Jocelyn Doyle shares the daily strategy that keeps her sane — and realises why rules really do need to be broken
Here are some truths about me.
I am a list-maker. I have lists for everything: TV shows I plan on watching; future tattoos; the songs I want played at my funeral; what I currently have in the freezer. My life revolves around two separate daily to-do lists (one work, one personal), as well as objectives for the year, broken down into smaller tasks for each month.[restrict]
I am a scheduler. I have days and weeks planned out, reassuring roadmaps stretching ahead of me. I can tell you when my next dental check-up is due (February) and what we’re having for dinner 10 days from now (homemade pizzas). I divide big tasks into daily chunks, which is why I’ve never missed a deadline and had each of my dissertations finished early. I like to know what’s coming, and am easily panicked by last-minute changes. You know that song ‘No Surprises’ by Radiohead? Yeah. It me.
I am addicted to delayed gratification. I need to get 100% of my tasks done before I can relax. In school, I always raced to finish all of my homework immediately after getting home on a Friday. Today, my weekend afternoons may look indulgent and carefree — you’ll find me curled around my book or hanging out with friends — but they are built on a foundation of diligent mornings: exercise, dinner prep, batch-cooking, cleaning, laundry.
These are not sexy parts of my personality. Nobody wants to hear about this shit at a party. I’m sure it won’t come as any surprise that I was called a nerd fairly regularly throughout my formative years. I’ll tell you this though: being like this makes me a better friend. If you’re someone I care about, and you happen to mention a hospital appointment or an interview or a set of exams six weeks from now, guess who’s got two thumbs and will text you that morning to check in? This guy. Because your Important Thing has been on my (very comprehensive) list since the moment you brought it up.
I didn’t always find such comfort in routine. Although I was a good student, I felt trapped by the monotony of school days. In my early twenties, I relished the complete, breathtaking freedom of a year spent backpacking with no fixed plan. I worked in hospitality for years, with different shifts every week. I slept whenever I felt like it. I was ready to go out at a moment’s notice. Mental health never even crossed my mind.
In my thirtieth year, I crumbled. I had a burgeoning existential crisis, felt overwhelmed at turning 30 and was struggling to ignore some nagging, unresolved trauma. My grandad was dying of Alzheimer’s, excruciatingly slowly. A much-loved family dog passed away. I’ve suffered with migraine since I was 13, and during this period it officially became chronic. I had migraines for 186 days in 2016: over half of the year. I was constantly, relentlessly exhausted. It was the straw that broke this camel’s back. The overall outcome? About 18 months of crippling anxiety, mingled with a deep, sinister depression that made me feel hollow and detached. It took an incredible amount of work to dig myself out of that hole, and I had to adopt a whole new toolkit.
I spent eight months in therapy. With any shortness of breath alarmingly redolent of a panic attack, I finally quit smoking. I took up yoga and meditation and vowed to do a little every day. I returned to the daily journaling practice I had let fall by the wayside years previously, and started going for a walk every morning and every evening unless there was a literal storm outside. I began going to bed earlier and getting up earlier; I grew precious about getting my eight hours.
Progress was slow. My limbs felt heavy and uncooperative and it was hard to see the point in anything. The threat of a panic attack was always looming. Slowly, slowly, the clouds lifted, and it felt like I could take a deep breath for the first time in almost two years. My migraines retreated to sporadic attacks. Life returned to Technicolour. Routine had saved me. Years later, the same routine keeps saving me, every day.
In isolation, these activities don’t sound like much. In concert, they’re a carefully formulated mental health strategy. Practising these carefully-selected daily habits bolsters my mental health from numerous angles, and the routine itself brings me comfort. Journaling helps me to identify my feelings, gives me distance from them and provides a small release. Yoga and meditation bring me a kind of mental clarity I never expected. Walking gets my heart rate up and some endorphins going. Being firm about my bedtime and particular about my sleep make it easier to stay on an emotional even keel during the day. Some days it’s really bloody hard to get my ass on the yoga mat, or out the door, but I remind myself that I never regret it (aside from the times I’ve been unexpectedly drenched halfway through a walk — but that’s just life in Ireland).
I’m aware that working my way through this list of tasks every day has become a sort of self-soothing mechanism in itself. I’m fine with that — it’s a healthier method than many, and it brings its own benefits. Like I said, I always remember important events in my life or that of anyone I love. I’ll never forget to buy someone a Christmas gift. I don’t waste time in the supermarket wondering what we should eat tonight. If nothing else, ticking things off a list just… feels good.
Here, though, be dragons. Habit is seductive, and can quickly crystallise. I’m wary of becoming too rigid; I love my routine, but I don’t want to be imprisoned inside it. At the risk of sounding like Admiral Ackbar, it’s a trap. I see this manifesting in my Mum, another endless scheduler, who often finds it almost impossible to change her plans last minute — even if what’s been suggested is guaranteed to be good craic. I’ve seen her walk away from some good family fun over the years, often for no better reason than because it wasn’t in her original plan. I always want to maintain enough fluidity that I can allow some spontaneity into my life where it matters.
Breaking my own rules on occasion has, ironically, become one of my rules. It’s about recognising those moments when my partner and I are absolutely buzzing off each other and it’s worth staying up an hour later than my bedtime; it’s being able to forgo the dinner I’ve prepped when he cheekily suggests a McDonalds on the way home from a day out, or rerouting my evening walk to meet my bestie for a sneaky pint when she suddenly needs to vent. It’s accepting a last-minute invitation to something I know I’ll enjoy, and letting myself cancel already-standing plans when I don’t feel up to going.
I know it’s important for me to maintain my routine. I feel good when I’m organised and I find comfort in having a plan — but I’ll keep encouraging myself to go rogue (geddit?!) on occasion. Sometimes, you need to eat the Big Mac and let dinner be damned.