Andy Gainey

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New Attitude Toward Routines

I have noticed routines frequently mentioned as a trait common among autistic people.  Reflecting on my personal experiences, I initially had a difficult time figuring out my mental association with routines.  I did not perceive that I had a stronger attachment to routines than an average person, nor a larger number of them, nor more intricately detailed routines.  And that perception may have been entirely accurate and the end of my investigation; variation among autistic people is significant, and few are going to exhibit every single classic trait of autism.

But I had a nagging suspicion that there was more to this than was immediately apparent.  I had a subtle feeling that although I presently had few well defined routines, and did not have aggressive attachments to them, that might be due to suppression of a tendency toward routine, rather than simply not having such a tendency.  Of course, avoiding excessive reliance on routine can be healthy.  Especially in a highly social home life, school life, and work life, situations that benefit greatly from flexibility.

But this year is the first time in my life that I’ve lived on my own, without family or roommates, am not going to school, and work by myself from home.  What if my avoidance of routine, which was previously necessary for healthy living, is now limiting my quality of life or my productivity?  I had already noticed that my focus on flexibility had often made it difficult for me to commit to activities that required concentration, out of a desire to remain mentally prepared for the unpredictable.  And in general, I found it hard to develop healthy habits like good dental hygiene, because I simply lacked the appropriate scheduled framework and attitude to do so.  I decided it was time to switch it up:  Instead of practicing my skill of remaining flexible in any situation, a skill which had already become reasonably honed through years of exercise, I would shift my focus over to practicing the development of constructive routines.

I’m only three weeks in with my experimentation, but I’m impressed with the results I’ve already achieved in such a short time.  This definitely supports my suspicion that I was suppressing my desire for routine.  Allow me to describe some of the aspects of the routines I’ve developed so far, my reasons for designing them as I have, and some of the benefits I’ve noticed.

The first point is to note that routines can have a variety of time scales.  So far, my recent focus has been on routines that take less than an hour to complete, and routines that help order my daily structure.  I’ve also been maintaining a light weekly routine since January.  Future experimentation will likely delve into monthly and yearly routines; maybe even longer ones for helping to guide the trajectory of my life on a grand scale.  There are also numerous areas where additional small scale routines could come in handy, such as routines for beginning or switching between tasks, or for structuring activities like practicing the drums or cooking.  This post will focus on the short routines.  I’ll follow up with more details about my daily and weekly routines in later posts.

Morning and Nighttime Routines

The first step I took was to try to develop routines for starting and ending each day.  I felt that a morning routine could be particularly valuable as a means of ensuring that I don’t sleep in too often.  As is surely true for many people, I have found getting out of bed to be particularly hard when I don’t have a clear idea of what I need to do that requires getting up.  And even if I know the overall gist of what I intend to accomplish that day, not knowing the very next step can be enough to keep me lazily in bed.  (“Just for a few more minutes; that surely won’t hurt my ability to still get everything done that I intend, right?”)  One piece of good advice that I’ve found while researching executive dysfunction and mental inertia challenges (1, 2, 3, 4) is to start a larger task by identifying a clear and simple initial task, one that is not daunting to consider, maybe even trivial to accomplish.  I think that this is especially important advice for the the task that is “the day”.  As such, here is how I begin most days:

  1. Head for the bathroom.
  2. Relieve the digestive system, if necessary.
  3. Even if not necessary, I have another simple cause for going straight to the bathroom without thought:  Rinse my mouth with mouthwash.
  4. Begin a pot of coffee.
  5. While the coffee is brewing, do some stretches, 30 seconds for each stretch.
  6. Once the coffee is done and I’m through my stretches, turn on my computer, grab some coffee, prepare breakfast, and sit at my desk.
  7. Make a report in my journal.  (I’ve been doing so digitally using Evernote, but any type of journal would work.)
    1. How do I feel right now?  (Am I groggy, energized, enthused, annoyed, depressed?)
    2. What are my thoughts regarding the day ahead of me?  (Did I schedule too much, too little?  Do I have an event that I’m looking forward to or dreading?)
  8. Check my email, favorite websites, Twitter, et cetera, while I consume breakfast.

And then in the evening I spend some time unwinding from whatever activity last occupied my time, in preparation for falling asleep.  I get some minor but useful chores done in the process:

  1. Floss my teeth.
  2. Brush my teeth.
  3. Begin an end-of-day report in my journal.
    1. How did the day go?
    2. How do I feel right now?
    3. What does tomorrow’s schedule look like?  Do I want to change anything?
  4. Collect dirty dishes scattered around and wash them all, putting them in the drainer to dry overnight.
  5. Continue my report in my journal.  (I can reflect and develop some of my thoughts while washing dishes.)
  6. Get into my pajamas, and collect any clothes scattered around the house, putting them wherever they belong.
  7. Finish my journal, if I had any more thoughts.
  8. Turn off computer and lights, close windows, ensure doors are locked, et cetera.
  9. Begin charging my mobile devices.
  10. Go to bed.

I was surprised at how quickly I was able to adopt these routines.  Not that it’s been perfect.  I have certainly failed some mornings and evenings, but I refrained from beating myself up over it.  Some days are just different, and there’s no point in forcing routine where it doesn’t fit well.

I also had included plans for a simpler midday routine that consisted of lunch, brushing my teeth, and recording a report of how the day was going thus far and whether there were any adaptions I was making to my schedule.  But I had a much harder time remembering this routine.  I suspected this was because there was no consistent “anchor event” to which I could attach the routine.  The morning and evening routines were easier because they were anchored to the acts of getting out of and into bed.

Results

So this first phase of constructing routines wasn’t perfect. But I did see some initial benefits. For one, my dental hygiene is better and more consistent than it ever has been. Building habits can be hard, but it has felt far easier because the individual habits fit into a larger structure, rather than just floating about independently.

I’ve also noticed that my awareness of my schedule is stronger since I’m reflecting on and recording my thoughts and feelings about the day’s activities. This has allowed me to more rapidly identify things that are working well or are struggling, and to think up new strategies to make each day more productive. Some of these changes were as simple as minor rearrangements of the items in the above list. For example, flossing was not initially the first item on the nighttime list. But that made it tempting to skip. By putting at the very front, I was more motivated to not even think about the rest of the list until flossing was complete, and have thus been able to floss consistently pretty much every single night.

Other changes were much bigger. As noted, I needed some way to enable a midday routine to stick. I also was having a hard time staying motivated throughout the day to get stuff done. A little over a week ago, inspired by a Saturday packed with ten hours of solid productivity, I began my next major phase of experimentation with routine, this time by designing a consistent structure for each day as a whole, and the results so far have been phenomenal. I’ll dive into these details soon. (Also, colorful pictures!)

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Footnotes

(1)Inertia: From Theory to Praxis, by Anna Sullivan (http://archive.autistics.org/library/inertia.html)

(2)Autistic Inertia: An Overview, by Sparrow Rose Jones (http://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/autistic-inertia-an-overview/)

(3)Inertia, by Kalen Molton from alt.support.autism (https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups#!msg/alt.support.autism/Eu8k-7BKoKE/coOFxjGwF04J)

(4)Ten reasons to love a timer if you have executive function issues, by Aspergia Jones (http://www.lettersfromaspergia.com/2014/08/ten-reasons-to-love-timer-if-you-have.html)