Note — Jan 09, 2022

Routine Maintenance

Great piece at Harper’s by Meghan O’Gieblyn [soft paywall] on the value of routine and on whether it’s a useful human tool or if it makes us into machines. She explores monastic routines, the work of Lewis Mumford, quotes Weber, Simone Weil (bottom quotes here, and when you get to that part think or look-up Franklin’s holistic and prescriptive technologies), Roose, Monbiot, Arendt, Marx, and Obama. She shows the evolution of routines and the various ways in which they are portrayed as essential tools for life, as the chores we want to get away from, as the tasks automation will relieve us off, and as the productivity pr0n they are often seen as today.

Basically, routines have been an essential part of many lives and work practices for centuries, and as long as they are choices we make ourselves, they provide a valuable tool. Because, “when there is no time clock marking the start and end of the workday, no clear frontier between home and office, each hour becomes subject to negotiation, each task a battleground of the will.” And “the effort required to resist the twin temptations of procrastination and overwork quickly depletes one’s reservoir of motivation.”

In other words, routines can order our brain so we don’t lose ourselves amongst too many possibilities, preventing us from accomplishing what we want to.

The internet is not a place of order but a boundless abyss that erases the contours of individual hours, swallows entire days, and inundates our lives with a vague sense of possibility never quite realized, leaving us, in the end, with that low-grade spiritual exhaustion for which “decision fatigue” seems too weak a term. […]

Rather than understanding habit as mechanistic, these earlier thinkers saw repetition as a means of naturalizing a behavior such that it approaches the fluidity of instinct. Thomas Aquinas wrote that habit “makes the doing of something our own, as if natural to us, so to speak, and therefore pleasurable.” […]

This is the quiet miracle of repetition: its ability to not only make actions easier over time, but also change one’s desires, bringing the cravings of the flesh in line with the aspirations of the spirit. […]

Weil offers a more useful conception of freedom, one that is particularly relevant to contemporary conversations about work and automation. Freedom, she argues, is not merely the absence of necessity; rather, it involves achieving the right balance between thought and action. … she notes that we outsource thought all the time to the rote movements of the body, through the development of habits. Technology is an extension of that process, and can, like private habits, make our lives more efficient. But its usefulness begins to wane as it becomes more complex, transcending human thought and understanding.