoor skills. If I go camping without them I’m in for huge trouble when something goes wrong. If I just save money I never go camping. If I build routines around things like keeping the house functioning, or doing admin, then I have free brain space to think about and plan other things that I like much more. I spend less time feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, less time looking for my shoes or discovering that dinner has gone mouldy in the fridge, and less time in crises because I’ve run out of dog food and money at the same time.

I think this is where routines work. Checklists that everyone in the household, or everyone in my own system can easily follow. Things that take away that burden of thinking and remembering every step. Things that free you to spend more time and more mental energy on the things that make you feel alive. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. Learning more adult skills doesn’t have to lock me down to the kind of life I hate. It can help me build the kind of life I want. Well devised routines can give me back a chunk of the mental and emotional energy that I currently spend trying to track lots of things and make myself do them and hating myself when I fail. Rinsing a dirty dish or closing a cupboard door after opening it. Rewriting routines when they stop working because of new challenges or different work or other people in the home. Working around limitations instead of constantly smacking into them. If no one picks up their stuff, having a box outside everyone’s door and putting anything left in common areas into the boxes every night. There’s so many different ways of setting things up.

I’ve been trialling having ‘admin days’, ‘writing days’ and ‘house and garden days’ and I’m startled by how much more I get done when I give over a day to it instead of the multi-tasking, anxiety, and constant switching I’m more used to. Isn’t that half the battle? Figuring out how you work and what works for you? (figuring out how to be an adult when half the time you’re under 18 years old?) I think I understand why our post-industrialist society is so in love with routines and systems. They can work brilliantly. They can of course, also fail spectacularly, especially when they’re applied too broadly, or in the wrong areas entirely. Routines can be very destructive to creativity and relationships. But in some areas, they can be incredibly useful and give you back a lot of time and energy to pour into much more exciting things.

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