#72: Losing my routine

#72: Losing my routine

This week I share the story of realizing how my beautiful morning routine had mutated, and what I have to do about it.

These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.


Story

I have loved my mornings since changing jobs to work for Factor. One of the problems I faced at my previous company was a meeting-addicted culture. Most mornings I started with a meeting at 8:00a or earlier. That was hard for me. The morning is often the most productive time for me to think or write or do deep work, and there was almost never the chance to do that.

When I had the freedom to craft my own schedule without so many people to coordinate with, I settled into a routine. It looked something like this:

  • Wake at 6:00a
  • Work out1 and shower
  • Read 10 minutes2
  • 30 minute Mindful Sketch exercise
  • Daily planning3
  • Eat standard breakfast4
  • Start working

I love this routine with my whole heart.

In therapy recently, I was sharing some of the struggles I’ve been having with OCD taking over in areas of my life. That often manifests as increased irritation, mostly with my family. The normal fluctuations in schedule of managing a house with nine people can throw me completely off.

I described a few days where my routine was thrown off. One day my wife left her purse and keys in my van, so I needed to pick the kids up from seminary class and return the purse. Another day I left my change of clothes at home, which I realized after a sweaty workout. I told my therapist about being thrown by every little plan change, and how hard it was to have a bunch of days start disrupted. Her reply was something like this,

I hate so much about what I’m hearing.

She said that if my morning routine was carrying over into the rest of the day and improving my ability to handle change and uncertainty, then she was all for it. But as it was, the routine needed to die.

I resisted immediately. And with good reason, I thought. I told her that on the days when I was able to do my morning routine, I was more flexible. The day went better. I was able to roll with things. It was on the days when I couldn’t do my routine that I was thrown off.

She laughed a little and asked me to describe what the routine had become. I was at a loss. She prompted me: “If you have a series of steps that you must follow in order for life to be ok and work out, what is that?” I still had no idea.

I was frustrated. Often, when OCD is taking over, the first casualty is insight. And I know that. Usually, it doesn’t take much for me to see through the fog and identify where I am going off course. But this day, I couldn’t. And I knew I couldn’t. I felt locked and blind and inadequate. I knew there was something to see, but it wouldn’t compute.

Finally, she told me. “It’s a compulsion. You have created a compulsion. Something that you have to follow perfectly in order for the day to go well.”

Part of me knew she was right, and part of me still fought. “That’s not it! It’s just a helpful way to start my day.”

“Yes, but all the instances you shared of distress and irritation came when your routine didn’t happen.”

I broke down and started weeping. “How can something so good be wrong?”

We talked for a bit about how things that might be good for most people can become dangerous with OCD. The issue is not the routine itself. The problem is in allowing my mind to dictate what I must do in order to be able to function in the day. When that happens, I have to challenge it. I have to lean in to the uncertainty. It’s a great routine, and if I’m able to do those things, that’s fantastic. But they are not a right. If they can’t happen on a particular day, that’s ok. Or at least, it has to become ok.

My therapist told me we need to be eliminating areas where OCD is creeping in and taking over. Recovery looks like embracing uncertainty, choosing flexibility, and surrendering control.

Lesson

Balance has always been, and may always be, one of the most difficult things for me. I love for things to be ordered and predictable. Routine is comfortable and protective. Uncertainty is scary and distressing.

The key is to lean in to what’s hard. The more I can confront the demons in my mind, the less of a grip they have on me. It’s the fear of the unknown that is the most daunting. Get to know them, and they are no longer frightening.

Challenge

Over the coming week, my challenge to myself, and to you if you’ll accept it, is to disrupt routine intentionally. Find expectations and shatter them. How often are our predictions correct anyway? Hardly ever.

When the disruption happens, sit in the distress. Instead of trying to push it away, bring it closer and examine it. What color is it? What texture does it have? Where does it show up in the body?

When viewed with curiosity, the distress can lose some of its power. It no longer has a stranglehold. It can be managed effectively.

Let’s give that a try, you and I. And as we do, remember to ramp up compassion. This is hard stuff.

  1. On days when I don’t have to drive the kids to class, I have been trying the Apple Fitness+ HIIT workouts. They’re great to move and elevate my heart rate without requiring exercise equipment. When I do carpool, I’ve been doing a yoga workout instead. At least, that’s the goal. 

  2. I started with Turn the Ship Around, by L. David Marquet, and am now reading The Power of Moments, by Chip and Dan Heath. 

  3. I use the Focus Course Digital Planner from Shawn Blanc and the great folks at the Sweet Setup. I attended their webinar introducing the planner and captured some sketchnotes

  4. My wife came up with a dish that I have loved and happily eat every day: chopped apple, oatmeal flakes, cinnamon, and peanut butter, microwaved and stirred up. It is delicious, it’s good for me, it’s the perfect way to start the day. Usually I read Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown as I eat it.