How I came to feel at home in predictable routines
Two months ago, I went from being unemployed to working full-time. And despite having lost autonomy over 40 hours of my week, I decided to hold on to all my beloved hobbies: meditation, writing, reading, seeing friends, bouldering, dancing, and attending social dance parties.
This required some serious planning and restructuring. Here’s what my new routine looks like:
- I wake up at around 6 a.m., or latest at 6:30 a.m. on remote days.
- I write for 20–60 min before work. I now often skip meditation in favor of writing.
- I read on the 35-minute bus ride to work. On remote days, I sometimes read first thing in the morning: I tend to be too sleepy to read for more than 10 to 15 minutes in the evenings.
- After work, I go to my hobbies (salsa, bachata, reggaeton, bouldering) with the power of a snack.
- I eat dinner around 8 or 8:30 p.m. (which is not ideal considering my early bedtime).
- I prep my breakfast (and occasionally lunch) in the evenings to have hassle-free mornings and cram in more writing time.
- I go to bed at around 10 p.m.
- I do almost all household chores — cleaning, doing laundry, shopping for groceries, running errands, and meal prepping — on the weekend.
I thought I’d feel stressed and overwhelmed by my new routine. And I did, for about a month. But after that, an array of other emotions settled in. Calm, clarity, comfort. Safety and relief. Things falling into place.
I felt at home in my busyness like I know this, I’ve been here before.
I was happy that I’d managed to retain almost all of my hobbies. But I was also confused: Why did this feel so familiar?
When I looked up familiar in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, three definitions stood out to me:
- frequently seen or experienced
- possibly known but imperfectly remembered
- of or relating to family
What was it that I’d frequently seen or experienced? What was it that I possibly knew but imperfectly remembered? What was it that related to family?
What my weekdays looked like growing up
Sometimes my friends wonder why I’m so good at waking up early, why I never snooze, and why I’m able to function the minute I get up. Well, I had to — for ten years.
Growing up, my entire family went to work or school in Helsinki although we lived in Hyvinkää, a small city in Southern Finland. Helsinki is 57 kilometers south of Hyvinkää, which meant that our commute was an hour and twenty minutes — one way. We commuted for two hours and forty minutes a day.
There was a reason for this madness (the local schools were fine). We had lived in Munich for a year when I was seven and my sister was nine, and when we got back, my sister found the Helsinki German School website while surfing the internet with our German au pair. We asked our parents if we could go to that school, and when they said “yes,” we participated in the entrance exams and got accepted.
My parents were already commuting to Helsinki for work, so I guess they didn’t see the commute as too much of a problem. But it significantly changed our daily lives.
The classes at Helsinki German School began at 8 a.m. This meant catching the 6:42 train from Hyvinkää, which meant leaving home at 6:30 a.m., which meant waking up at 5:40 a.m.
So when I heard the alarm ring, I just got up. No objections, no negotiations, nothing. Because if I objected or negotiated, I’d miss the train. Literally. (The idea of snoozing is almost offensive in this context: as if you’d set your alarm for 5:20 or 5:30 a.m. to doze off for a bit more. Hell no. You take those precious 10 minutes. Uninterrupted.)
When the alarm rang, I started my morning drill: Get dressed (in the outfit I’d chosen the night before), wash my face, brush my hair, eat a quick breakfast (a cheese and salami sandwich, yogurt, and orange juice — the same every morning), use the toilet, brush my teeth, grab my school bag (also packed the night before), put on a jacket, get out the door.
Although we knew the drill, the last minutes of the morning could be quite chaotic: Mom going through her other purses to find the keys, me leaping to the second-floor bathroom to grab some extra hair pins, my sister fumbling through the drawers to spot a missing a mitten. And yes, it was one of us three. While we were running around the house, Dad was sitting in the car and waiting, ready to drive us to the Hyvinkää train station.
By 6:30 a.m. we were all in the car. Or perhaps it was 6:32. But we never missed the train, not once; the five or six times I was late for school during those ten years, it was always the train’s fault.
My family knew how to do mornings. We also knew how to do afternoons and evenings.
Once my sister and I got home from school, we ate an early dinner. Dinner was whatever we found in the fridge or freezer. Early in the week, we had leftovers from Dad’s weekend cooking — lasagna, meat stew, macaroni casserole, “French” fish soup, pasta bolognese. The rest of the week we had convenience foods.
We shared a minced-meat or tuna pizza. We heated up plastic-wrapped hamburgers or hot dogs in the microwave. We baked frozen French fries and fish fingers or chicken nuggets in the oven. We cooked basmati rice and heated up precooked chicken strips, which we spiced up with chili ketchup. We boiled spinach and ricotta tortellini, poured over some cooking cream, and grated Pecorino Romano on top. We drank orange juice from concentrate. Always orange juice.
After dinner, we sat down at the big living room table and continued working on the homework we hadn’t finished on the train. I tried to swipe the eraser crumbs neatly to the side of the exercise book because I knew Dad would get angry if he found them on the floor.
