Routines Are Meant to Be Broken

Novel experiences have the power to stretch time
By Jay Harrington, Life and Whim
October 17, 2019 Updated: October 17, 2019

Routines are important. Having solid routines in place allows us to have productive days. By making certain actions habitual, such as when we get up in the morning, when we work out, and what we eat, we can allocate willpower and discipline (both finite resources) toward the unexpected variables that life inevitably throws our way.

At the same time, routine becomes, well, routine. A life marked by uncompromising rigidity can feel like a hamster wheel you can’t get off. One day starts slipping into the next, and before you know it years pass by and you start wondering where the time went.

How can you get off the hamster wheel of monotony? Make a purposeful and intentional commitment to introduce more novelty into your life.

Time’s Subjective Expansion

Speaking of hamster wheels, recently my workouts have been in a rut. Too much treadmill, not enough dopamine. Instead of being energized from them, I’ve left the gym feeling irritable. So last Tuesday morning, instead of heading for the gym as I usually do, I went for a 45-minute run on a trail system near our house. It was dark when I got started, but when I reached the high-point of the trail, the sun was just starting to break the horizon. The air felt really crisp and clean. It was quiet—I saw only one other person that morning out on the trails.

It was a great way to start the day, and I felt a surge of energy when I was done. Not only that, but it’s an experience that is firmly and vividly stuck in my mind. Despite the fact that I woke up at the same time and engaged in the same general routine (exercise), Tuesday’s trail run stands out. In fact, I can’t recall with specificity the details of any other morning last week. While most mornings seem to go by in an indistinguishable flash, Tuesday morning unfolded—at least in my mind—slowly and deliberately. My trail run may have only lasted 45 minutes, which is the same as all of my other workouts, but it felt much longer.

Psychologists call this phenomenon “time’s subjective expansion.” Your watch may tell you one truth about time, but your mind tells you another. Time, in the literal sense, is objective—we all have the same 24 hours in the day. But how we experience time is a deeply individualized experience. When we break free of routine and experience new and novel things, time seems to slow down. Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, writes: “Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.”

The Oddball Effect

A great deal of research has been done to try to explain why “new and novel” seems to slow down our interpretation of time. One study gave rise to what is known as the “oddball effect.”

During the study, subjects were repeatedly shown images of a simple brown shoe. After the subjects were sufficiently accustomed to the routine and repetition of the same brown shoe image, an image of a single clock was inserted into the image cycle. Despite the fact that the clock image was on-screen for exactly the same amount of time as the shoe images, subjects perceived that it was displayed for far longer than it actually was. They became so conditioned and accustomed to the shoe image that a novel image shocked their brains into a wholly different perception of time. Brown-shoe monotony made them hungry for change, and their brains latched onto a different experience that was introduced into the mix.

The point is, if you’re interested in living a life full of rich, colorful, and memory-filled experiences, you need to find ways, both big and small, to break routines and introduce more novelty and “first moments” into your days.

It’s important to schedule time for spontaneity. As English poet William Cowper famously wrote: “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor.”

It seems crazy because we work so hard to establish good routines, but breaking free of the very patterns that give our lives structure is what gives our lives “spice.” While we may feel most comfortable when things are routine, we feel most alive when they are not.

Want to add more “new and novel” into your days? Here are a few ideas that will help.

  1. Plan for spontaneity. On its face, planning for spontaneity sounds contradictory, however, it’s necessary if you want to open yourself up to new experiences. Create a list of activities that you’ve been meaning to try—playing an instrument, a new workout routine, a new recipe—and schedule a few open blocks of time for yourself each week to give them a try.
  2. Read great books. If you want to try new things, you need to open yourself up to new ideas. Fiction, non-fiction, history, biography—books are chock full of explorations of the human experience. They’re rich sources of inspiration for new and novel ways to get more out of life.
  3. Switch up the small things. One of the reasons many of us have a hard time breaking free of our routines is that we aim too high. We want transformational change and immediate gratification. But change happens incrementally, not all at once. By focusing on making small changes—biking to work once a week, for example—we can create momentum for ourselves. After all, transformation happens one small change at a time.

What will you do differently today?

Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim.  He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.