The secret to adulting is routines and systems

As my wife and I help the last of our adult children step into responsible, independent lives, I’m reminded of this article I first published on 10 May 2019. I’ve revised it slightly.

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 around 7:45. 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 mirror. As I got close to running out an item I’d write it 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. It cut way back on emergency trips to the store. Whenever I needed to use a spare, 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 was on the air Thursday nights 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 margin that I could move laundry or shopping a night or two and be all right. I could even bump paying bills to Sunday night or Monday morning when needed.

Easy like a Sunday morning, 1989

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 removed needless stressors. I was able to focus on my job and enjoying my free time.

I still keep these routines and systems, except now shopping is Saturday after lunch laundry is Wednesday while I work from home. 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. With deliberate practice I think anyone can enjoy the lowered stress and increased effectiveness this brings.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!


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

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    What ever happened to thinking like this? I find it in limited supply in the millennial generation. What were their parents thinking when they raised them? Someone has to explain to me why my last management situation included “sub30’s” who would come to work late, punch in, and then sit at their desks for an hour eating breakfast and not working! When disciplined they would go to Human Resources and complain. I’m happy I’m no longer in the work force, and am hoping I can spend the rest of my life in retirement not having to work with this!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This describes none of our sub-30 children, and none of the many sub-30s who have worked for me over the last 10-15 years. I know any number of responsible young adults.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        You are lucky, it actually describes 90 percent of my sub-30’s in my company in Indianapolis. I didn’t hire them, and I guarantee that I wouldn’t have hired most of them if I had been responsible for building out the department from day one, they wouldn’t have made it through MY process… If you haven’t seen this behavior, it could very well describe the difference between “creative department” hires, and technology department hires. A number of years ago, a couple I knew, that taught college level creative art courses, as an adjunct to a music program in a private college, were lamenting the fact that they felt kids with a laundry list of functional disabilities, were being directed and channeled into art courses in secondary schools, instead of getting the help they needed to overcome those deficiencies (some were actually graduated, with an inability to read and write!); maybe that manifested itself in the quality of people available to me…

        Your entry is a snapshot of process management 101, and valuable for anyone to read who seems to be lost in starting any kind of project!

  2. -N- Avatar

    I think that many people equate routines with a lack of freedom and with drudgery. As a kid, we had strict routines and deviating from them was not quite a crime. However, does anyone explain? Sometimes talking about the obvious is the best thing in the world – why routines are good and how they help. What is obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to anyone else. Like you, Jim, I have routines. Bed at certain times, meals and shopping at certain times. As a retiree, I still like routines and find my life works better with them – but sometimes it seems the routines have all devolved in choosing a time for a doctor’s appointment!! Once I was on my own, I struggled to figure out how to organize my life since I was the designated organizer, but that is a good experience.

    Every generation is complained about by the ones preceding it. So, while I don’t always like what I see, the world changes, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I think the best gift we can give our children is understanding with verbal communication, not assumption; tools to use, and a desire for independence and self-efficacy while being able to think about and care about others.

    Our society pushes us. I was expected to work through my lunch hour without pay – wage theft – told I was double dipping when I did attendance for one class during down time for another class – was expected to give and be happy to do so. Lunch was gulped down and bathroom breaks impossible. It is no wonder that younger generations, brought up by parents rushing around all the time, have habits like coming in late and eating meals at work – their parents were forced into it, and most kids these days do not have a mom at home to regulate their lives. I did, and it paid off, but it did come at a cost to my own mother who had been a career woman before being a mother of 4. Taking care of children all day is hard work, as is organizing a household and meals. Now, many women work and do all this as well. Who has time for leisurely meals and real value if society, the “family first” kind we don’t have but say we do, puts the value on a person solely as a cog in its machinery? We are only assets until we break, and then good luck to you, you are on your own.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My parents were great models of how to live a stable life with little drama, so I was able to just mimic what they did as a start when I was first on my own. I evolved it to fit me over time but I was already far down the field thanks to my parents.

      My children did not see my routines as much, thanks to the fact that they didn’t live with me full time. So I wrote this article to organize my thoughts, and then I said versions of it to each of my kids as they started their independent lives. It must have done some good as they all have figured out how to have stable lives of their own.

      I’m Generation X, and I remember the magazine articles about what slackers we were compared to previous generations. I sure didn’t feel like a slacker; I was a good worker and lived responsibly.

      Solid points about work and family. I think you’re right that the current young adult generations saw their parents work so many hours and are saying, “nuts to that.” I know our kids are saying that.

  3. J P Avatar

    My mother was VERY into routines, and I became so too. I have found that I have become less rigid about them as I have gotten older. Marriage and kids can do that to you. There are some “big picture” routines that I keep, but things like cleaning day, wash day or bill-paying day are no longer in my rotation – those are things I get to when I can, with an eye kept on paying bills before the due dates.

    Maybe my gravitation away from routines is some latent rebellion against authority.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t need to be as slavish to my routines anymore either. If I miss paying bills on a Saturday, it’s not a big deal. I often pay bills as they come into my email. If I miss laundry for a week, I’m okay; I have plenty of socks. But when life feels out of control, I run right back to those routines. They give me a feeling of control, and then I don’t mount the chaos by missing something important.

  4. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Ah yes, adulting. We all tackle it differently, and of course as we accumulate birthdays sometimes we need to soften those routines a little so we can live well with others…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      For sure. Or refine/adjust them.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: