The vice of a routine
By: Pulkit Sharma
Published on: April 11, 2015

Dr Amit (name changed), a 29-year-old Gurgaon based BPO team leader came to me for a psychoanalytic psychotherapy session along with his wife Gunjan. Although Amit thought that he was extremely well-adjusted and followed a very healthy and productive lifestyle, Gunjan was convinced that he was addicted to his schedule. Amit was used to getting up at 6:30 AM, going to gym for an hour. This was followed by extended breathing exercises for another hour. Thereafter he got ready, had his breakfast and headed for work around 10:30 AM. He would generally come back by 8:30 PM, went for an evening walk for half an hour, followed by dinner at 9:15 PM. Thereafter, he finished his pending office assignments. The interesting part about this daily routine was that he followed it in an obsessive-compulsive manner day after day. It was extremely hard for him to let go of this routine. He was used to ignoring fatigue and ill health for the sake of this daily schedule. All other activities and commitments including romance, leisure, travelling, family and vacations were secondary to this routine. Whenever he was required to make some adjustments in his routine to accommodate other activities he started feeling depressed and enraged. This was creating a rift between the couple. Gunjan felt that Amit was addicted to scheduling while Amit felt that she suffered from lack of discipline and commitment and therefore could not appreciate his healthy and productive lifestyle.

In the present times, there is an excessive emphasis on being a high achiever in each and every sphere of life. Whether it is target at work, burning calories on the treadmill, sitting for a competitive exam, honing your musical skills, changing personality patterns in psychotherapy, becoming proficient in sports, mastering the skills of Pranayama or doing meditation; the 'modern age mantra' is quicker and harder. People develop schedules to make their lives better and functional. But in a drive to achieve everything as soon as possible, they may end up becoming a slave of their routine.

When a schedule becomes an addiction

While a routine can be a strong anchor in modern stressful life, if followed rigidly to an extreme it can be a big source of additional stress. The trouble is that people who are addicted to a schedule consider it normal and do not recognize that it is uncanny. If someone shows following signs and symptoms, there is a great likelihood that they are addicted to a routine:-

. Neglect: The person addicted to a routine often neglects their personal life, relationships, leisure, health and sleep. The routine assumes a lot of importance and everything else seems to be secondary. People close to the addicted person feel rejected and devalued. In their experience the person is cold and rigid.

. Dependence: When they are not following the routine, they feel sad and anxious and in order to feel better they need to get back to their daily schedule. It is extremely traumatic for them to take a break. Their mind is dependent on the routine and cannot function smoothly without it.

. Mood Stabilizer: The routine impacts the person's mood. In times of stress, if the person carries out the routine, they feel relaxed and grounded. This reinforces the addiction as the person views it as the perfect stress buster.

. Loss of Control: The person is unable to curtail their indulgence in the routine. It becomes the top priority and guiding principle in life. They feel that there is a need to keep the required time apart every day for the routine.

The Unconscious Beneath the Addiction

Addiction to routine is not a simple bad habit but is rather caused by deep seated subconscious factors. Our subconscious mind harbours intense feelings, desires and conflicts that lie outside our conscious awareness but continue to influence our behaviour. The factors that make a person addicted to the routine include-

. Overwhelming negative emotions: People who generally follow schedules in an obsessive-compulsive manner do so to distract their attention from intense psychological pain. Often due to past traumatic experiences they suffer from emptiness, loneliness, self-hatred and rage. Routines are able to divert their focus from this intolerable pain and as a result turn into a drug.

. Low self-regard: Individuals addicted to routines, have an extremely defective view of their self. In order to repair this self-view, they have a wish to achieve perfection. People with a low opinion about themselves feel good when they religiously follow a routine. They derive positive self-regard out of it by telling themselves that they are hard-working and strong spirited. As a result, following schedules becomes a very important source of self-esteem for them.

. Need to control: People who follow schedules obsessively fear spontaneity. Deep down they find their true spontaneous self to be ugly and fear that people will reject them if they see even a glimpse of it. In order to cover up their true self, they get lost in everyday chores and give themselves and the whole world a false impression that they simply don't have time.

Overcoming the Routine Addiction

Because addiction to schedules is formed due to deep-seated unconscious factors, you can't get rid of it in one day. It is never advisable to blame or reprimand oneself or others who suffer from this addiction. What works best is to understand the reasons behind the addiction and work through them. Following steps can be of help in quitting this addiction-

. Enhance self-awareness: Stop thinking of addiction as a silly bad habit. It is a lot more than that. Try and understand what makes you addicted to a particular schedule. What are the positives you derive from it? Why does it become hard for you to let go of it for some time? What are the negative feelings it shields you from? Thinking about and analysing your behaviour over a period of time will give you these answers. Once you get these answers, think of alternatives to deal with the problems you are struggling with.

. Try Mindfulness: Running away from the negativity does not help. You need to face your negative and painful emotions. Give yourself space and opportunity to witness sad, angry and low feelings. Just witness, do not act on it. Tell yourself that the negative is not 'you' but only an experience. Often when we witness these feelings in a calm manner, they fade away and we feel very strong.

. Take a Break: Even if you get scared or depressed take a break from the routine and confront these feelings. Although you may feel worse in the initial few minutes, slowly you will start feeling better. Start from small breaks and as you feel comfortable increase the time.

. Small Steps: Do not hurry up to get rid of the routine, take one step at a time. If you give up everything quickly, you get depressed because your body and mind are dependent on the routine. Therefore, gradually reduce your involvement with the routine while exploring other options to spend your time.

. Develop Relationships: A good intimate relationship where you feel understood and cared for goes a long way in preventing addiction to routines. But, such a relationship can be developed only on a reciprocal term - when you are non-judgmental, love, understand and care for the other person, he/she starts behaving in a similar manner towards you.

. Psychological Treatment: At times, addiction to a schedule can be very stubborn and despite all your attempts to deal with it there is no relief. In that case feel free to consult a psychologist. Consulting a psychologist does not mean that you are weak or ill. A good psychologist will help you understand and use your strengths better in dealing with the addiction to routine.

As for Amit, as a child he was harshly rebuked by his parents as they wanted him to be a picture perfect child. They could not tolerate even small digressions from their vision of what he ought to be. As a result while growing up, Amit felt that he was no good and he needed to drastically change himself. This led to a lifelong obsession with making schedules and religiously following them. Once Amit understood the roots of his compulsion, he took small steps to change this pattern. As a result, Amit and Gunjan were able to develop a healthy reciprocal relationship.

Any schedule is healthy if it is under our control. However, if it starts controlling us it becomes an addiction. Therefore, in order to safeguard our physical, mental and spiritual health we should stop a routine from becoming an addiction.

Pulkit Sharma is Clinical Psychologist & Spiritual Therapist in private practice at Pondicherry (Puducherry), near Auroville. Email:- info@thepsychologistindia.com