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Your Creativity May Be Inhibited by Routines

Our adherence to routines depresses our creative instincts.

Key points

  • When we blindly follow routines, our creative instincts are quashed.
  • Creativity involves challenging common routines and ingrained habits.
  • There are several creative techniques that can help us move away from the status quo.

Playing by the rules is instilled in us at a very early age. We are told that we “can’t color outside the lines” or “can’t make faces at our little sister.” When we attend school, we are subjected to another set of rules. These may include, “The teacher is always right,” or “Your desks must always be in straight rows.” When we choose a lifelong occupation, we are faced with a new coterie of rules, including, “Devote full effort to job responsibilities during work hours,” or “Meet or exceed established job performance expectations.”

Rod Judkins, the author of The Art of Creative Thinking, points out the significant differences between life in an art college (which he attended) and life in the outside world. “In the art world, students experiment or just do things because they made no sense. The world outside that college was filled with people doing reasonable things or doing things because that’s the way everyone else did those things, too. It was a conflict between the logic and sensibility of everyday life and the creative expressions of students freed of that logic and practicality.”

We are a society of rules, and I’m certainly not challenging the need for rules. Without them, there would be no order. People could arbitrarily choose which side of the road they want to drive on, or they could punch their server in the nose when he brings you your prime rib well done, instead of medium-rare. However, rules often devolve into routines—ingrained practices that keep our daily lives comfortable and predictable. In short, we have established a “sphere of comfort” around ourselves that protects us from the unknown.

Creativity vs. rules

Interestingly, the plethora of routines we embrace over the span of our lives also affects our creative impulses. That is to say, we become comfortable with our routines and, as a result, less apt to challenge them. The more routines we have in our lives, the more ordered our thinking becomes. The more ordered our thinking, the less inclined we are to alter the status quo. In turn, we are prone to be mentally compliant. And that’s a problem when we have a personal challenge or work-related conundrum to solve.

How to enhance your personal creativity

To use a hackneyed analogy, all the routines in our lives put us in a mental “box.” It’s difficult for us to break out of that box because its “unbreakable dimensions” confine our creative impulses. In other words, an excess of routines places an overwhelming lock on our thinking. Ultimately, we are inclined to think about things as they currently are, rather than things as they could be. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

1. Break your habits.

We often get into habitual ways of doing things. We eat the same cereal for breakfast every morning. We drive the same route to work every day. We go to the same resort every summer. We buy the same brand of running shoes every year. We read books by the same author over and over.

The more routines we have in our lives, the more difficult it is to think about doing things any other way. Break some of those routines, change some of those habits, and you’ll start generating new ideas simply because you are looking at the world in new ways. Take a new route to work. Stroll through a park on the other side of town. Go camping instead of staying at a chain hotel on your next vacation. Join a book discussion group. Try a new brand of jeans. Go out to dinner at a Nepalese, Peruvian, or Ethiopian restaurant. Do something new or different each day, and you will be conditioning your mind to generate new/different ideas.

Source: Ludi/Pixabay

2. Laugh it up.

The book Creativity and Humor confirms what we all know intuitively: that is, humor stimulates our creativity. What the authors discovered, among other things, was that watching humorous videos (for example) increased the “cognitive flexibility” of participants in the study. In short, humor (or laughing specifically) not only puts us in a positive mood but also increases our optimism about future events or possibilities. It frees up our thinking and causes us to look at the world around us with a new set of eyes… with a new perspective.

Find your own comedian, wit, or humorist. Listen or read every now and again. You’ll open up untapped regions of your brain, see the world a little differently, and begin creating an abundance of new ideas.

3. Read around.

In his book The Creative Curve, author Allen Gannett discusses the “20 percent principle”—a recommendation that professionals spend 20 percent of their waking hours consuming reading material in their chosen field. While I have no problem with the need to read on a regular basis, it has been my experience that that reading should be done in fields away from, or different from, one’s chosen profession. In doing so, you get to see something from a different point of view while offering your brain new and varied perspectives from uncommon angles and atypical insights.

Twenty percent is ideal, but what is even more critical is that you expose your mind to varied ways of thinking: looking at the world through—not rose-colored glasses—but amaranth-colored glasses, gingerline-colored glasses, cerulean blue-colored glasses, or lusty gallant-colored glasses. In short, broad reading outside your comfort zone often leads to new ways of (re)conceptualizing familiar problems.

  • If you’re a businessperson, read a book about teaching. You may alter your staff development program.
  • If you’re a carpenter, read a book about industrial archeology. You may discover a new (or ancient) way of constructing furniture.
  • If you’re an artist, read some books about environmental issues. You may generate paintings with a more naturalistic view of the world.
  • If you’re a professional hairstylist, read some books about the ocean. You may find new hairstyles embedded in the motions of waves.
  • If you’re a lawyer, read a book about cooperative games. You may get an idea about how to reconstruct certain legal documents.
  • If you’re a teacher, read a book about acting. You may learn a new way of presenting a science lesson or teaching a critical math concept.

Read around in several different fields, and you’ll see the world a little more creatively.


Rod Junkins. The Art of Creative Thinking: 89 Ways to See Things Differently. (New York: Perigee, 2016).

Sarah R. Luria, John Baer and James C. Kaufman. Creativity and Humor (Waltham, MA: Academic Press, 2018).

Allen Gannett. The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea at the Right Time. (New York: Currency, 2018).