Friday, January 21, 2011

The Stability and Comfort of Routine in Jobs and Relationships

Shot of flowing water from a fountain

Routine is shunned by many people, especially those who thrive on thrills and adventure. They may complain that routine is a cousin of boredom, while life should be exciting. They find that life is dulled with the sharp poison of dreary routine. Although I understand their point of view, I do not think they are doing routine justice.

Everyday life does not need to be boring. When you have routine you have structure and when you have structure your life is given stability. And most people prefer order over chaos; order is grasped more easily, and it creates a zone of comfort because of its predictability. A business organization without structure, for example, would not provide many benefits and for your business to succeed, you would have to cross the hills and valleys of routine first.

The same applies to jobs in general. Most jobs are exciting at first, but lose their glamor after a while. When your job has become routine, it also means that you have probably become comfortable in and with it. You have learned the ropes and believe that you have enough experience to get the job done. At the same time, provided your job is worthwhile, you will be given an opportunity of stable income and possibly pension and so on. In other words, it would be a job with a future.

When it comes to relationships, routine happens when you have been and lived together for a sustained period of time. Then the “magic” of love gives way to the comfort of routine. You know your partner well enough, know what ticks them off, what pleases them most and how they react under certain circumstances. You lose out on the excitement of figuring it all out because you have already been together for enough time to know each other really, almost too, well. Of course, you will still be occasionally taken aback by an unexpected action or reaction, but, all in all, your partner becomes predictable like an open book.

This is the time when many of us – men - may get cold feet and run away. It is the fear of commitment because with it come not only stability but also routine. Many fear that routine in a relationship will kill love and drown excitement. But I think all that happens is that your relationship reaches the next level. It becomes companionship.

Other dimensions are added to love; in other words, you are moving across stages. It does not necessary mean that one is better than another, but it is a period of growth, the same way we move from adolescence to adulthood. Getting stuck or choosing to remain in one stage does nobody a service, and it is self-deceptive.

Despite its obvious disadvantages, routine has important things to offer in life. Comfort and stability are only two aspects, and it may be time for those who dread their routine to “give routine a chance” and change their mind and opinion about it and embrace it as a necessary, perhaps even unexpectedly pleasant, part of life.


John Myste said...


Forgive the op-ed piece, but I must.

While your points are convincing on one side, I would be remiss if I did not point out the many studies that neural pathways are formed primarily by lack of routine. Even the discussions that debunk most brain studies, still uphold this one.

Also, one's life is composed of the future, which he is always to experience and never does, now, which is but an infinitesimally small piece of life, and his past, which is vast and appears infinite, even to a small child.

Humans typically do not remember what they did when following a routine. That part of their life becomes necrotic; if there is no afterlife and we suddenly cease to exist or are stuck forever in an eternal spiritual sleep, then moments spent in routine action are preview of death. Variety creates permanent or semi-permanent memories and memories are the definition of most of who we are.

Every time we consent to forgo a new experience, be it good or be it bad, we have allowed additional moments of our lives to permanently forgotten. We have consented to let those moments die.

If only lived a life a routine, as he surveyed his life in old age, he would remember virtually nothing. Experience is measure our minds use to conceive of who we are. Sometimes they are physical activity, sometimes just thought. Few experiences allows few memories, it makes our existence on earth seem small. Lots of new experiences are the building blocks to a large life.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Excellent observations, John to which I have two points to counter:

One, I agree with you completely that anything out of the ordinary, "outside" of routine if you like, is more memorable. It both sticks and sticks out in your memory. But my focus here is not on living all your life in routine but rather accepting the necessary (evil?) part of routine in both your job as well as relationship, respectively.

In my opinion, if you constantly or persistently escape routine in those areas you will never achieve stability or, perhaps even, peace.

My second point is that what may seem "routine" to our brain may be not so in reality. In fact, no two days are ever alike. This realization alone might make us appreciate "those" days with more awareness by being able to see the beauty and uniqueness in each of them. Every day can serve as a constant rediscovery or redefinition of who we are.

In fact, as I have previously blogged in my "unsung hero" post, it is those facing ordinary life (and routine) with courage who manage to accomplish the most difficult and challenging feats.

And yes, more op-ed pieces please!

Vincent said...

Excellent topic, especially if you aim to provoke discussion. (I'll leave out John's input and your reply for now.)

Isn't "routine" a bit general here? You have one thing in mind, the reader another. For this reason I tend to separate "ritual", which can generate a spiritual reinforcement of that which nourishes, from "habit", meaning the things which are more noxious than nourishing.

There is also a concept of "foreground" and "background" here. As we grow older, the adventure and creativity in life is increasingly within a focused area, and in order to concentrate our energies in that, we prefer to ritualize the background activities. So routine is half of a symbiosis within the one life. The other half is excitement and glamour.

Vincent said...

