At 6.30am I'm guaranteed to see only one group of people on my daily run. I have no idea what they do, if all of their jobs are the same or if they each have their own set of duties, all I know is that they have something to do with the railroad that runs perpendicular to Walnut Street, the main road that runs through Centre College and eventually forms Greek Row.
I see them as I’m running over the viaduct that spans Walnut Street. Some days I spot them through the window of their building, sitting around a conference table. Other times they’re meeting outside the office, at a picnic table next to the track. One morning they were gathered in a circle, raising their arms into the early morning sky, suspenders hoisting up their potbellies, doing stretches. It almost looked like yoga.
It’s gotten to the point where I’ve noticed that I notice them; put another way, I’ve realized that I look for them every day. The railroad guys have become a part of my daily run, more than that, they’ve become part of my routine.
Most people don’t realize how powerful routine is. I can’t function without it, but I didn’t realize that until routine was taken away from me when I transitioned from high school into college. Before college, routine is basically decided for you. Once you’re in that awkward college stage and caught between independence and dependence, there are a few scattered hours in the week determined ahead of time and the rest of your schedule—and your routine—is up to you.
I went to a prep school and there, even as a day student, my standard-issue academic planner showed a strip of coloured blocks detailing my schedule for every day of the week, from 7.45am until 6pm. With 4-6 additional hours of homework to complete, my routine ruled my life.
In the first month of college I suddenly had whole days where I had literally nothing to do. I barely knew anything about the small Kentucky town I’d be living in for the next four years and I barely knew who anyone was, let alone have any friends. I did my homework almost immediately after class and spent the remaining hours of the day wondering what I could have forgotten to do, since so many others were complaining about late nights and staying up until 1 or 2am.
It didn’t take long for those long stretches of unscheduled time to elicit unconditional anxiety from me. I felt like I had to be somewhere, but the reality was I had nowhere to go.
On my better days it felt like I was running on a treadmill. On the worse ones, it was like I was scrabbling against a glass wall. I knew something had to change but I was at a loss for how to hold myself accountable to a schedule I had designed myself.
In some ways it turned out to be a lot like running. You really hate it at first but, if you do it every day, you accept it. Sometimes you might even catch yourself thinking, “I really need to go on a run.” Schedules work the same way: like running, you get used to them with routine.
If you’re in college, do yourself a favor and give yourself a bedtime. Give yourself a time to wake up, too, at least a couple of hours before your first class of the day. In that time, get something done. Eat breakfast. Answer emails. Check syllabi. Or go for a run. Whatever you’re doing, pick a point to look for that lets you gauge your progress. And then move on to something else.