At 5:30 or 6 p.m., Mom and Dad came home and had dinner. I mean if you can call it dinner: They ate bread, crackers, and cheese — never a second warm meal.
Sometimes Dad came home earlier. I remember the tension in the air when the key turned in the lock and he called “Hello”; we knew he’d raise his voice if he found dirty dishes lying in the sink or books or clothes scattered on the lower steps of the staircase. But for some reason I don’t recall him being there in the afternoons: He probably went to run some errands or work in the garage.
Mom, on the other hand, often sat down with us after dinner to help with homework. (Dad also occasionally helped with physics and chemistry.) She would quiz us about World War II or traveling-related English terms. Helping out with math was her favorite. She was good at it and she really enjoyed explaining things and solving equations with us.
After homework, my sister and I were off to our hobbies. We both did group gymnastics — at its peak, five times a week, one session being ballet. My sister also did other sports, and I went to a crafts school once a week for seven years.
At about 8 p.m., we were back from our hobbies. After putting away our stuff and showering, it was evening snack time. We’d sit down at the living room table and have some bread with cheese and ham or salami, yogurt, and some orange juice (we had a stock of several liters in the kitchen drawer) or the juice Dad had made from the red- and blackcurrants growing in our backyard.
Usually, the whole family sat together for this final meal of the day. We’d talk about school or training while the TV blabbered on in the background. A late-night talk show, a murder mystery, the news. At 10 pm it was time for bed.
The familiarity with what you grew up with
My childhood weekdays had a particular rhythm. Ta-ta ti-ti-ti-ti ta-ta ti-ti ta-ta too. This rhythm kept me in the groove, stripping away anything unnecessary and minimizing decision-making. It told me what I needed to do and when I needed to do it. It also taught me that predictability isn’t bad; it means things are flowing.
Now, in 2023, I again follow a rhythm. I know what I need to do and when I need to do it. And I feel like I’m in my element.
First, I was surprised by it. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. If your childhood wasn’t a complete disaster, something resembling it will evoke a sense of home. I’ve seen this in other people, too.
A friend of mine had recently visited Stockholm and mentioned that she could consider moving there one day. Her boyfriend and she had stayed in a hotel on the outskirts of the city. And she’d really liked it. Compared to Helsinki, which could feel confined and homogeneous, Stockholm had felt buzzing and diverse. The area around the hotel had reminded her of where she grew up in in Germany. It had felt familiar. It had felt right. So right that one day she could consider calling it home.
Our childhood rhythms condition us into a certain way of being in the world, a style of life. The beat patterns we hear around us growing up are the ones we’ll find familiar later on. If our current style of life doesn’t match this rhythm, we may feel a bit off — or not notice anything at all. But if it does, we feel a sense of alignment.
I guess the question is: Is this a bad thing? And in my case, more specifically: Is it a bad thing that being busy and having a predictable routine feels familiar?
The style of life I adopted growing up is a powerful tool.
I know how to design efficient routines. I’m great at solving everyday Rubik’s cubes, switching things around to retain all my beloved hobbies with 40 hours less time than before.
I know how to act with intention. I have the self-discipline to rule out anything unnecessary like scrolling social media or streaming Netflix.
Most of all, I know how to execute. I know how to focus like a bloodhound on what I’m currently doing and to transition from one setting to another like a chameleon.
These are all very useful skills. But they come with a downside.
Being very routine-driven reduces spontaneity and leaves little room for activities outside the regular itinerary. I missed out on a Tuesday-night user research meet-up because it overlapped with my weekly salsa and bachata classes. And for now, I’ve decided not to date; with limited time, I prioritize friends over lovers.
Being routine-driven comes with a more significant downside as well: missing out on bigger moves. Moves like taking a sabbatical to Vietnam, writing a book, or attending a three-month artist residency.
These things require breaking the routine. They require clearing out space in the calendar and dropping weekly hobbies. And for someone for whom routines feel like snuggling under a blanket on a rainy day, they require courage, dreaming bigger and acting on those dreams.
I’ve become increasingly aware that I may be missing out on other styles of life. Styles that due to my upbringing feel foreign, distant, and unavailable to me. But styles that could disclose exciting new worlds.
“If you’re not planning to travel all over the world while working there, don’t take the job.” This is what my sister said when I was trying to decide on a content design position at Finnair, Finland’s flagship airline. I had told her about the main employee benefit, cheap flight tickets on unsold seats, and about not being sure how much I’d use it. One of my concerns was needing to break my safe and familiar routine to accommodate more frequent traveling.
Spoiler alert: I took the job.
The irony of landing this particular job is not lost on me. I’ve previously written about my longing to go abroad and my inability to act on it. Now I have one less excuse to go on adventures.
A few weeks ago, I nonchalantly began a list of places to visit. It starts off modest: Edinburgh, Bologna, Zürich, Trondheim, Amsterdam — cities where friends or family live or which I could do extended weekend trips to. But more recently, I’ve started adding in destinations that benefit from longer trips: Singapore, China, Japan, India, South Korea.
Beware, routine. I’m making new kinds of plans.