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Thomas J. Scheff
Thomas Scheff Ph.D.

Why We are Creatures of Routine

How to get control over our routines.

My practice of meditation has suggested to me a new way of looking at routine. Folowing up on my last article on why our thoughts, feelings and actions are almost always routine, here I return to an earlier article, considering toward the end of it the process of routinization.

Portrayal of Routine

The film Groundhog Day (1993) is one my favorites. It puts the protagonist, Phil Connors (Bill Murray), in a time warp. Nothing that he does matters because he is stuck in February 2, Groundhog Day, in a small rural town. For most of the film he seems doomed to repeat this day forever.

Even without the help of a time warp, are we all involved in repetitive routines? Speaking about myself, I seem to have been in routine most of my life, as the examples below suggest.

Towards the middle of Groundhog Day, a scene in a bar suggests that the film is not just science fiction. Phil describes his situation to a local sitting next to him along the bar:

Phil: What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?

Ralph: That about sums it up for me.

Like me, Ralph is not in a time warp, but he seems stuck in routines.

There are many moments in popular culture that suggest routines. Here is a pop song from the 40's:

If I love again, though it's someone new.

If I love again, it will still be you.

I thought of this song when I read about Paul McCartney's divorce from his second wife. The story suggests that the main reason he married her was that she reminded him of his first wife.

The idea of routines also occurs in literature. One example is the last line from Dylan Thomas's poem about the death of a child in the WWII bombing of London (1957):

After the first death, there is no other.

This line may allude to the idea that since we usually are unable to complete the mourning of the first death that is important to us, we are compelled to repeat it with each subsequent one.

I often feel like Ralph in Groundhog Day. There have been, and still are, many routines in my life that seem to be repetitive and virtually unchanging. Much of my eating, sleeping, working, quarreling, and indeed, thinking, feeling and even my mediation, are mostly routine.

Escape from Routine

Not that all routines are bad. We need routines, lest we drown in details. But the question arises, who is master, me or routine? Probably the latter, because when I escape routine, it is almost always an accident. Here are two examples of accidental escape, the first from my own life.

My wife Suzanne and I made a trip to Atlanta in August 2003. Since I routinely fly, I assumed that we would do that. However, Suzanne had never been in the South, so we compromised by flying there but returning in a rental car. We stayed two days in Atlanta, then drove back in 6 days. The South that we drove thru was hot as Hades, but we had an unbelievably good time, because we talked to our heart's content.

Until this event, we both thought that we talked frequently, often at length, and on occasion, in depth. Of course, we are one or both of us often out of the house. Still we thought that at least at home, we were communicating.

In Atlanta, no change because we were both busy. The change occurred during the drive back to California, when we were together all the time for six days.

I spent most of the first day complaining. Why were we doing this? Why had I allowed myself to be roped in, etc? Late in the day, however, I said "At least I am out of my usual routine." We both laughed.

Since Suzanne is a grief counselor at the local Hospice, she talks a lot about death. So I thought of a new question: how would you feel if I were to die? At first she spoke about what she would do, her actions. When I repeated the question, she talked at length about her feelings. She asked me the same question about my feelings in the case of her death. Then we laughed when we spoke about asking our children a similar question. (As it turned out, the question didn't work with them). But it worked with us. We were off to the races.

That was the beginning of a five-day torrent of conversation, as if the floodgates had burst. We talked, laughed, and cried our way virtually non-stop thru Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. It was like paradise.

After this experience, we realized that we have so many routines in our life that we rarely talk about anything but business. There is work outside and at home, food preparation, repairs, garden, cleaning, etc. There are also many other routines. We had the practice, for example of watching TV or DVDs together from 8 pm to our usual bedtime at 10. The two hours are not devoid of talk, but only pedestrian talk. We complain about the waste of time, but often one or both are so tired that TV is all we can manage.

Once home, we vowed never again to lapse back. We agreed that if necessary, we would just drive in circles around Santa Barbara for at least one weekend a month. Nevertheless, there were too many pulls. We lapsed back into our talk routine; it continues today. We tried taking long trips on trains and cars, but it wasn't the same.

Emmy Rainwater led me to a parallel story from her life (Rainwater 2000). A single mother, she describes an accidental breaking of routines with her teenage son. When her best friend died unexpectedly, she vowed a three-day period of silence. She told her son that he could talk to her, but during the three days she wouldn't reply.

To her surprise, the son, usually laconic, talked her head off. He told her his thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams, indeed, the very kinds of things that she had always wanted to know. However, because he always replied by arguing or with silence, she had given up. One can surmise that before the three-day silence, they were deeply enmeshed in routines in which the mom did most of the talking, or was directive, distracted or critical.

Intentional Breaks from Routine

To find breaks from routine that were not completely accidental, I had to search my memory. One occurred that changed my routine fear response during the period when I protested the Vietnam War. Not feeling fear made me reckless. Being also the chair of my university department at the time, my protest activities attracted the attention of the media. For that reason I drew considerable criticism, both on campus and from the public.

I was awakened by a phone call early in the morning of a speech I was to make to a very large meeting protesting the Cambodian incursion. The caller refused to identify himself, threatening to kill me and my family for "stirring the students up." I tried to reason with him, but he was suspicious and hung up after some fifteen minutes of relentless threats.

Rather than being upset, I felt blank. I knew I would be unable to speak effectively unless I snapped out of it. Having just joined a self-help psychotherapy group, I used one of their devices. I guessed that it might be fear causing my blankness, so I said to myself "I am afraid," a sentence that I hadn't used since childhood. Nothing happened at first, so I kept repeating that line.

