A little over a month ago, I achieved The Perfect Morning Routine.
On a good morning, I try to wake up around 4:30 a.m., and then, ideally, I would live the day I had a month ago over and over again:
Wake up and amble stiffly into the kitchen to make coffee and feed the cats a pouch of the criminally overpriced fancy-pants cat food that they demand to eat.
Write an essay about The Year of the Rooster, or whatever. An entire essay, please! And also make a small painting, because what is an essay without a painting?
Do a workout routine. Lately, you’ve been doing Fitness Blender videos for an hour in your kitchen. Kelli has such a flat stomach. Maybe someday you will also have a stomach like Kelli's! It may only require a few more days (months?) of failing at pop squats in front of your laptop.
At exactly sunrise, go for a walk. There’s all this research about how a walk in the morning will make you happier and sleep better and have a better diet. Why isn’t EVERYONE just walking in the morning? This is obviously the cure to every known human ailment. The science doesn’t say the walk should be exactly at sunrise, but that is when the good birds come out, and you might as well get a little birding in, right?
Make (FREE RANGE! ORGANIC! PREFERABLY FROM YOUR FRIEND’S FARM!) eggs with peppers, mushrooms, kale, and garlic. Eat them with half an orange, and put the other half in a Zip Lock bag. Waste not — but also, you don’t want the calories of an entire orange this early in the morning, do you? Eat this meal while reading the morning’s newspaper (on your computer — waste not).
Meditate. Your cats love when you do this. They show their enthusiasm by biting your hair a lot while you sit facing the wall. Think of it as a lucky challenge that you get to try to ignore this hair biting and focus on your breath.
Take a shower, get dressed, and leave the house for work by 8 a.m.
I congratulated myself on my Perfect Morning Routine and thought, “OK! Now I just have to do the same thing tomorrow and for the rest of my life and I will be a happy and healthy human for all of time. I will probably get to give a TED talk."
That was over a month ago. I don’t think I’ve even taken a morning walk since the morning of the perfect routine. (This is a disappointment, because Taking Morning Walks was my New Years’ Resolution. I mean, the science is so positive-sounding.) In truth, while the perfect morning routine made me feel proud and healthy and put me in a good mood for the rest of the day, achieving it felt akin to running a 10K for charity or turning in a 25-page research paper. It was good, but God, what a lot of work.
The writing has fallen to the wayside most noticeably. I am a morning writer — I find it very difficult to compose anything (other than passive aggressive emails) after the rest of the world has started using Facebook for the day. But I’ve been really enjoying working out in the morning in my kitchen. I have been doing it every morning since the beginning of November and I suddenly have these really big arm muscles that I am proud of. Also, it is cliche for a reason that exercising makes you feel less stressed out and happier overall.
The workout routines usually take about 90 minutes, and after they’re done I’m starving. Since I’ve just done a very healthy workout routine, I usually want to make a photo-ready “complete" breakfast like you see in Self Magazine. And by the time that’s done, and the dishes have been washed, there isn’t time to really sit down and write anymore. I relegate myself to polishing off work emails until everyone else wakes up.
And so I have this tricky little conundrum. Do I keep building up my awesome arm muscles, or do I go back to getting the kind of writing done that I’ve always prided myself on doing? I am very much a creature that thrives on habit, but I can’t decide which habit to choose! Those magic morning hours are sadly finite.
At work at The Writing Center last Monday, my boss sat down with me for a while between shifts. When I asked how she was, she looked sort of puzzled and said, “Well, good, I guess.” Then she added, “I’ve been organizing my time so much better lately. It’s been a goal of mine because I tend to let things pile up and procrastinate. So I’ve been doing a much better job of scheduling work in small chunks and getting things done on a specific plan. But, the thing is, I find I don’t have as much of that spontaneous joy time. The play-around time that existed in those big pockets back when I let everything pile up, you know what I mean?”
I really, really did know what she meant.
I remember something I learned in an improv class (there’s been no time for improv lately, either! Or comedy of any kind!) several years ago. The instructor had just done a lesson on how to map out games, and how to recognize and play with patterns. But I felt confused, because some of the rules about patterns and games couldn’t coexist with some of the other rules I’d learned about staying in character and being faithful to location. I asked the instructor about it, and he made this metaphor that feels so relevant here:
You get a set number of invisible decision tokens every time you do a scene. Let’s say you get five. The tokens represent the strategies you get to use as you play in each scene. You have five tokens, but there are at least ten strategy slot machines that you have access to, and you have to decide where you are going to distribute your tokens. You might want to put them all into the “Strong Character” machine, and that would be great, because you’d become known as a person who played really strong characters. You might want to spread them out and put them in five different machines. That could be really cool, but you also might find that you’re spread too thin. And there is literally no way to get a coin in every machine; you physically can’t do it. You have to make that decision instantly, every time you walk on stage. It’s a very difficult balance, but you learn to strike it in a way that works for you.
And then I think he made some kind of off-color joke about gambling. That part is less relevant.
There are too many healthy lives to lead, and you can’t lead them all at once. That is actually a fairly wonderful problem to have. It’s like having two girls (hypothetically named “Betty” and “Veronica”) who are both great in different ways be totally into you. (Too bad Betty and Veronica aren’t into polyamory, though, huh?)
The trick, then, has little to do with how you distribute your energy, and everything to do with how easily you can accept that you cannot do everything; and with how readily you can be gentle with yourself when it seems everyone else can. I assure you: nobody can do everything they want to do. If we could, life would be very boring. There is no perfect balance; just a lot of seductive slot machines that may or may not reward you the way you want to be rewarded. So it goes. Not, ultimately, a bad problem to have.