Around two months before the pandemic hit in full force, while I was juggling between academics, debating, creative writing and a fair share of killing time with my friends, I pondered on my schedule and wondered, where do I find time to read all the fiction that I want to? There just didn’t seem to be time enough for me to devour all the brilliant and fantastic works of literature that were accumulating dust on the shelf and gawking at me hopelessly. So, I thought, if I got even one month of break in the summer, I would definitely catch up with my reading.
Fast forward a month into the pandemic, my social life had collapsed almost as much as my academics, if not more, and I had all the time in the world, no classes to attend, and guess what I was doing? Like so many others in the world, I was lying on my bed in a recumbent posture, anxiously gorging on a bag of chips and wondering if I should change the yellow wallpaper in my room to a darker shade, lest, who knows what should happen?
If you do a random Google search on lifestyle, especially lifestyle during a pandemic, pretty much every blogger will tell you the same thing: make a schedule. But that makes me wonder, why do we even need a schedule? And why can we just not function without one? Are we so indoctrinated by a capitalist economy that constantly forces a routinised life on us that we are just incapable of functioning in the absence of one?
Now I do understand the importance of schedules (to some extent). You schedule your chores because you need to get them done, but you don’t want to do them. You set a time when you have to do them, or the unticked boxes on your to-do list will make you anxious. But my concern is not with chores, but activities that we like to do. Why is it that I like to read, I want to read, but I still do not read unless I schedule it? Why are target lists not enough?
The answer to this is, needless to say, not at all straightforward. Obviously, one aspect of it is laziness. It’s easier to scroll through Instagram, watch cat videos and get immediate pleasure than to get deferred pleasure by reading a book, or writing this post, for instance. But a schedule does not automatically make us less lazy. We find more willpower to overcome our laziness when we look at a schedule we made, than when we simply tell ourselves that it is time to shut down Instagram.
Everything in our world is carefully ordered, sequenced and patterned, not necessarily by you-- look at online platforms. The post that appears first on your Instagram feed is carefully manufactured by an algorithm that takes into account time, while also keeping tabs on who you interact. With Google Meets, all the participants are ordered alphabetically, making the chances of the teacher picking on you if your name starts with a Z is relatively low. We are making a steady progression from spontaneity to order, yet whether it is more beneficial is questionable. Efficient, probably. But efficient for who?
Move away from online platforms, and look at your life in general. There is a certain life laid out for you, going back even before you were born. That life is not solely determined by you; it's influenced by your culture, your society, and the values these espouse. Your ordered life: going to school, college, getting a job, marriage and kids, might be efficient in preserving the status quo, but to what extent is it beneficial to you, the individual? Surely, some individuals have the privilege to choose, and break out of this order. But in most cases, we get so complacent with order, that the pain of an ordered life seems preferable to the uncharted waters of a spontaneous one.
As a child, I was somewhat of a romantic: I believed in desire, following your heart, and I valued spontaneity above all else. I often thought if I ever got out of the jurisdiction of my parents and teachers, I would live my best life. No timetables, no rules. Even when the initial romanticism of an unruly life faded out, I still clung to the belief that schedules are to be used only sparingly, to meet deadlines or get chores done. Yet I failed to realise that we all, in fact, live in a grand invisible schedule comprising deadlines and timely classes, events at specific times and holidays that are marked out in red even before the year starts. We are like chess pieces moving from one square to another according to some strange social norms, trying to assert whatever little freedom we can between one square and the next. And when, in extraordinary circumstances (like a pandemic), the chessboard itself is turned over, we do not know where to go. More importantly, we don’t know how to go where we want to go.
Hence we make schedules. We don’t know any way to function except through following rules, so we remake and follow the same rules we once resented. We are so unacquainted with following our desires, and we are so unfamiliar with the freedom to do so, that we have to convert our desires into rules before we can actually try to fulfill them. Most of us cannot change our diet, read more, sleep on time, or write a book simply because we want to. Even if we consider actions that aren’t major behavioural changes, for instance, just reading one book, or catching up with just one friend, most of us find it difficult to do so unless we write it down as a rule. We do not take desire, feelings and needs half as seriously as rules. So we have convert these into rules before we can act on them.
The extent to which we are able to follow these rules and schedules is determined by how well we are able to appropriate the role of the authority figures from whom we derived them. It’s easier for me, for instance, to go off Instagram and write an assignment given by a teacher than to write a poem I want to write, even when I schedule it. Whether you take your schedule seriously and do all the designated tasks is largely dependent on external motivations like rewards or punishments. I might really want to write a poem right now, and I might schedule it into my day, but I won’t do it with the same anxiety-driven motivation with which I write an assignment, simply because the rule regarding the first is not made by a legitimate authority figure. It is made by me. Years of indoctrination has made me believe that what I want is a little less important than all those invisible rules handed down to me. It’s strange therefore, that the little bit of agency that we get as young adults comes by making rules and scheduling, basically imitating authority figures.
As bleak as the prospects of free will might seem, our indoctrinated values are not set in stone. If we teach ourselves to value and prioritise our own needs and desires as much as we obey rules, we might retrain our brains to take things other than schedules seriously too. Much like a skill, we can learn to prioritise feelings and emotions as much as, if not more than, deadlines and resolutions. Although it might not be an easy process to undo years of conditioning, if we achieve even a small percent of success in doing this (perhaps by making some mental rules?), we may actually break free from the unmitigated tyranny of schedules and resolutions. We can exercise freedom over which aspects of our lives we want rules in, and in which aspects we would prefer the throbbing excitement of sheer spontaneity.