After many repetitions, my body went into what might be described as a seizure of fear. Falling to the floor, I involuntarily shook and sweated in what felt like a tsunami of emotion. It was quite enjoyable, like a roller coaster ride, even though there were no accompanying thoughts. It stopped after some fifteen minutes of tremor and sweat bath. I was no longer blank. In fact, I gave a poetic speech without notes. This incident involved a break out of my routine suppression of fear, the kind of suppression that most men do for all their lives (This and other examples of catharsis are described in Scheff 1979).

A second incident that was not quite accidental occurred a week after, suggesting a way to deal with anger without shouting, my usual routine. On a flight from the local airport, I chanced to be sitting next to a colleague from another department in my university. I had always been intimidated by this man because he was senior to me and had a sharp tongue. However, I was still in a good mood from the incident above, so I tried to tell him about it. He didn't allow me to, interrupting me with an "objective" analysis. In the language my students use, he was "psychoanalyzing" me. But I in turn didn't let him finish.

Without thinking about what I was going to say, and without raising my voice, I interrupted him after only a few sentences: "David ______, you are trying to reduce my experience to yours with no remainder. I won't have it." To my surprise, he began to apologize, and continued for the rest of the flight. From this confrontation, I learned how I might make inroads into my routine acting out of anger. I say that these two incidents are not completely accidental, but I should also add that they are not completely intended either. I hardly understood what I was doing in both cases: my liberating responses were more like shots in the dark that turned out well.

What Causes Routines? (An update of my earlier article)

Scholars have suggested that the self is made up of movement between experiencing and witnessing ourselves experiencing. They begin by pointing to the learning of language: the various human languages, as opposed to the instinctive vocabularies of other mammals, are made possible by what they call role-taking. Humans can see their own experience from outside, by imagining it from the point of view of another person. Human language in actual usage is almost always highly fragmented and incomplete, and most commonly used words have more than one meaning. For these reasons, it would be impossible to understand without role-taking.

Role-taking appears to occur at lightning speed, so fast that it disappears from consciousness at an early age. In modern societies, particularly, with their focus on individualism, there are many incentives for forgetting that one is role-taking. Each of us learns to consider ourselves a stand-alone individual, independent of what others think. "We live in the minds of others without knowing it." (Cooley 1922).

How could we not know it? Children learn role-taking so early and so well that they forget they are doing it. The more adept they become, the quicker the movement back in forth, learning through practice to reduce silences in conversation to a span of time unbelievably short. A study of recorded conversations (Wilson and Zimmerman 1986) can help us understand how the forgetting is possible.

It analyzed adult dialogues nine minutes long in seven conversations (14 different people). In the segments recorded, the average length of silences varied from an average of .04 to .09 seconds! How can one possibly respond to the other's comment in less than a tenth of a second? Apparently one needs to begin to form a response well before the other person has stopped speaking. That is, humans are capable of multiprocessing, in this case, in at least four different channels: listening to the other's comment, imagining its meaning from the speaker's point of view, from own point of view and, forming a response to it.

Within and between each channel there are probably several movements back and forth as the incoming information is considered and processed into a response. For an example, one might imagine the other person's view of the response you are forming one or more times. All these activities must occur virtually simultaneously.

In modern societies, at least, if one is to respond quickly enough, one must split one's attention into parts. I assume that the length of silences is greater for small children who must learn this drill. Learning to respond quickly probably takes years. Perhaps early in grammar school, most children have obtained sufficient speed. If a child takes too long to respond, undesirable interpretations may be put upon the wait. "What are you, stupid or something? ‟ Or "Don't you believe me?" and so on.

Self and Ego

Acquiring a human self depends on role-taking: the ability to see one's self as another might, as well as from the inside. The problem with this process is that in order to be instantly responsive, a part of the self, that might be called the ego, may become mechanized. How can one listen to a comment, imagine the others' point of view, decide one's own point of view, and produce a response that allows less than a tenth of a second silence? It seems that such facility would require an internal machine that is largely automatic, using, for the most part, responses that are already mostly prepared, rather than an exact response to the particular moment.

Automatized responses in conversation would require hundreds or even thousands of stock words, phrases, or sentences, rather than exploring many possibilities. The reflexive, witnessing self is capable of providing a unique response to each unique situation. But such a response demands that one only listen as long as the other is speaking, leading to a delay in response. The ego is a machine, composed largely of ready-made elements. Ego responses, therefore, are usually as much or more about the self as about the other or the situation.

An obvious example of a stock response would be "Well!" or "Uhh," to gain time. But since there is next to no time for the further response either, what usually occurs is also stock, perhaps a saying, or a favorite phrase, or phrases that he or she knows are the other's person favorites, or some more complex response that is still mostly constructed from available stock. Couples can often get laughs or at least get by with punch lines from favorite jokes: "You bettah off" "Can't hurt, either." "Do you want two lanes or four lanes" and so on.

No doubt most responses are more complex than mere truisms, however. They could involve some on-the-spot construction, but still are partially tangential. Most of us seem to have "lines" we take with particular people and situations that persist, regardless of changes in the other person or situation. My father, for example, took an authoritative line with my mother, brother and I, and we took a submissive line with him, even after my brother and I were out of his direct influence. Knowing ahead what to expect from the other person, and from ourselves, even approximately, would be considerable help in keeping silences under a tenth of a second.

The ego can be envisioned as that part of the self that is mostly automated. The self is made up of the automated part and the part that can respond to situations de novo, the reflexive self. It appears that the ego is in charge almost all of the time, even during dreams. (Lucid dreams would be an exception). We are creatures of routine because the automated ego is almost always in charge.


Rainwater, Emmy. Mothers of Sons: An Unusual Lesson in Listening; Christian Science Monitor, 2000.

Scheff, Thomas J. 1979. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama. University of California Press (Reissued by iUniverse 2001).

Thomas, Dylan. 1957. Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions

About the Author
Thomas J. Scheff

Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara.

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