The Morning Routine

I was reflecting today on the man I used to be. Before the age of 40, I’d published two critically acclaimed and award-winning books, collected four university degrees including a doctorate, earned a Black Belt in karate and advanced status in several other martial arts, had met the likes of Pierre Trudeau, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama, had travelled the world and had great loves, losses, and adventures.

Despite all that, I still felt like a failure back then. I didn’t have the things I really wanted: a wife and children, financial stability, and some sense of the trajectory my life and career should be on. Only now, in retrospect, do I see how productive I used to be, and how I even had leftover time and energy to be an insatiable reader, writer, and student of other arcane knowledge.

Today I looked back at how I used to spend my days, how I was able to maintain what now seems to me like a breakneck rate of productivity –even though at the time I felt I was procrastinating all the time.  I did so because I’ve been studying the behaviours of the stoics –Marcus Aurelius and Epectetus and Seneca– whose world outlook and discipline I’ve come to admire of late. And weirdly I find that I was already reflexively doing what they preach.

Back in the day, I would read a book every week; I would write a lengthy blog post every day, just on my random thoughts; I would complete a full workout before dawn; I would do all my mental self-management during a long morning walk, which I now realize was a kind of meditation; and I would get almost all my daily work done before noon…. and would waste the rest of the day whining about my life and feeling sorry for myself.

Most interesting to me is that I would reflexively practice what I have since learned that the stoics called “memento mori.” I would ask myself if I would care about a certain issue or crisis on my deathbed, many decades hence. That would be how I would gauge whether a thing warranted more than my passing focus.

Of course, these days the demands on my time and patience are far more extreme. Now I have a dog, a spouse, a toddler, a freshly widowed mother, an administratively demanding senior academic position, and I’m an Epidemiologist during a global pandemic. I realize that these additional demands and stressors are what have allowed the COVID- and vaccine-denialist trolls who fill my inbox with hate every day to beat me down mentally.

And so I have retreated to my philosophical roots. This is how I forgot to live.  Here are some quotes that resonate well with me today:

“Paper is more patient than people.” –Anne Frank

Anne was talking about how it is easier to share her thoughts with her journal than with actual human beings. In this era of sound bytes, in which I am regularly misquoted or misattributed, I now fear the microphone. The retreat to the blog is what I have missed, where I can expound fully in long form at whatever pace I wish. The fact that this blog is public is not ideal, as I continue to receive rude comments (that get deleted). But learning to filter than out is part of the spiritual challenge.

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.” –Marcus Aurelius

Now, I don’t say this. I expect the people I deal with will be pleasant and lovable. But of course my inbox betrays the lie of that desire. But what Marcus was saying is to steel oneself for the day’s social battle, to not be surprised by opposition or surliness. It’s not bad advice, especially given where I am right now in public engagement.

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” –Marcus Aurelius

I have failed at this a few times this past year. I have sunk to the level of my critics and “haters” and flung hate back in turn. I’m not proud of those moments.

“When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.” –Marcus Aurelius

Now, this is a fairly dismissive and superior attitude. It’s a useful position to hold, but I find it uncharitable. Translated: “those people who talk shit about you aren’t worth your time.” It’s an effective strategy, but takes me away from my preferred path… that of learning to love everyone, even those who hate me.

And so I prefer to meditate upon this quote from Marcus:

“Adapt yourself to the life you have been given; and truly love the people with whom destiny has surrounded you.” 

Whom has destiny chosen to surround me? Not just my family and friends, but those with whom I am tangentially connected. I try to love them all. I do fail regularly; but I try.

Looking back at my more productive years, I rankle at how my daily routine has shriveled. This is how I currently spend my day:

  • Wake up just after dawn
  • Walk the dog
  • Empty the dishwasher
  • Make tea for me and the missus
  • Deal with the waking baby if the missus hasn’t already done so
  • Make the baby’s breakfast and feed the baby
  • See the missus off to work (I work from home).
  • Tire the baby out for a couple of hours, then get him to his nap.
  • Check my email and argue with strangers on Twitter until the missus comes home midday.
  • Walk the dog.
  • Do my workout.
  • Eat.
  • Find some motivation to: get work done, rest, read, parent.

It’s not effective. Very little gets done.

So starting today I’m starting a new routine: “Make Before You Manage.” After self care and family care, my priority must be to complete the dominant creative task of the day –in my case it usually means writing something that’s due or overdue– then “managing” the boring administrative tasks, like email, second.

Let’s see how long I can maintain this. Wish me luck.