A month has passed since we unlocked the doors to our dorms and marvelled at how liveable they are compared to those in New York.
Fall has arrived (rather drastically), and the initial euphoria of beginning our new lives here has dissipated with the summer sun. It's a curious time of transition in which people sit at their desks dreading their first assignment, and pigeons wonder where to take dumps now that people's heads are back at work.
New day, new school, new job - we are constantly moving into new phases and new places, and struggling to find our footing once the sugar rush of novelty has worn off. When change overwhelms us we descend into that familiar sense of being lost, unsettled, and unsure of what we are supposed to do, as we would when visiting one of those hipster cafes with no menus and twenty types of milk.
In such a predicament I would suggest black coffee and nodding vigorously at whatever the cashier says.
Returning to ourselves
The semester abroad experience can be extremely disorienting. For a few months we take a meandering detour and leave our entire lives somewhere else; somewhere in our hazy consciousness we think we should be studying, but between hangovers we can't quite seem to shake the idea that this is just a really long vacation in which nothing matters quite as much as finding out how to use the washing machine. Our old friends feel like distant memories, and our old dreams feel like someone else's. This is our new life now, albeit one that will end before the year is up.
We need to realize that we must keep living our old lives, in a new way.
First, take a step away from the crowd. Often our eagerness to fit into our new environment leads us to do whatever our new friends are doing, and forget what we want for ourselves.
I used to struggle with the fear of missing out, but no longer. True friendships, I've learned, do not have a deadline, while assignments, goals, and dreams do. Those are also the only friendships that matter. The four hours I spent hanging out with acquaintances don't mean anything to them, but could have been of so much more value to me if I had spent it on myself.
So I do. Let's all take some quiet alone time to think. What did, and do, we want to achieve? Who were, and are, we? In our new phases, we have to contend with new challenges using the lessons we have already learned, and remember that while everything around you has changed, you have not.
The power of routine
Holding on to ourselves in a new environment is simpler than it seems. Change and stability need to be in balance, and the quickest way to create a stable space is a strong routine.
When we think routine what usually comes to mind are those maniacs who wake up at 0500h and take cold showers. Masochism belongs in routine as much as socks in sandals: so not at all unless you’re going through a mid-life crisis.
Routine is just a formula to give us time — time to work, think, and have fun, while keeping ourselves alive.
“Overwhelm is not a result of having too much to do, it’s a result of not knowing what to do next.” — Matthew Kimberley
In our new phases there are so many distractions that we either overload ourselves with insignificant things (read: FOMO) or we shy away completely and retreat into a state of generally doing nothing. Once we have identified what we want to achieve and the steps to take, a good routine always tells us what to do next and gives us the assurance that what we're doing is good for us.
Since I was 12 I have been in constant motion. Every two years or less I moved into a new phase of life: I moved to a new apartment, transferred to a different class, enrolled in a different school, enlisted in the army, left the army for some months, then entered college. With each of these shifts I encountered a bombardment of confusing new experiences and got dragged along by the tides, as if I was constantly scrambling for foreign change at the front of a long supermarket line.
My constant was my routine. At points it was as simple as zoning out at the Starbucks in that one mall every Sunday and reflecting on the stupid things I did that week, but that gave me a sense of autonomy. Sure, life was structured in school and in the armed forces, but it was thoughtless, unstable and out of my control. A class timetable is not a routine - if anything, it made me even more uncomfortable to be forced to have lunch before Physics, because everyone knows they curse the school lunches to make you fall asleep right after.
How to build a routine
The beauty and the horror of building routines is absolute freedom. Just remember: the routine is what is best for you and you only. Don't take cold showers just so that you can say you take cold showers. It's about being mindful, productive and comfortable wherever you are.
We all know the importance of sleep, but almost never allow ourselves to do it. As far as possible, I try to get 7 hours every night (it's hard) — after I was commissioned and deployed as a platoon commander, it was a severe offence to conduct any training if my soldiers had less than that amount of sleep. It's no fun to make them do push-ups when they're wide awake and energetic enough to complain, but that taught me that in civilian life, sleep is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves.
As cadets in the officer school, this was the morning routine forced onto us:
0530-0545: Get up and rush downstairs
0545-0600: Water parade*
0600-0630: Run 5km
0630-0715: Breakfast for those who survive
The water parade meant filling our bottles to the brim, then chugging till we could hold them horizontally (instructors checked with rulers) without anything spilling out.
I water parade myself as my morning routine nowadays. Half-drowning is a great way to wake up quickly, and staying hydrated is an added bonus.
You don’t need a 10-step 3-hour process accompanied by tribal dance and sacrificial slaughter every day. The goal of the daily routine is to 1) make sure you get enough quality sleep, and 2) make sure you wake up quickly and effectively. Find your own thing, do it deliberately everyday, and it'll give you the spunk to face whatever the day has in store.
My weekly routine is still the same after all these years: one afternoon of quality alone time in a cafe to reflect on the past week and plan my tasks for the following week. When I was in school, it was purely a time management thing to help me keep up with a frenzy of extra-curricular commitments. Later, however, when my responsibilities became heavier, I started to find solace in its regularity, and used the time to also think about the mistakes I had made in leading my clubs or my soldiers, as well as set and track personal goals.
For example, here’s what my week usually looks like now:
Mon: Bemoan the lost weekend, full-day classes, light work in evening
Tue: Full-day classes, light work in evening
Wed: Heavy work/meetings in the day, leisure/social time at night
Thur: Morning classes, heavy work time in afternoon
Fri: Leisure time in morning, work/social time in afternoon
Sat: Leisure time in morning, social/non-academic work in afternoon
Sun: Non-academic work and weekly routine
In my weekly routine planning, I can set aside specific timeslots for each assignment I need to complete, and make sure I'm not spread too thin. Too often we just have ‘free’ time in which we can decide, at the last minute, to do work or spend time with friends. Since work is less fun we wind up not doing it. Determine which chunks of time should be used for work, then treat that as a commitment.
A weekly routine doesn't need to involve time management like mine, even though it is a useful addition. Its main purpose is to create a regular space, away from distractions, for us to be mindful.
What I mean by a ‘work routine’ is a set of working habits or rituals that makes us the most productive. It's hard to get things done in a different country where the little triangular flip-tables can't accommodate a laptop and an elbow at the same time. And why triangular? Literally nothing useful is triangular, but I digress.
If you can consistently recreate your work routine, you can get into the groove of working anywhere you go. Some things to consider:
Time: What time of day are you most productive?
Environment: In what physical environment do you work best?
Company: Do you work better around people, or alone?
Structure: How long can you maintain focus, and how many breaks do you need?
Extras: What else can help you be more effective? e.g. coffee, food, music
The work routine is not so much temporally-specific like the daily routine, instead it’s a set of rules you follow every time you do work in order to maximize efficiency. Find what works for you. For reference, here’s mine:
Time: Morning or early afternoon for non-creative work, morning or night for creative work
Environment: Somewhere with people and white noise, not at home*
Company: No preference, but no conversation while focused
Structure: 3h of focus with 10–15min breaks interspersed
Extras: Hot coffee and ASMR help
*Some cafes I recommend working in: Monolok (near Machova), Cafedu (near Muzeum), Friends Coffee House (near Mustek).
Routine helps us make sense of new phases of life while feeling in control. In a state of transition, when everything around us is unfamiliar, we can always fall back on these routines to clear our heads, shield us from distractions and keep us reminded of what it is we really want.
Maybe you've got a different thing. Maybe you don't need anything to adapt to a new life. In that case, kudos.
But if you too feel lost in transition, try it out.