I’ve found that the times in my life when I had the fewest routines or pushed myself out of my comfort zone—road trips up the coast, making dinner with new ingredients, learning new cultures or languages — have been the most memorable. When I do something new, it’s as if time slows down or stretches out.
Turns out I’m not the only one.
According to Marc Wittmann, a psychologist and the author of Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time, our perception of time literally stretches if we pack our days with more memorable events, and it speeds up if we follow too many routines and habits.
I have very few vivid memories of the brief periods of my life when I’ve tried to fit into the normal 9–6 work routine. They seem like faint, tired blips on the radar screen of my otherwise technicolor life.
Because compared to my 14-month motorcycle trip across South America, or the week I recently took cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway, or the years I’ve spent as an entrepreneur and coach working in new settings and solving new problems on a daily basis — periods of time filled with vivid images, emotion, and growth… Compared to THAT, a 9-to-6 job is just a blur.
It’s true that some good routines and healthy habits are important ingredients of a successful life.
I will readily agree that if you want to become a master of some skill or trade, you need to study and practice. Malcolm Gladwell will say it takes 10,000 hours of practice, in fact. And if you don’t want your teeth to rot out of your head, you need to brush them every day.
But you get to choose where exactly you live on the routine/variety spectrum to optimize for maximum “achievement” and maximum “life.” And most of us are erring on the side of more routine than necessary.
There are some daily “keystone” habits that help us be healthy, happy, and successful:
- Personal Hygiene & Exercise
- Eating Healthy Food & Drinking Lots of Water
- Showing Appreciation and Affection to Loved Ones
- Meditating and Reflecting on Your Goals
Love it. Do these every day. Many times a day, in fact.
But there are other things we tend to have routines for that actually kill our creativity and shorten our perception of the length of our life:
- Getting our news from the same sources every day
- Buying the same coffee drinks from the same cafes
- Taking the same routes to work every day
- Sitting at the same desk (or even in the same office) every day
- Cooking the same meals week after week
- Putting the kids to bed at the same time every night
- Going to the same places for vacation every year (and even worse, going to “all inclusive” resorts that lock us into eating and drinking routines)
- Making love to our partners using the same positions and sequences
- Attending the same house of worship every week
All these other habits serve no real purpose aside from giving us less to think about — which is exactly the problem that speeds up our perception of time and lowers our creativity.
Am I saying to go to a different church every week, or never to eat the same meal? No. It’s important to build community, and sometimes you just want that one burger from that one favorite place, but when we turn off our brains and turn our backs on other options, we limit ourselves.
Why do we do fall into so many habits and routines that have little beneficial purpose?
More than any other creature, human beings recognize and are drawn to patterns. This was extremely helpful to our neanderthal ancestors who had to know which berries to eat, where to hunt and fish, and how to find fresh water. In fact, the collective routines that have been repeated and remembered across generations have become the basis of all language and culture.
Look, I’ll admit some of my own fondest childhood memories are of family traditions — which is a fancy word for routines. Opening one gift on Christmas Eve. Birthdays at my grandmother’s place in Cape May. Thanksgiving at my Godparents — oh my god, my Aunt Anita’s famous pineapple stuffing!
There is something comforting in tradition. I carry many of those old traditions into my own life today.
But if I’m honest with myself, my most vivid holiday and birthday memories are when we broke out of the routine. Friendsgiving in Telluride. Christmas with my parents in Key West. My 21st birthday in Boulder — ok, I don’t really remember much of that one.
And this is all 20 or 30 years ago — yes, I’m getting old. With the pace of life we all experience life today and with 24/7 access to little addictive habit-making machines in our pockets, we run through “habit loops” at a much faster pace than any generation that preceded us, which makes unhelpful habits more engrained than ever before.
Bad Bonus: Over-reliance on routines also makes us risk averse and irritable
Think of the old man who sits at the same table in the same restaurant and orders the same dish week after week (I’m only kinda talking about you, Dad). While there is something comforting in “always knowing what you’re going to get” or simply “knowing what you like,” it is also extremely narrowing and limiting. And as soon as something is outside of the expected, the old man is irritated or disconcerted.
The first time my parents visited me when I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we went to my favorite restaurant for blue corn chicken enchiladas with green chile. (I’m turning into a Pavlov Dog just thinking about them!)
Anyway, when my Mom’s plate arrived it had a huge dollop of gorgeous guacamole in the middle. The problem is my mother raised us on the east coast diet of meat and potatoes. She’d never seen an avocado at that point, let alone eaten guac. She was visibly disconcerted by the “green slime” on her plate and refused to try it.
Why? Because she had eating routines that were fully entrenched by then, and to her that guacamole looked more like monkey brains from an Indiana Jones movie than one of the most healthy foods on the planet.
The same thing happens to all of us in some ways. When we constantly live within our routines, we grow extremely averse to new ways of doing things. It’s like we unconsciously put on blinders and deaden our ability to look at old ideas with fresh eyes.
That aversion to new ways of doing things makes us irritable when things go wrong or differently than expected. Which is exactly why we end up pissed off and annoyed with seemingly mundane problems. I actually think this phenomenon is to blame for the rampant xenophobia and lack of empathy in our political discourse today. If you never left the town you grew up in and still do things the way your grandparents did, you’re going to be extremely suspect (and increasingly violent) towards those who do things different.
Whereas, people who regularly step away from meaningless routines and habits develop more comfort with risk and they are less surprised (and annoyed) when thing don’t go as expected. In fact, they develop a healthy curiosity and joy with opportunities to try new things to develop a new perspective.
Avoiding the Gravitational Pull of Routines is Hard, but Necessary
I’ve been told that if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got. The more we allow routine and habit to take over our lives, the smaller and faster our lives become.
So, here’s what I want you to do: Every day for the next week, identify ONE thing you have done the same way for months or years, and investigate a different way of doing it.
- Always sit at the same desk? Work from a conference room for while.
- Always run the same route? Drive to a different neighborhood and get lost for 30 minutes.
- Always watch the same shows? Well, you should really just turn off your TV and leave it off…forever.
- Basically, any time you enter into a procedure or routine without thinking, you are in the perfect position to get curious about a different way of doing it.
The simple act of choosing a different way of doing the same thing will activate parts of your brain that normally shut down when you do that thing without thinking. That activation triggers creativity and creates more vivid and varied memories that will make your days (and your life) seem longer. And if you keep doing it, breaking meaningless routines will make you more flexible, empathetic, and curious.
I do this “habit-breaking” work with my Executive Coaching clients to great success — which flies in the face of most of the “productivity hacking” advice they get these days. But the fact is, CEOs aren’t paid to be productive. They are paid to be innovative, resilient, flexible, inspirational, and curious. They pay other people to be simply productive.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes. You can comment below or email me here: firstname.lastname@example.org
PS. For the record, my Mom’s diet has since expanded. She even makes her own guacamole these days. Go Mom!