The secret to adulting is routines and systems

My older son Damion graduates from college on Sunday. I’m sad to admit that I’m primarily relieved that I no longer have to write big tuition checks. These college years have been financially stressful! One graduate down, two more to go (in 2021 and 2022).

Still, I’m happy for my son, and deeply pleased with his accomplishment. I might even shed a tear on graduation day.

He made it through in four years with relatively light student-loan debt, no small feat these days. He hasn’t lined up a job yet, but he’s working on it. It will come. And then his adult life begins.

I remember when mine began — and how challenging I found the adjustment. I think many of us experience this. I’d run out of things to graduate from and had to find my way. It was bewildering.

So I aped what I saw my parents do: make routines and systems out of everything I could.

Leaving for work, 1989

I organized my life around my job. It’s what my dad always did. He worked from 7 to 3:30 in the factory, and by God he made sure he was at work not just on time but early and ready to work hard. I didn’t have to be to work until 8, so I adjusted my timing accordingly, but otherwise I followed his pattern. I went to bed every night by 11 and rose at 6. I showered and dressed, and then went into the kitchen where I turned on the radio and made eggs and toast. I read the newspaper over breakfast until it was time to go. I got to my desk by 7:45 most days. When I got home, I made a simple dinner and watched the nightly news. I did simple chores around the house or ran routine errands, and when that was done I watched TV until bedtime.

I set aside Thursday evening to go to the laundromat and afterward iron my dress shirts, and Monday evening to shop for groceries and supplies.

I adapted my mom’s system for not running out of items at home. Every week I put a fresh sticky note on a kitchen cabinet and another on the bathroom medicine chest. As I got close to running out of items I’d write them down on the nearest sticky note. Then on shopping day I’d transfer those items to my shopping list and set out fresh sticky notes. For critical items like toilet paper I always kept a spare in the closet. It cut way back on emergency trips to the store. Whenever I needed to use one of my spares it went onto the nearest sticky note so I could get a new spare on my next shopping trip.

I paid my bills on Saturday morning. As they came in the mail I’d stack them on a table next to my desk. On Saturday I’d figure out which ones were due soonest and pay the ones I had money for. The rest went back onto the stack. I didn’t make very much money. but there was enough to pay for everything if I timed it all right.

Those were my normal routines and systems, but I could shift them around when adventure came my way. For a while I had a Thursday-night airshift at my alma mater’s radio station. Sometimes a friend would call and want to go get a beer. Every now and again I had to work late. Sometimes I went away for the weekend. I kept enough of everything on hand so that if I needed to, I could move laundry or shopping a night or two and be all right. My Saturday bill-paying routine could always be done the preceding Friday over breakfast.

My routines and systems provided structure and resiliency to my life. I always had clean clothes, so I never had to worry about what I was going to wear to work. I always had food in the house, so I never had to spend big money on a meal out (unless I wanted to) or go hungry. My bills were always paid, so nothing ever went past due and collection agencies never called.

My routines and systems let me live a pretty good life. I was able to focus on my job and enjoying my free time.

Easy like a Sunday morning, 1989

I still keep these routines and systems, except today shopping is Sunday after church and laundry is Saturday morning. I still pay bills on Saturday, although there’s enough money now I just pay every bill every week. I still have enough slack in the plan that I can move things around a day or two without running out of underwear or finding nothing in the house for breakfast.

I suppose I come from a family that naturally builds routines and systems. I know not all people do. But I know everybody can build habits, like brushing your teeth. With deliberate practice I think anyone can enjoy the lowered stress and increased effectiveness this brings.

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17 responses to “The secret to adulting is routines and systems”

  1. Stuart Templeton Avatar

    So very interesting thoughts Jim and some sage advice – I could do with developing a few myself.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I hate the feeling of chaos, and that’s what life feels like to me if I don’t know the bills are paid and there’s clean underwear in the drawer.

  2. J P Avatar

    Wow, graduating already? I guess this means that I have been reading here for at least four years.

    I have found myself getting less systematic as I have aged. Perhaps this has been adapting towards the more spontaneous ways of my Mrs or a gradual rebellion against the regimented systems I grew up with.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah. Already. It’s funny, it’s felt both like a long time and no time at all.

      I’m still as systematic, but I’m still living through the launching kids years. I expect that when that’s over I’ll be able to be a lot more flexible.

  3. Dan James Avatar

    Completely with you on this Jim, habits and routines form the basis of a sane adult life – especially with children in the mix too!

    Chaos – and chaotic people – make me anxious. I don’t know how they get through life with no core structure to build everything else around.

    For creative pursuits too, having regular habits means that, over weeks and months and years, we can build a body of work we’re proud of, not to mention the health benefits and enjoyment along the way.

    (PS/ Not heard “adulting” as a verb before (Chrome’s spellcheck doesn’t like it either it seems!). Maybe it’s an American thing, over here we just say “being an adult”!)

    1. Dan James Avatar

      PPS/ At first glance I read “The Secret To Adultery…” and thought there’s no way Jim Grey’s going to be writing a post about THAT!!

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I used “adulting” because all the kids do. It’s not really a word.

      I agree, you need a core structure to build things around. Otherwise you careen into everything in life, and it’s just exhausting all the time.

      1. Dan James Avatar

        Yes, I think what it comes down into is the number of decisions any reasonable person can make in a day. By making things almost automated so they don’t need major brain power every time we come to the decision, it frees up mental space.

        Like with cameras. If every time you went to go on a photowalk and you opened your closet/room door to see 1000 cameras, how would you ever decide which to take! Same with the set up, starting from scratch each time would be mentally exhausting, decision overload!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Yes. Devote brain power to thing that require original problem solving. Stuff like paying the bills or washing your bath towels – put that stuff on a schedule and stick to it.

  4. DougD Avatar

    Much to appreciate here. Congrats to your son, and to you for no longer having to write big cheques.

    Our first big cheque for our son is due in July. For us that adventure is just starting but since all Universities are State Schools here it’s at least reasonable but not crushing expense.

    Sadly I have forgotten most of what I learned at Engineering school, but I well remember the lost feeling I had walking out of my last exam. What now?

    And yes, I too am a man of many systems. My wife makes good natured fun of me, but the systems work. She pays the bills in her scattershot way, but I don’t worry about it because that’s not my system. I’m also very good at compartmentalization :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Heh, yeah, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in engineering school too. My 30th reunion is coming up!

  5. N.S. Palmer Avatar

    Wise advice. It corresponds to what my mentor, Prof. Brand Blanshard, told me in a personal letter when I was a kid:

    “I should warn a young person I cared about to avoid bad habits by early and deliberate effort. Regular habits about going to bed, getting up, working, exercising, and the like are an immense advantage: They are not worth deciding anew every day. William James wrote that if we can turn over the mechanical side of life to habit, we shall be much more free to devote the major part of our time to the things most important to us.”

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What great advice. I especially like the line, “not worth deciding anew every day.” Many things fall into that category. Make habits/routines/systems out of them. It will free your mind.

  6. brandib1977 Avatar

    Love this! Your morning routine sounds quite familiar. I can tell you the time (give or take a couple of minutes) based on where I am in the morning routine! Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Same here pretty much. Sometimes I get really bored with it, truth be told. But I keep at it. If I didn’t I’d walk out of here without socks or something.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        Haha. Any time I stray from my morning routine I leave something behind – phone, lunch, day planner. It’s not pretty!

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