Somewhere between January and December, between sunrise and sunset, life turns into a series of processes that can rob the days of their original potential. From the alarm clock to clocking in, the hours tick away marked by a ceaseless process that forces us into line.

Structure is essential to succeeding in this schema, and plans are preached as the ultimate virtue. In a world where reservations fill up and resumes are reviewed in the order they’re received, we are rewarded for coloring between the lines.

And this is not all bad. It lets us save up, work towards goals, achieve tangible things that were once distant circles on the calendar.

There is a risk, though. One peek at my own writing this year shows a routine infrequency. And writing is my personal ultimate form of expression—whether it comes from a place of sorrow or joy, it is the most actualized I can be. When that is reduced to a quarterly indulgence before being shelved for the next sliver of free time, the dates of each document stare back with a damning indictment. Three months, and then three months, and then three more.

In each of those large chunks of time, there have been slivers that I never wanted to end and many more days that were forgettable in their rote proceedings. A few of them have been spent at the keyboard, artfully piecing together words in the self-indulgent way that only humans are capable of. More of them have been spent in sublime exploration, a new turn on a bike ride, an alpine lake coming into view after a thoughtless, breathless hike. Time spent in soul-piercing eye contact and effortless conversation, which makes every second of previous misunderstanding and isolation feel like a distant and worthwhile misery for the present connection.

Somehow, these rare mornings where coffee is the main event rarely serve as evidence that life can be richer or that we should orient our lives around beauty. Because routine is safe and predictability makes the mindless days tick away as the seasons change in the background. An extra jacket, same running route. It works, but it doesn’t reward.

Human nature favors conformity which breeds canned entertainment and mass distraction. Even those of us who feel largely immune to it slowly funnel into some form of groupthink as we slide into surroundings that reward it. One needs look no further than major cities with sports teams and happy hours or massive expanses of rugged outdoors with blank stretches of highway and roadside bars. The way people group themselves says more about what’s available than who they are, and how people are grouped becomes fact.

But perhaps if more options were available, we would choose differently. Perhaps not. Once the eyes have become accustomed to the neon lights and the ears to the noise, silence and darkness feel more overwhelming. Our nervous communal tendencies define us more than our individual dreams, and so entire lives are won and lost by others’ rules.

Even those of us who know this fall for it. Even those of us who don’t want to play by the rules become intoxicated by the feeling of winning. And so, we go far down the tracks, careening towards tangible rewards when one brave detour might yield a more edifying day, or week, or year. These smaller measurements become a life. What a strange thing it is to live a life, to notice as the pages on the calendar turn that we are actively participating in something that begins and ends, which becomes a collection of belongings and photographs and memories, which tell of joys and sorrows. Oftentimes routine is the antithesis of the awareness of being alive. Measuring out the days in timecards and screen time, we drift from one to the next in comfortable numbness.

It isn’t until you become acutely aware of the lack of a measurement for something that the beauty of life sinks in. It is coffee on a back porch with nowhere else to be. It is moving somewhere new with the belief that your next chapter is not contingent on your last. Ultimately, it is the subtle difference between a begrudging bike ride for a set distance and a giddy shred with no specific measure of success. It is the same act, experienced differently.