Why I Mistrust Routines

Routine & Change - In What Direction Do You Lean?

Take a look at the following quotes. They speak to the value of routine, or the dangers of falling into them to avoid suffering from suffocating stagnation in life. Which is it? What are your reactions to these quotes? In what direction do you tend to lean, and when, and why?

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition. W. H. Auden

Each time we bring to activities an awareness of ‘now,’ we raise our vibratory frequency and cause the freshness of the moment to fall upon us. Dr. Michael Beckwith

Routine is a ground to stand on, a wall to retreat to; we cannot draw on our boots without bracing ourselves against it. Henry David Thoreau

To be spontaneous means not to act out of the past, because out of the past is all cunningness, cleverness, calculation, arithmetic. Osho

There is something else to be said about this immediate, spontaneous way of working, and that is this: in such moments, one is playing at the game of creation. Henry Miller

Routines as Structures for Living

I appreciate the value of routine. I populate my daily life with many of them. I work predictable hours of the day on set days of the week. I awaken to exercise each morning at a familiar time, with particular exercise patterns that vary little over the course of 3-4 month stretches. When grocery shopping, there are certain aisles I frequent while others I rarely visit, and of course, the shopping itself occurs at a specific store. The whiskers on the left side of my face receive my initial morning attention, while my chin typically receives shaving’s final flourishes. The blade and cream brands rarely vary. Amazon knows my buying preferences, regularly feeding me possible purchasable items based on what I’ve repeatedly done in the past, and they are often right.

The necessity and inevitability of establishing routines and habits is something I recognize and value. After all, the automatic forming of routines (we usually call them habits) is what our brains do. We couldn’t learn to walk, talk or write without relying on our brain’s in-born capacity to extract from randomness repeatable patterns, which become the building blocks of the multitude of habits that make us who we are. Even attempting the seemingly simple act of wishing your spouse a good morning is simple only because we have mastered the routine of coordinating the muscles of our tongue, cheeks, lips, vocal cord and lungs, with the electrically-charged instructions formed in the neural circuits of our brains that allow us to even recognize her as we casually say, “good morning, honey!” 

The Seductive Power of Unhealthy Routines

Why, then, if routines are so central to conducting our daily lives effectively, do I so mistrust them?  Routines are subtly and powerfully seductive. Sometimes their seductive power leads to misery. Over the course of my psychotherapeutic career, I have logged over 40,000 hours sitting with clients whose lives reflect the unintentional but nevertheless powerful grip that routines exert. Routines are action patterns: Patterns of thought, emotional and behavioral responses people engage in unthinkingly. People “do” their depression, panic, relationship conflict, migraine, infidelity, IBS, diet, sleep, PTSD, or any other aspect of their unhappiness and distress in predictable, repeatable, and remarkably routine ways. Granted, their way of “doing” their symptom pattern may not be conscious and often reflects the opposite of what they wish or intend. Still, much of the work of therapy can be defined as assisting and supporting clients as they break down the retaining walls that channel their days along the paths of established routines and habitual symptom patterns. In short, knowing how to modify established routines is the quintessence of what distinguishes joy vs. suffering, vitality vs. despair, growth vs. stagnation, or inspiration vs. dull sameness.

Are You Living in Auto-Pilot Mode?

There are many ingredients that go into positive change. Some of those ingredients are more central than others. More than any other ingredient, awareness is foundational to making positive change. Routines rely on automaticity. This non-conscious automatic pilot mode of functioning frees our brain up to learn something new even as we carry out actions reflecting what we have already learned. Think of how often we drive to work. We arrive safely at the destination having following the same general route, made turns, merged into traffic, heeded signs and lights, avoided obstacles, and then recall very little of how we carried out any of those actions. We weren’t necessarily being unsafe. We were, however, being automatic.

When it comes to driving, automaticity and routine can be helpful. But, when it comes to making positive life change, automaticity and reliance on over-learned, unconscious routines all but assures that our past will remain forever present. We will continue to play out old habits that wreak so much havoc and lead to so much emotional pain and the loss of unrealized potential.

By Changing Nothing, Does Everything Change?

Automaticity works best to enrich our lives when it is counter-balanced by novelty and uncertainty. When we escape the well-practiced and the familiar in favor of the unknown and the mysterious, we are taking a step toward a healthier life balance. A simple example of this is something I often ask my clients to do. I say, “For now, don’t try to change anything. I know you want to feel better. But first we have to better understand what is keeping you stuck. So, until our next meeting, don’t change anything. Try to carry out your (worry, panic, depression, attitude toward your spouse, eating habit…) exactly as you usually do, but this time, pay very careful attention to how you do it as you do it!”

What typically happens next is quite interesting, novel, mysterious, and especially paradoxical. By asking people to do what they’ve always done, exactly as they’ve always done it, they are already doing it differently! There’s the paradox. Because they are doing “it” with awareness and intention they are no longer mindlessly, automatically, and unconsciously carrying out an old routine. And, when we carry out our activities with active awareness and positive intention, we discover the freedom to choose what to do next. With the power to choose in hand, many people can discover their ability to make positive, self-affirming, relationship-enhancing and momentum-building actions.

Awareness & Intention for Changing Stale Routines

Until next time, consider how you can counter-balance stale habits and routines with something new and different. Whether you accomplish that by literally doing something you’ve never done before or enrich out old routines with a clear-minded, present-moment-focused attention, you will have already an important goal.

As Dr. Beckwith words at the top of this blog said, when we bring to our daily activities an awareness of “now”, we transcend the stagnation of stale routine. We can find instead, in the “freshness of the moment,” that we are still in the active process of becoming our fullest selves. And, as long as we continue to visualize what we seek, experiment with paths to get there, and seek the mystery of what’s novel outside the confines of established habits and routines, we optimize our chances for living our lives as our best selves.