I had a chance on Wednesday to talk to a class of new students about ways to be successful in college. It was structured as a q-and-a, so I didn’t know exactly what would come up, or what I would say. At one point I surprised myself with an answer, so it seemed like it deserved a little more fleshing out.
It was about the usefulness of autopilot.
This one took me years to figure out. I don’t know if it’s a regular part of student success courses, but it should be.
We usually talk about routine and creativity as if they were opposed. And they can be; too much routine for too long can be deadening.
But for our students, too much routine is rarely the problem. If anything, they have far too little.
Routine conserves mental energy. When I’m driving a route I know well, I can lose myself in a fascinating podcast and be fine. When I’m driving a complicated route I don’t know, I have to turn all sounds (other than the GPS) off. I don’t have the bandwidth to handle both.
I noticed the efficiency of routine when it was missing. When we moved back to New Jersey last year -- but a different part of it than where we had lived before -- I didn’t know where anything was. I had to find a dry cleaner, a grocery store, and a post office. Every new errand presented a new challenge. And even when I did find them, I didn’t yet know the geography well enough to string them together in an order that would save time, so everything took longer.
Individually, none of those is terribly important. But they add up to a real tax on energy. As I started to develop routines, I found that I was able to focus more on higher-level thinking. It’s hard to focus on new challenges when you’re already tired just from getting there.
For students whose personal lives lack routine -- generally through no fault of their own -- it can be hard to focus long and hard enough on academic work to rise to new challenges. Some do, and that’s great, but I suspect more could if they had steady hours, reliable transportation, predictable access to the internet, and the like.
Put differently, routine isn’t the enemy of creativity. Some routine actually enables creativity.
Writers know this intuitively. No deadlines, no writing. Athletes know it, too; if you wait until the spirit moves you to go to the gym, you’ll never go. It has to become part of a routine.
But we don’t often communicate that to new students. We talk about following dreams, checking with advisors, and being conscientious about schoolwork, and those are all true. But we don’t necessarily talk as much about steady hours, consistent times of day for studying, and even finding reliable ways to get to and from school. Minimize the mental energy that goes into certain daily tasks, and you’ll have more in the tank when you come face to face with a tricky math concept or a difficult reading.
Minimum wage, part-time jobs often require a level of flexibility of hours that really works against constructing routines. That amounts to an energy tax on strivers, though we don’t usually talk about it that way.
That said, I’m not convinced that a suburban dad in his late forties is necessarily the best field guide to the construction of routines for today’s 18 year olds.
Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to help new students build routines that allow them to focus on school?