Having a routine isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can help you stay organized, be productive, or even, according to some researchers, find meaning. Certain studies have associated family routines with parenting competence and marital satisfaction. However, not all routines are created equal, and failing to examine or alter our habits can have a limiting or deadening effect on our lives.
A big reason for this is that habitual behavior, by nature, can cut us off from feeling. Moving through a series of them can set us on autopilot throughout our day, which can lead us to lose touch with ourselves and our immediate experience—be it sensory or emotional. For example, scrolling through our phone on our morning train commute can seem pretty innocuous, but we may be missing out on sights, sounds, or even smells that would enliven us in some way, inspire a specific feeling, or spark our imagination. Similarly, the list of items we pressure ourselves to include in our evening routine may be taking up time we could use to connect with loved ones.
Whatever our personal habit patterns may be, it’s worth considering the ways in which they may be cutting us off from a more vital way of engaging with the world. A particular routine may make us feel more secure or unchallenged, muting some of our fears around uncertainty. However, it may also be closing us off to our sense of awe, curiosity, or excitement. This is because whenever we attempt to use anything—be it a substance or a rigid pattern of behavior—to numb a negative emotion, we often inadvertently also shut out our more profound, positive ones.
A common side effect of our routinized attempts to tune out is boredom. Think about how you feel on a day of vacation versus how you feel in the middle of a typical day at home. Usually, there is novelty associated with travel that’s invigorating. And while there is a sense of freedom and lack of obligation, there is also a complete shift to our routine. Instead of how will we tackle this day by new experiences and uncertainty.
In truth, it’s possible to uphold this same sense of adventure on any given day of our lives. There are tangible ways to strike a balance between making our daily life feel calm and stable and opening ourselves up to new and energizing experiences. The first step is to ask ourselves, are we really experiencing our lives or are we just going through the motions? We can start to look at patterns in our behavior that have become rote or even rigid ways of thinking that are bringing down our energy and cutting us off from a feeling of liveliness.
It may be helpful to make a list of activities we engage in that leave us feeling lifeless. For many of us, turning to technology—our phones or streaming TV—can be addictively numbing. However, habits that cut us off have been around for a lot longer than our devices, so it’s also important to consider even seemingly harmless activities, such as a specific place we always go to eat or a certain way we have to get ready for bed. If we have trouble identifying these behaviors in ourselves, a good rule of thumb is that we can often tell how compulsive the action is by how anxious we feel when we vary from it.
Once we have a sense of some of the routines we’re willing to switch up, we can start to take action. This doesn’t need to be anything monumental. We can start by mixing up the order of things, trying a new restaurant, or taking a different route to work.
As we experiment with this exercise, we can start to think bigger. We may explore what it would mean to break out of a fixed identity or a role we impose upon ourselves. For example, if we feel pressure to be the quiet, agreeable one, we can try speaking up and suggesting more ideas. If we often feel a need to control where we pick up dinner or where we go out on a date night, letting go and seeing what happens can completely shift our experience. Small as they may seem, making these kinds of changes can make us anxious. However, they also often wake us up in ways we really don’t expect.
This is because when we fall into routine, we’re often choosing a pattern of behavior that feels self-protective and familiar. These patterns are built on old adaptations we made to feel safe in our early environment. As children, we built up defenses to protect ourselves from the ways we were hurt. We may have needed to feel self-sufficient, pseudo-independent, and organized to exist in a household that felt chaotic and unstable to us. To protect ourselves from anxiety and pain, we subconsciously designed a set of structured behaviors to help us navigate the world. The trouble is, as our worlds and lives change, and we become independent adults who are no longer victims of our circumstances, we remain stuck in our ways. At this point, our self-protective defenses start to hurt rather than help us.
When we stay defended in our lives and rigid in our routines, we often lose a child’s sense of wonder about the world. However, we can reconnect with this feeling by being willing to explore. This exploration doesn’t need to be limited to a vacation or special occasion but can be connected to every day. We can explore in our own city, be freer in our relationships, or be more open to variation in our morning routine. Each day, we can make it a point to celebrate our sense of choice.
The truth: No day or moment will be the same as any other. Yet, seeking out and actively choosing novelty helps us feel more alive, engaged, and attuned to ourselves and others. This may mean doing something as simple as spontaneously hugging our partner rather than hurrying past them or doing something silly with our kid rather than sending them off to clean their room. It may mean picking up a new hobby or putting down our phone.
Whatever the action may be, it’s important to check in with ourselves and see how these new choices make us feel. We can do what Dr. Daniel Siegel calls sifting through our experience, considering any sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts that arise. As we do this, we may feel anxious, but over time, we will slowly reconnect with who we are. We will start to know more deeply what we enjoy, what matters to us, and quite simply, what makes us come alive.