Years ago, a series of well-placed Facebook ads convinced me to buy an enhanced planner (at a very high price point) “specifically engineered” to help me build a successful routine.
I was excited for its arrival, and gleefully leapt into the protocol that the planner advised: painting an ideal morning routine that began with journaling, and culminated in an hour of expansive creative writing — with yoga, exercise, walking, coffee, and more in between.
I had so much fun packing every single productivity dream I’d ever harbored into this ideal morning that the routine itself, once I “timed” it out, would have stretched into midday, if not late afternoon.
Needless to say, the routine did not stick.
In fact, sketching the routine out had the opposite effect: I decided, defensively, after a few weeks of clumsy takeoffs and rocky failures, that it was routine itself which was stifling me, holding me back from experiencing open, joyful creation, keeping me from my every goal!
I returned to the un-routinized, and…to fitting in the things I loved to do only when they occurred to me. I loved them, though, so that was alright — right?
Wrong. Overshadowed by all the mundane daily tasks and ripe anxieties of modern living, those moments of joyful creation turned out to be very rare indeed (mostly late at night, a few times a month, after existential crises and productive blitzkriegs of self-chastisement and self-directed rage tired me out).
Eventually, I realized I was being absurd. Unlike the “specifically engineered” planner, I did not have to create modular units for my entire life from morning until night, and I did not have to create a schedule for rest and relaxation for every weekend (9:02–9:16, Read; 9:16–9:18, Pee; 9:18–9:19, Wash Hands; etc).
But I did need to create some structure, some kind of plan. I needed to scaffold for myself the acts of creation which I knew made me happy (writing), and the acts of life which I knew supported that creation (reading, walking). I needed to remind myself daily to create a routine which I know would open the window to letting more joy enter my life.
What I built was something I call my Joy Menu. (Sometimes called a Jo(e)y Menu — patent pending).
The idea: to create a list of all the actions that bring me joy and help me work towards my medium and long-term goals, and to assign myself these tasks daily — not with the prescriptive strictures of specific times, time spans, or a required order, but with the mindful pressure to do as many as possible every day, and the satisfying motivation of getting to “check them off” (literally!) once they’re complete.
I started the list with every single thing I could imagine doing daily to bring me creative joy or to facilitate a mind clear of worry so as to allow for creative expression later on: writing, reading, stretching, walking, bathing, working out, meditating, translating, cleaning, organizing, studying, planning. I made the goal to do at least 5 per day. Then, after a few weeks, I reassessed: How many was I actually doing? How many were beginning to feel like a drag? How many were becoming a natural, and energizing, part of my creative life?
Then I adjusted accordingly: relieving myself of some of the more ostentatious (or less joyful) tasks (like cleaning; what was I thinking?) and replacing them with tasks which felt more essential to the joy I was seeking to create in my life.
The result was that over time, I began to internalize the tasks — to remember them without the need of the listing prompt — and I began to naturally create a routine which involved their daily completion. For example: I noticed I was beginning each day with journaling, reading for 30 minutes during lunch, studying French in the evening after dinner, and writing for an hour every night before bed.
I wasn’t forcing it, and I wasn’t beating myself up. Rather, practicing these joyful acts was what I looked forward to most in my day.
Somehow, in allowing myself to build the simplest, most organic and most enjoyable routine, I’d built momentum for the incremental actions I so long wanted to prioritize, and I’d invited myself to be more joyful, more loving, and more productive, without having to force my round-pegged will into a square-pegged lifestyle.
Skip the $76 journal; I’ll sell you a Joy Menu for free.