In reply to your remarks, John, there may be some people who retreat exclusively into routine, without it being a background for the parts of their lives which are varied and exciting. But those people are disordered and on a spectrum which has catatonia or psychosis at its extreme. (I speak as a layman of course.)

You have to be very young to welcome every new experience. When you are older you may want to relive old memories more: not because you are stuck in routine, replaying the same old scenes, but because you are now able to extract meaning and nourishment from those old scenes that you were never able to do at the time.

One should do what one feels stimulated to do, or not, and let the neural pathways be silent servants, not demanding masters.

Francis Hunt said...

Great insights, Arash.

I don't think you and John Myste are really at such odds.

While I agree with him that we learn and congitively develop through our experience of and openness for the "new", our brains also need routine. Experiencing and integrating new things is quality work for our consciousness but it is also - in a certain sense - stressful. Too much too quickly can lead to sensory and spiritual overload. "Relaxing," even in the neurological sense, into the familiar pathways of routine frees up mental processing capacity for other things, including the process of integration of new experiences into our consciousness and personality. Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility" or a Proustian recherche du temps perdu. It can also give us the chance to experience the subtle newness contained in every moment.

Perhaps the most important thing is an attitude of continual relaxed awareness ...

jimclay75051 said...

I for one have no disagreement. I thrive on routine. The trick is to find a routine you enjoy. And to have several routines. I do find that I have to make myself get out and explore and that doing that is good, but for the most part I like having a comfortable routine.

John Myste said...


While I appreciate the sentiment of one gaining nourishment from new discoveries about old experiences, I tend to see it as resignation in this life. I am a bit of a hypocrite, because my life is mostly routine, God help me (if there is a God).

Again, life is made up of memories and little more.

Your argument definitely spoke to the scientific part of my comment, as new nourishment would be a form of self-teaching and would be new mental activity. However, it from a philosophical perspective, it feels like a decision to remember life as it was, to understand that it was better, but add to it not at all.

I know you find the discovery itself to be an addition. That is a very profound observation, albeit a limited one. When one understands the past better, which inevitable happens as a true thinker ages, he adds far greater insight to that understanding if he can correlate it current events.

I suspect it works somewhat like political history. Current politics are better understood when we correlate them to history and history is much better understood when it repeats itself. When we discover a current event is similar to a historical one, we understand both our history and our current political situation better than when we must evaluate each with no comparison.

If life is composed of moments, and we assume our history is only composed of memorable moments, then making our history as large as possible, which is to say is memorable as possible, is to give ourselves the largest life.

I think one more point you made was that having the largest, most memorable life, may not be that desirable. Following ones instincts, which may migrate toward routine, especially as we get older, may be preferable.

I am sure that is sometimes the case. Providing a master for ourselves could be foolish, as you indicated. We have more masters than we want now and are certainly not in need of more.

John Myste said...


To speak only to the scientific aspect of this discussion, I will say the following:

I have read quite a bit about the brains activity or theories about it, and how to "keep it sharp." There is much disagreement.

One study, recently published, was a collection of data presented by scientists, gather from a reporter. You may not find it the most scientific, therefore, but it is the latest I have read, nonetheless: it was printed by Newsweek:

The last book on that topic, mostly agreed with the Newsweek article. The thing they all have in common is that they state that the brain needs new experience, and not just new varieties of old experience, but brand new kinds of experience, to stay at its optimum health.

Of course, again, there is much disagreement on the topic. This one idea is the only thing that seems to be universally accepted among most who study the issue.

John Myste said...

One more thing: Your articles are consistently thought-provoking. Keep up the good work, sir.

Lainy said...

Hi! Very insightful and thought provoking posts and comment. Very enlightening to read such flow of thoughts. I had fun reading especially here at the comment thread.

Arash Farzaneh said...

@Lainy: Thank you! In fact, the comment thread is the best part actually and I am always amazed at the wealth of knowledge and ideas represented here!

I agree that we need different experiences for the ordinary to become extraordinary and hence memorable. Or to put our brains to work again.

When you drive to work the regular route, after a while it becomes all automatic, repetitive, and perhaps even boring because it is predictable. But when you suddenly take a different route, you stimulate both your senses and your memory / brain again. In other words, you become alert.

Vincent makes an excellent point about foreground and background. It is only in relation to each other that they become important. If you take a new route every day, this will actually become your routine or habit and you will have a hard time remembering it as it does not stick out.

Francis makes an excellent point about being able to relax in what I have called routine. The familiar gives us a sense of comfort and when we are relaxed we can perceive other things that will stand out. It is a shift in consciousness. When you are just learning how to drive, you are focused only on your driving skills, but after a while you can listen to music and enjoy the scenery at the same time.

I don't think that you lose out on brain functioning through routine. You just shift your focus on other things. But yes, learning new skills or doing new things would also help you use other parts of your brain and interconnect the neural pathways to reinforce your memory.

@Jimmy: The best routine is indeed the one you enjoy the most. Routine can be fun actually, I agree.