Where There’s a Routine, There’s a Weak Point

by Matthew Sweet on April 27

routine
Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care—he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose.

Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals reveals the eccentricities of many great minds. It makes you see your own quirks in a much more light-hearted way.

Though you may not count coffee beans or need to retreat a primitive tower with no electricity, heating, water, or carpets (like Carl Jung), you probably have developed some routines and rituals that help you perform.

As Currey says, “A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.” Routines are usually created to increase reliability, to help you consistently achieve the frame of mind necessary for good work.

A routine ultimately creates order. So its chief danger is its opposite: Disorder. Uncertainty. Chaos. Volatility. Chance. The unknown. Everything Nassim Taleb calls “the Extended Disorder Family.”

When you focus on too much order, you create the potential for disorder to arise. Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84 tackles this concept well. In the novel, a character called Aomame is forced into hiding. Tamaru is describing how he, her bodyguard and ally, would go about finding her:

“Expose you under a cold, harsh light. Use tweezers and a magnifying glass to check out every nook and cranny, to discover patterns in the way you act.”

“I don’t get it. Would an analysis like that turn up where I am now?”

“I don’t know,” Tamaru said. “It might, and it might not. It depends. I’m just saying, that’s what I would do Because I can’t think of anything else. Every person has his set routines when it comes to thinking and acting, and where there’s a routine there’s a weak point.”

“It sounds like a scientific investigation.”

“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.”

Routines make you vulnerable. They make you fragile. The more complex the routine, the more at risk you are. A ritual with one component is less risky than a process that has ten different elements.

To decrease your vulnerability to disorder and unforeseen circumstances, you have two options.

First, lessen what you need to perform. Fewer dependencies equal more reliability.

Second, practice environment-free productivity. Environment-free productivity means that no matter the circumstances, or the surroundings, or the tools available, you can perform.

To do this, you must get used to working in the quiet and working amongst noise. You must become attuned to working early in the morning and late at night. You must practice working with your favourite software, with your least favourite software, and with no software. You must be comfortable working in a notebook, on scraps of paper, on a whiteboard or using nothing but your mind. You must practise with the cheap, low-quality instrument and the expensive, precision instrument.

You must sever the relationship between your environment and your ability to perform. Environment must become irrelevant.

Routines and rituals help. But they also harm. They cause us to become reliant. They make us think we need them. But we don’t. We can break free from their grasp.

It’s easy to do your work in the right situation. It takes resilience and self-mastery to do your work in spite of everything that’s going on around you.

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Matthew Sweet writes daily about mastery, strategy and practical philosophy on his blog. When not writing, he reads, practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu and works on other projects. You can keep up with his work by signing up for his weekly newsletter.

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