To Plan or Not to Plan…
How our routines or lack of them contribute to stress.
We each have our own unique style of conducting our daily lives. Some of us plan what to wear for the day, the night before. Others won’t know what they’ll eat for dinner until they look in the fridge a half hour beforehand.
The way we go about our day says a lot about our personal style. Many aspects of how we carry ourselves through the day become habit. When we’re stressed, we’re even more likely to fall back on our habitual ways – they can seem to offer a measure of familiarity and security when we feel otherwise a little out of control.
But what if the way we go about our day exacerbates stress, or even creates it?
Our personal style can itself be a stress additive or preservative. Here, I will look specifically at “Lack of Routine and Scheduling” and “Too Much Routine and Scheduling”, as two common styles that can contribute to and perpetuate stress.
You will probably know immediately which of these is likely to be an issue for you – your love or hate of plans and lists gives the game away. You are also probably ready to defend your way of life. Good. You know what works for you, and yes, that’s unlikely to change significantly. But there is a point at which your routines, or lack of them, can become a hindrance, and where you could benefit from adding an alternative approach to your repertoire.
The beauty of routine
Michelle Bridges, in her Sunday Life column in the Sun Herald a couple of months back, sang the praises of routine. She argued fairly that in past generations, without today’s communications technology, planning and advance arrangements were necessary. Things were done more habitually, same time and place, over and again. Today, we are far more reactive, darting here, there and anywhere with the help of our mobile devices.
Michelle advocates getting into a routine and forming habits of regular exercise and healthy eating, saying that, “habits are the perfect foil for motivation, which is notoriously fickle.” How true! So much easier to be able to exercise and eat well on auto pilot, rather than having to constantly muster the motivation and make conscious decisions to exercise and choose healthy foods.
It’s a strong argument in favour of routine and scheduling – if you make being fit and healthy a habit, you will certainly reduce your stress levels!
Routine and scheduling can reduce unnecessary decision making and frustration in other ways too. If you work late every Monday night, why not plan to prepare a double quantity meal on another night. This way you won’t have to decide what to do for dinner late every Monday when you’re tired – or feel frustrated by wasting money and uninspired calories on the closest takeaway.
Establishing routines is especially worthwhile when your stress involves relationships. Does Mum complain that you don’t call enough? Do her messages make you feel guilty? When you do think to call, does the time difference confound you? You may be resistant but having a routine can help here. Schedule a regular call as often (or infrequently) as is suitable. This way you can manage her expectations, reduce messages and guilt as well as remove the need to decide when you will call. Perhaps you don’t like to be locked in, but really, which method frees you up more?
The beauty of being ‘off schedule’
Also in Sunday Life a couple of months back, Sarah Wilson wrote in her column about the ‘wilderness effect’. She woke feeling blah one morning and decided to head in to town on foot, cross-country. On the way she got stuck in a swamp with mangroves and leeches. She no longer felt blah!
She attributed the positive change in her mood to the wilderness effect, whereby contact with nature makes you feel better. She also alluded to feeling wonderfully ‘off schedule’, a pleasant change when “our lives are bogged down by our constant need to steer and control and schedule.´
We all know the value of a break from the daily grind. And as city dwellers, most of us appreciate the positive effect of going bush. But there’s more to this….it hints at a problem with those of us who live in strict accordance with our lists and schedules.
The best plans and routines are those that free you up. They stop you from getting bogged down with daily pressures. If you’re on top of your credit card payments, you won’t face additional stress with being overdrawn, having to follow up on failed auto-debits and pay late fees.
But when routines are a crutch against feeling out of control they backfire. Your schedule becomes rigid and you feel dependent on it. Any threat to your plans is source of anxiety. At this point stress and panic are just waiting to happen.
It’s critical to budget for the unexpected and make room for flexibility. If you can, welcome uncertainty from time to time– it’s going to arise whether you like it or not.
Apply the ‘out-of-control test’
Life is often unpredictable. Habitual ‘over-scheduling’ diminishes our capacity to be flexible and calm in the face of even small inconveniences. On the other hand, a habitual lack of routine and planning subjects us to constant and recurring daily pressures – having to react and make decisions over and again.
Underpinning both styles is a desire to avoid feeling out of control. Planners tend to want to avoid uncertainty because it makes them feel out of control. Anti-planners tend to avoid locking anything in because that makes them feel out of control.
By all means relish your style of operating whether it champions streamlined routines, or the flexibility of being unscheduled.
But at stressful times apply the ‘out-of-control’ test. When you find yourself intent on making plans or furiously avoiding them, ask yourself what’s motivating you. If you suspect it’s about wanting to feel in control, consider a different approach.
If a period of long hours at work is looming and some forward planning will prevent you from failing to meet personal commitments, great. That’s quite different to desperately clinging to plans and making endless lists for fear of feeling out of control. In this case, try encouraging yourself to brave the uncertainty and go with the flow a little. Alternatively, notice if you’re resisting having to commit to any arrangements because you’ll feel like you’ve lost control. Take a risk, and agree to make some plans.
Both establishing routines and allowing yourself to be flexible have their value. The key is in finding the right balance.
I’d welcome hearing about your experiences or ideas for balancing routine with going with the flow.