Your alarm rings at 7:15 each morning. On autopilot, your right arm flies out from under the covers and hits that all-too-tempting snooze button just one time. When it blares a second time, you scroll through your emails on your phone, finally peel yourself out of bed, and get ready for the day. You make a cup of coffee, grab a banana, and head out the door.
It’s the same routine every single morning. In fact, your morning routine is so ingrained you’re almost convinced you could do it completely blindfolded. And, you consider that a good thing. It means that you start each day with a refined and efficient system, right?
True—at least somewhat. As humans, we thrive on routines. We have them for almost everything—morning routines, lunchtime routines, evening routines, bedtime routines, even weekend routines. The predictability that accompanies a positive routine (notice the word positive) can be comforting and even serve to push us toward larger objectives.
But, can a routine ever get in your own way? Can you fall into the trap of doing things just for the sake of doing them—whether they benefit you or not?
Well, to put it simply, yes. And when that happens, your beloved routine really isn’t doing you any favors. Let’s take a look at why we all tend to lean on these predictable systems, along with a few of the positive effects that come along with shaking things up every now and then.
Why Do We Thrive On Routines?
“It’s nice for many people to have a sense of predictability about their day, and routines can help accomplish that,” explains Andy Molinsky, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University’s International Business School.
When you boil it down, that’s exactly why we all tend to rely on these repeated habits. Whether professionally or personally, life can throw us some curveballs. But, knowing that we have a stable system in place to help us tackle the unknowns of each day with a somewhat strategic approach can be reassuring.
Additionally, with so many different choices presented to us each and every day, routines can reduce decision fatigue. “It costs our brain the same amount of energy to decide whether to wear a blue dress or a red dress as it does to decide whether to undergo lifesaving surgery,” shares Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time and director of the Better Life Lab at New America, “Routines and systems can help us save on brainpower and willpower by circumventing the decision process entirely.”
When Routines Get in the Way
So, routines are a good thing—plain and simple, right? Not so fast. Things aren’t that cut and dried.
Yes, a routine that systematically pushes you toward a long-term objective is beneficial. But, all too often, it’s easy for us to do things out of habit, rather than gain. As Schulte explains, “Research has shown we’ll stick with what we know, simply because it’s familiar , even if it’s not in our best long-term interest. It’s called status quo bias.”
Molinsky adds to this point with a story from Ellen Langer’s book Mindfulness, where she talks about generations of cooks in the same family who—following the old family recipe—would always cut each end off the pot roast before putting it in the pan.
“Only when a friend of the family asked for the recipe and inquired about that unusual practice did the family investigate why it was they cut off both ends,” Molinsky says. After putting in some legwork and tracing that step back, it was discovered that the recipe started that way because the pan the original cook used (over 50 years prior) was too small to hold the entire thing. “I always loved that story because it really captures the essence of a mindless routine,” adds Molinsky.
Our habits & routines are hard to break for a reason: they bring predictability to our lives. But avoiding new situations can hold you back. pic.twitter.com/zXSEgj5ncF
— Andy Molinsky (@andymolinsky) January 19, 2017
It’s important to remember that—while there are plenty of systems that can serve a positive purpose—not all routines are inherently good. Further, even routines you consider to be positive can still benefit from a little outside shock or shake up every now and then.
The 4 Benefits of Shaking Up Your Routine
Yes, as scary or counterintuitive as it might seem, throwing an intentional wrench into your various routines can yield some pretty great results. And, nowhere is this more true than during your workday.
From razor-sharp focus to better retention, here are a few key benefits that occur when you stray from the predictable and change things up in your workflow.
1. Increased Focus
Despite our best intentions, we can all easily get distracted throughout the day. You plan on zoning in on work, but before you know it, you’re scrolling through social media or doing some online shopping instead.
If you’ve previously been beating yourself up for having the attention span of a goldfish, rest assured, there’s good reason this is happening to you: we’re all practically hardwired to do this very thing.
“Neuroscientists have found that our brains are constantly seeking novelty, and will become distracted easily in search of the bright new shiny thing,” Schulte shares. This is why shaking up your routine can be so helpful—it creates the novelty that your brain is always seeking, thus increasing your engagement with, and your focus on, the task at hand.
2. Improved Memory
Many of us think that establishing routines benefits our memories. If we have a system in place, we reduce the risk of forgetting to to dot our i's and cross our t’s.
However, research has shown that switching up your routine can actually improve your ability to retain information. (For example: leaving the office for lunch instead of continuing to eat in front of your computer.)
“When we change locations—work in a different spot, take a walk at lunch, mix up the commute—that actually stimulates our hippocampus, where we store long-term memories,” Schulte explains. “So, we’ll also remember our lives more with greater emotional depth and connection.”
Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, drives this point home when he explains, “Changing your work environment and daily movements—taking a different route to work, for example—can maximize the brain’s effectiveness, allowing you to retain more information and be more successful.”
3. Greater Creativity
You know the feeling all too well. You’ve been parked in front of your computer for what feels like hours, staring at that menacing blinking cursor. You know you have tons to get done, but the creative juices aren’t flowing. You get up for a short break, come back, and suddenly you’re able to crank out that project without a single roadblock.
Make no mistake, that wasn’t blind luck. That example really speaks to the benefit of having a certain level of flexibility in your routine.
When you’re willing to step away from those standard workflows, you’re exercising your brain’s neuroplasticity. That big, fancy word essentially means that you’re improving your brain’s ability to connect the dots between different thoughts—thus increasing your creativity and problem-solving abilities.
Our memory is associative, which means we connect various pieces of information based on their relationship to each other. The more “plastic” our brains become, the more creative thoughts and connections we’re able to have.
So, while it can be tempting to rely on your routine to push you through a creative block, you might be better off trying something new entirely.
4. Time to Re-evaluate
Going back to the pot roast example, it’s evident that we can all become so reliant on our routines, we don’t even realize when they’re no longer benefitting us. We run on autopilot without so much as a second thought.
As a result, this is perhaps one of the biggest—albeit, somewhat intangible—perks of changing things up: you give yourself time and space to re-evaluate. What’s working well for you? What’s not going so well? What’s pushing you toward your goals and what are you doing for the sake of doing it? In what ways can you streamline and improve your daily system?
Your trusted routine can often turn into a proverbial hamster wheel. You end up spinning and spinning, without ever stepping back to notice that you’re not actually going anywhere. By pressing pause and taking a magnifying glass to your habits, you can make the necessary tweaks to move forward in a much more effective and efficient way.
Making a Change
Straying away from the routines we’ve come to know and love can be easier said than done—in fact, it can often feel disloyal. However, it can also be necessary if you want to grow and make forward progress.
And, fortunately, the concept of changing things up might not be as foreign to you as you initially think. “If you think about it, you’ve been stretching outside your routine your entire life,” Molinsky concludes. “Your original routine was to crawl, but at some point, you took the leap and tried to walk. To grow and learn and develop, we all need to break certain aspects of our routines. ”
So, today, challenge yourself to flip that autopilot switch and take some small steps away from the safe and predictable systems you typically rely on. You might just be surprised by how much good it does you.
- The Secrets to Work-Life Balance: Interview with Overwhelmed Author Brigid Schulte
- Working for a Workaholic: 10 Strategies to Save Your Sanity
Kat Boogaard (@kat_boogaard) is a Midwest-based writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. She is a columnist for Inc., writes for The Muse, is Career Editor for The Everygirl, and a contributor all over the web.