How to avoid the work-at-home rut

Lately, as part of trying to live my life like an artist date, I’ve been taking more small “risks”: going out on weeknights (SF Asian Art Museum’s MATCHA, having dinner with friends), ordering new things at restaurants, experimental cooking. This has helped me cultivate an attitude of “So what if I mess up, so what if everything isn’t perfect?” After all, these are hardly life-endangering choices; it’s just that my normal attitude tends to be, “But what if I don’t like it?” I keep reminding myself: It’s just one evening! It’s just dinner! And it’s all been surprisingly enjoyable (as was my experiment with leftover Polish cabbage and black bean noodles!). My hope is that these tiny risks will eventually pay off in larger risks and a greater sense of adventure.

But last night, after a couple of days spent at home working, it struck me that there’s another, more immediate, payoff to taking little risks in my day-to-day. Trying a new ingredient in cooking (celeriac is tasty!) isn’t as huge a step as going to Petaluma on an artist date, but both open my mind to previously unimagined possibilities. This is really important for those of us who work at home. Routine is great and grounding, but when I spend too many days at home or doing the same ol’ errands and exercise route, I start to feel as if every day is the same. I’ve had a real problem with this over the past few weeks, because we took a weeknight getaway, stayed home and worked on weekends, and then went out with friends on weeknights. I kept thinking Sunday was Monday, and Wednesday was Saturday, and so on, until I felt really hazy about the passage of time. And when time feels meaningless, my work does too, since it just feels like I’m doing the same thing over and over again without going anywhere — it’s like the first half of Groundhog Day (without the meditative self-improvement of the second half!).

Taking tiny risks, or even just doing things differently, isn’t enough to get me out of a rut, but it does help a lot in distinguishing one day from another. I’ll switch around the order of my morning routine, write my morning pages in different pens, eat oatmeal one day and hot barley cereal the next. But the important thing isn’t that I shake things up, but that my mind recognizes this as a step out into the unknown. All too often, my relatively predictable routine lulls me into thinking that life is predictable, which is to say, tomorrow will be the same as today is the same as yesterday. I’ll think, “Eh, last time I went to that yoga class it was pretty hard, so I’m not going to go this week. It’ll probably just be too hard again,” or “This recipe sounds like the last one I tried, and I don’t want to eat that again. I’ll just have eggs and toast for dinner.” The expectation of sameness leads to a numbing “what’s the point?” mentality.

Without being open to all the possibilities (a strenuous yoga class might feel great this week, or black-eyed pea dal might be a completely different animal than yellow split pea dal), a routine that could be comforting ends up more like death. After all, if I already know what’s to come, then what’s the point of going through it? There is no point: each day is a drag, a mindless repetition of the day before, unfulfilling and uninteresting. Without being open to all possibilities, routine is stifling. But when I’m excited about each day’s potential, the familiar becomes so sweet. It’s a necessary counterpoint. I’ve actually written about this before, but I’ve said it differently, and each of these represents a different way of seeing the same situation. I think actually, life is full of these cyclical, circular ways of understanding. You think you realize something once and then it changes your life, but no, you have to realize it again and again, in fresh ways, before it really starts to take hold. It’s as if you were getting to know a single room, and you spent days just staring at the north wall. You might get to know that north wall really well; by the end of the week it would feel like an intimate friend. But then you’d turn around and there would be the south wall staring you in the face. It’s still the same room, but a totally foreign angle. So you’d have to get acquainted with it, too, and then the other two walls, and then you’d have to lie on your back to see the ceiling, and then get on your stomach and explore the floor. After all this, you might even close your eyes and navigate the room by touch alone. It’s all the same room, but each time it’s like starting over before you can get to know it again.

I used to read my old journal entries and think, “Crap! I already learned this! Why am I struggling with it all over again?” I thought it meant I wasn’t growing, and was just stuck in the same bad habits over and over again. But now I recognize it’s not stagnation; stagnation would be coming back to the north wall year after year, thinking I’m going to glean something new from it. I can see from my old blog entries that I’ve struggled for a long time with making my day-to-day routine interesting, but I’ve come up with different insights each time. Initially it was important for me to even recognize the importance of taking risks. Later, I understood I needed to take more artist dates. Now, I see that I can cultivate an attitude of artist dates even when I’m just staying at home — and that, in fact, I must do so. As I continue across months and years of working from home, each of these insights is a vital tool that helps me keep thinking and creating and living in the fullest, happiest way I can.

PS. Scientists have discovered it’s better not to beat ourselves up over things! Hooray!