As Americans we idolize the fiercely independent-, pull yourself up by your bootstraps-, make your own way-type spirit and mentality. We love our freedom (even when we become slaves to it…but that’s a different conversation entirely).
Our natural reaction to imposed structure, routine, or authority is to resist it, to resent it, or to downright fight against it. It’s this culturally fuelledknee-jerk reaction which may be robbing us of our ability to achieve what we say we want to in work and life.
Each summer over the last several years, my wife and I have had a good amount of unstructured time during the summer which we've chosen to spend in the States with friends and family. We still have certain work responsibilities and deliverables, but these are much more fluid and doable from coffee shops, libraries, or home of family members. This gives us a ton of autonomy and freedom to do, really, whatever the heck we want.
We enter each summer with grandiose plans of hitting the gym, buying healthy food we don't often get in the D.R., spending time in the Word, catching up on sleep, putting energy into our friend/family relationships which may have atrophied slightly while living abroad, reading, resting, finally spending time on some personal passion project which may have been marginalized, and sticking to daily success habits (like this writing!).
And all of this “un-structure" leaves us no room for excuses for not executing against the things we say we want to do and be about. In theory, all of those above things should be easier to accomplish.
Yet, unfortunately, the opposite generally occurs.
The diet slips. Workout routines go to h-e-double-hockey-sticks. The end of summer arrives and we realize we didn’t see any of the friends we dreamed of sharing time with. We let our quiet times with God get interrupted and shortened. And we too often end up longing for the routine and structure of home.
This naturally happens without structure and the discipline of routine. This is because discipline and structure creates room for these things to flourish. And that’s true freedom.
I have a friend who has been extremely successful in his real estate business which affords him extreme flexibility in his time and finances. He told me recently, "I used to think that freedom was getting to do whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it. But I ended up realizing that that is not freedom...I ended up being a slave to my emotions and passions." Wow.
It’s funny how a lack of to-dos, a lack of mission, a lack of routine and structure — the things we often resent or complain about — lead to a lack of discipline and thus a lack of freedom and a lack of accomplishing the things we say we want to achieve in our work and life. This fantasy of full-on autonomy with no accountability is toxic to productivity and purpose, building bulletproof habits, and building your body of work. Lack of structure sabotages success.
I’ve found that I am incredibly more creative and productive in all areas of my life when I have an appropriately full plate.
Regardless of whether you’re in a super full season, or a more unstructured season like our summers — taking a few minutes to set your daily/weekly intentions, outlining your game plan for executing on them, and scheduling your routine and habits, making sure to align them with your overall goals — is key to success. Without structure and intentional routine, we end up allowing ourselves to compromise and operate at a sub-optimal state.
Too often we hear about the athlete who retires, only to return a season later out of sheer boredom. Or the ambitious high-achiever working their whole lives for this loosely defined “retirement” only to have a feeling of purposelessness and loss of direction once they get their.
Having purpose in your days starts with structure and routine and discipline. We may say we want full un-fettered freedom and autonomy, yet deep down we all crave structure. Our independent American spirit is something we can harness for such good, but let’s not let our craving for freedom and autonomy rob us of doing what we ought, or from structuring our time and energy for optimal output in doing the work we were created for.