Lisa's Notebook

Writing Exercises by Lisa McNulty.

Being Inconsistent about Consistency

Something odd is happening to me. I seem to be developing routines.

(This is a young and delicate flower and may not live long, I make no promises whatsoever).

Now, I hate routines. One reason I hate them because of how easily they can fail. Particularly they can fail if you are a parent. It is not possible to predict when a child will ask for help, a snack, or just generally some attention, so if you are committed to doing certain things in a certain order (self-care routines, housework, working from home) then you will be perpetually frustrated by your inability to do so.

Owing to the pressures of lockdown, I have increasingly felt a need to develop at least some actual routines to ensure that everything that needs to be done gets done. But during lockdown I’ve had a child with me all the time. So I’ve been developing routines when interruptions to them are most likely to happen.

And here’s the magic: I’ve started not to care about that.

At the moment, I’m at home when I intended to be on a run. I had a whole rhythm in my head of how my run would fit into my day. Then when I was outside, ready in my workout clothes, the whole thing was scuppered by my wireless headphones running out of power. I was depending on them to listen to my Couch to 5k podcast. So I’ve come back and whilst they charge I’ve put on a load of laundry and I’m writing this.

And that’s OK. Once they’re charged, I’ll head out. I’ll still do the things I intended to do, just not in the order I intended to do them. The rhythm is broken, but that need not break my stride. Certainly I’ve identified a problem - I might set myself regular reminders to charge my headphones - but I won’t miss out on running today, let alone fall off the bandwagon of regular running.

Possibly this is simply a matter of me getting the scale wrong when I’ve done this before. ‘Run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays’ is (for me) far more attainable than ‘run at 9.30am’. But there is something else going on, I think: which is that the longer I sustain a habit, the more interruptions it can take before I lose that habit. A good deal of the frustration of interruptions is the fear that I will never get this done: either (just) today, or as an ongoing project.

In Week Six of Couch to 5k, I developed knee pain. I’ve taken a full three weeks away from running. That’s an interruption that I was really afraid meant the end of the programme for me. But I’ve rested up, I’ve got knee supports, and I’m starting again today from Week One. And it doesn’t feel forced or strange to get back to it, because I had developed a regular enough habit during those six weeks that the intermission feels like just that.

In Consistency is the Enemy, I used Thomas Green to speak about how the development of competence involves embracing inconsistency, movement, and responsiveness. I stand by that. However, I now wonder if inconsistency of this kind is best understood as a kind of fluency. It’s not a failure of a routine, or even the absence of one. Rather, it’s what happens when routines get under your skin.

Perhaps, then, consistency is not the enemy so much as an awkward adolescent stage of development. We begin by being inconsistent because we don’t know what we’re doing, we end by being inconsistent because we do know what we’re doing. Unfortunately, we need a stage of relatively inflexible consistency in between in order to get from one to the other.

So I suppose I’m being inconsistent about consistency. I’m ok with that.

Now where are my earphones…


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