The Form of No-Form
For over ten years, my life has had no routine. Well, at least no routine that lasted longer then four months. That’s the approximate length of a standard college semester. Even those four month periods were flexible. I had class in the afternoon, so I would plan to go to work in the morning, but two weeks into the semester switched my work day to attend a critical meeting, and so it goes. My four month routine ends up being a month of working out a new routine, a month of sticking to that routine, a month of slacking off, and a month of working feverishly to finish all assignments by the end of the semester. Then there are a few weeks off before this bizarre cycle starts all over again.
Ten years later, I’ve almost given up. The best I can do is try to get up and go to sleep within a one hour window each day. Otherwise, I eat at different times, shower at different times, exercise at different times, go to class or go to work at different times, and study who the hell knows when. Consequently, I’ve never found any kind of routine that “works” for me. You know what I mean – the kind of habit that’s so easy it’s effortless, the one you don’t have to think about, you just do without looking at your datebook. Yet every semester I try again.
It’s the “free time” that’s the hardest. I can be trusted to show up to class and to work. But when I make a commitment to myself to spend every Monday afternoon studying…well, that’s easy to break. So as I contemplate the coming semester, I am once again scheduling in study blocks and writing blocks (but no work blocks) and class times. And I’m once again telling myself that this time I am really, really, really going to stick to my schedule. I’m even writing the obligatory “turning over a new leaf” blog post.
I realize it’s really quite meaningless. The form is there – but there’s nothing to make me do it, nothing at all. But there’s also nothing stopping me – except myself.
Isn’t that always how it is? With every bad habit, every addiction, every character flaw we want so desperately to change, the only thing standing in our way is ourself. That “self” seems so insurmountable, so immutable. It is the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. And it’s so … very … FRUSTRATING!!! Because we know, despite all our good intentions, we KNOW we’re gonna do it again or fail to do it again. This knowledge is so strong we psych ourselves out before we even try.
But you know what else? When I was ten years old, I jumped head first off the diving board. I’d spent all summer in swim lessons being coached and cajoled and guilted and bribed and I’d still never jumped head first off the diving board. But a month later at the pool of our health club, I just got up there and did it. No one told me to. No one was watching. No one congratulated me. I just did it. I didn’t even brag to my dad later. I just got back up on the diving board and did it again.
When I was fourteen, I stopped chewing my nails. When I was fifteen I got behind the wheel of a car for the first time and drove on the interstate ten minutes later. When I was twenty-two I went back to the university I’d dropped out of four years prior. When I was twenty-four, I got on a train to Colorado and learned how to meditate at a mountain retreat center. And when I was thirty, I picked up and moved to LA to totally change my future. A few weeks ago, I got on a surfboard for the first time (and promptly feel off).
What is unique about all those things is that there was no elaborate plan. There was no psyching myself into it (or out of it). Yes, I investigated outcomes and there was some weighing of options and preparation involved in many of those decisions – but I just did them. I spent the moments leading up to and following those decisions living entirely in the present. There was no form, no set schedule, no rules to adhere to, no demanding self-imposed goals.
So this semester, that’s all I’m going to try to do. I’m not going to make promises to myself I know I can’t keep. As painful as it was, I hit delete on all the planned study blocks in my calendar. It looks so blank, so painfully white, and I’m going to leave it that way. I’m going to embrace the lack of routine, of structure and form. Instead, I’ll try no form but the present moment – and in four months, I’ll try to report back on how it went.