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What to Do When Your Routine Becomes a Rut

The small changes that can do wonders for your life.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

I recently moved from North Carolina to Arizona. The cross-country road trip was an adventure for me—and for my cat family. Needless to say, our routines were thrown into disarray, and our lives experienced a major upheaval. During the journey, I was struck by how our daily lives follow a fairly consistent pattern. This got me thinking about why we like routines so much, and how we can maintain stability without getting stuck in a rut.

You may be surprised to learn that animals are fairly predictable. Of course, if you own cats, you may not be amazed by this at all: Cats cling to their routines, preferring nothing to change in their environment (including furniture placement), and often need to be gradually introduced to new food or litter. This type of attachment to familiarity is pretty common across the animal kingdom. I first noticed this tendency while studying prairie dogs. I could predict the timing of the arrival of coyotes on my field sites down to approximately 15 minutes—most of the time. I figured if I could anticipate the arrival of the coyotes with a high degree of accuracy, so could the prairie dogs.

Why would an animal be so consistent in its search for food?

By Calyponte CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Calyponte CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Imperial, or blue-eyed shag, a seabird belonging to the cormorant group, provides some insight. In one colony in Argentina, researchers found high levels of reliability in where individual Imperials searched for food, how far they went, and how much time they spent looking for food. It’s similar to knowing where all the good restaurants and supermarkets are near your house. The more dependable your food supply, the more efficient you can be when you are hungry and searching for food. We spend money and gas to locate food, while animals spend energy. But all of us, humans and shags alike, prefer to reduce our time (and for some of us, money) looking for food. That is why we tend to frequent the same restaurants, bars, and supermarkets.

This example demonstrates how developing certain habits can lead to greater success. For example, planning out your day the night before, which is often recommended as a strategy to help people succeed. Squirrel monkeys naturally do this by being highly selective about where they sleep at night. They choose their sleep sites based on where they want to have breakfast. Consider how much planning goes into this decision: To be accurate, they have to keep track of what plants and trees are flowering or producing fruit where and when, as well as when they last ate there. Much like Benjamin Franklin, squirrel monkeys wake up with a plan.

Setting aside the possible development of negative habits, routines can help us feel more secure, and even grounded. In humans, as in other species, too much unpredictability leads to unhealthy increases in cortisol. When levels of this stress hormone remain high for too long, our health, emotional well-being, and productivity are negatively impacted.

But can a routine become a rut? Might you miss an opportunity to try something new because you’re always doing the same old thing?

There can be a fine line between a routine and a rut. When we examine how humans search for food more closely, we discover that some people are more adventurous in trying new things, looking for new restaurants, and expanding their culinary horizons. We also find that some people are shyer than others, which can influence your circle of friends and how comfortable you are trying new things, especially when you're alone. In animal behavior, when we explore the choices individuals make as they search for and consume food, there is a small variable called “missed opportunity costs,” or MOC. These can be missed chances for food or social interactions. Animals are constantly assessing and balancing their choices to minimize risk while simultaneously reducing their MOCs.

By Majuti CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Majuti CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

How do they do this? Bison, the newly named national mammal of the United States, face considerable risk feeding in areas where there is a high probability of encountering wolves. Unfortunately for bison, this is precisely where their highest quality food is located. This would be the equivalent of having to drive through an unsafe neighborhood to get to a five-star restaurant. Bison do take advantage of the good food, but avoid hanging out for too long in dangerous areas; they make their next best choice to maximize reward and minimized risk.

What's the take-home message for humans? Develop a strong sense of what constitutes real risk and choose accordingly.

Sometimes our personality prevents us from trying new things or exploring new areas, making us stay in place doing the same old thing day after day, year after year. The same is true for Sleepy, or Shingleback, Lizards. These fairly slow-moving, monogamous lizards with a striking blue tongue make their home in Australia. Research reveals that bolder, more aggressive individuals tend to push their boundaries a bit further, ranging over larger areas, and dispersing farther. This gives these lizards a serious advantage when times are tough. This is because when you are apprehensive, your ability to cope with varying conditions can be compromised. Things are always in flux—stable one minute, changing the next. For shy Sleepy Lizards, it's a struggle to quickly adjust or adapt to difficult, changing circumstances.

Fortunately for humans, we can develop our exploratory muscles and strengthen our capacity for trying new things. And we can do this in small ways. Try a new activity, eat a new food, go to a new place, or talk to a new person. It doesn’t have to be something you do every day—maybe once a month to start. Over time, you will find a new level of comfort, security, and strength in your daily life. Sometimes busting out of a rut doesn’t mean changing your whole life, just a tiny part of it.

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