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How We Form Our Routines

Whether it's a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.
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(Photo: shardsofblue/Flickr)

(Photo: shardsofblue/Flickr)

It’s a wonderful thing, returning to a book you love after some time away from it. Like a familiar recipe, you remember the overall taste of it and some of the ingredients that go into it, but not quite the order in which they are mixed or the temperature at which they are baked. The other day I started reading Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady again and realized I had forgotten how exactly the novel begins.

“Under certain circumstances,” James writes, “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do,—the situation is in itself delightful.

Of course I remembered all the taking of tea in the novel, but not this beautiful bit about the agreeable hour. Afternoon tea is a very specific ritual, one that I sometimes enjoy, but I also have a few other agreeable hours in my day. I like to shower between seven and eight after I’ve had a chance to wake up and think before being shocked by water. I like to do the dishes between four and six when the sun is setting outside my kitchen window. I like to sweep and mop the floor after midnight so it doesn’t feel like wasted time, only time borrowed from the darkness.

Finding those agreeable hours is central to making our days into something in which we not only live, but enjoy living.

We might not live in manors as grand as Gardencourt or inherit sums as large as Isabel Archer, but we can all make ceremonies out of the things we do every day. A ceremony is simply something we do with care and attentiveness. Agreeable hours, then, can be made from whatever things fill our days, especially the things we love, but even those things that we must do out of necessity.

One of my aunt’s most agreeable hours is when she picks up her grandchildren from daycare; she loves that first hour when they are so eager to describe all they’ve done, to report every nook and cranny of their days. A friend’s most agreeable hour is right after he has breakfast, when he writes by hand, without his computer. Another friend’s is when she does the laundry, following a set routine every week of separating the whites and darks, delicates and towels.

So much is made of how quickly we form such routines. A popular myth is that it takes only 21 days, less than a month, to form a habit. That number seems to have come from a 1960 book by a psychologist named Maxwell Maltz, who proffered it in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics: A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life. Maltz, who had worked with plastic surgery patients, found they took around 21 days to adjust to their new faces or lack of limbs.

Debunking the 21-day myth, Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a lecturer in health psychology at University College London, wrote: “How anecdotal evidence from plastic surgery patients came to be generalised so broadly is unclear.” He describes a corrective study by UCL where researchers observed habit formation by subjects for 84 days: each participant chose a health-positive behavior, like drinking a glass of water, and reported each day how “automatic” it felt to practice it: for one person it took just 18 days, and another did not get there in the 84 days, but was forecast to do so after as long as 254 days. On average, though, habit formation took 66 days. Longer, of course, than Maltz’s miraculous 21 days, but still nowhere near a lifetime.

I suspect that such habit formation is how my friend came to make her laundry routine into one of her agreeable hours. I doubt it was anything but a chore until she settled on the ceremony of it all. Or like me with my dishes, she found a way to appreciate something about doing it in the same way every time she did it; in my case the task of washing and drying the dishes being improved by the beautiful sunsets outside my kitchen window.

Finding those agreeable hours, though, is central to making our days into something in which we not only live, but enjoy living. Whether it’s tea or laundry or dishes or some other ceremony of daily life, the hours become agreeable not on their own, but through our designs.