When I was six years old, I started waking up at exactly 6 a.m. Every morning, my Mickey Mouse alarm clock would shriek, “Good morning! How are you? Wake up!” for 15 shrill seconds before I would slap it off, jump out of bed, and go downstairs to do the locomotion with Kylie Minogue. It was the first routine I ever made.
I went to school surrounded by kids who looked nothing like me. So I infused routine and structure into almost every activity as a way to control what I could: I forced my mom to drop me off at school at the same exact time each day so I could be the first one there. If she was running late, I would pick up my backpack, open the front door, and start walking. I always ate an Eggo waffle for breakfast with the same amount of syrup glazing, but never pooling in, the same exact holes. I always ate my salad first, vegetables second, and protein last for dinner. I put my backpack on the same chair every day after school, changed, and then immediately sat down to do my homework, refusing to be distracted by anything until it was finished.
The more bound I was by routine, the freer I felt. Making routines out of everything made me feel like I was in control of my own destiny. It didn’t matter if I didn’t look like anyone at school, or in the magazines, or on television; it didn’t matter if no one understood me. I could make myself into myself through sheer force of will.
My routines started as a subconscious way to control what I could but slowly morphed into the definition of who I was. When I went to college, I wrote every paper by hand at least a week before it was due. Today, I wake up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. and immediately make a pot of Jamaica Blue before writing for an hour. My propensity for routine forms the backbone of every goal I have ever met in my life.
“Can you stop being so type A? Jesus. Just fucking chill,” a friend once demanded of me when I was forcing her decidedly type-B personality to put some structure into place for a planned vacation. I thought for a second, Could I stop being type A? Probably not. And I realized even if I could, I didn’t want to.
To be simultaneously praised and vilified for your routines is to live with what people think of as a type-A personality.
“I can’t tolerate people who slow me down” and “I could turn anything into a competition” are common questions on a type A/B personality test. But what those tests don’t ask is: “Did you feel a need to protect yourself as a child?” Or: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how out of place do you feel in the world?” Or: “Strongly agree/disagree, did you think it could all fall apart at any moment?”
Routines exist on a slippery spectrum. There are the ones we create for ourselves that others praise, the ones that make us more productive and healthier, like running four miles four times a week. Then there are the embarrassing habits we keep to ourselves or to our partners, the ones we don’t even realize are ingrained in the fabric of our personalities (like needing to change the sheets three times a week; otherwise, you won’t be able to sleep). And then, out of nowhere, there are the ones we do because we feel we have to. The ones we do just to keep the lights on.