In Defense of the Rut October 25th, 2012
I eat the same thing for breakfast every morning: whole wheat toast, yogurt, fruit, and hot chocolate. This is partly because it is healthy, partly because I like it, and partly because eating the same breakfast every day makes morning logistics much smoother. I’d been thinking that maybe I need to mix things up a bit, that I was stuck in a rut that I ought to climb out of. But a few things I’ve read recently have me second guessing that idea.
First I read Big Little Wolf’s post about the thousands of decisions we make in a day. She starts out with a rundown of the decisions she makes in the first five minutes of her day, and it exhausted me just reading it. I hadn’t thought about the sheer number of decisions we make, as so many of them are made in a split second, and have few lasting consequences. Shower first or breakfast first? Neither one is going to make or break the day. But as BLW’s post continues she discusses the virtues of routine, of making a decision once, and implementing it over and over so that each time we take the action the thought behind it is minimal. (Another example, I decided once which was the best route to work. I don’t decide every single morning how I want to get there.)
Then, in Gretchen Rubin’s new book, “Happier at Home” she mentions the issue of willpower. For her a component of increasing her happiness is to abstain from things she will later regret – Christmas candy being the indulgence in question on page 120. Alongside her discussion of her own desires to curb holiday candy munching she writes,
Researcher Roy Baumeister has shown that we start each day with a limited amount of self-control, and as we use it – when we resist saying something inappropriate, wrench our thoughts away from a topic, … or make tough decisions – we gradually deplete it. As our self-control gets used up, we find it harder to resist new temptations. If I use self-control to respond nicely to a nasty e-mail, it’s harder to me to refrain from speaking sharply to my daughters. If I resist eating from the restaurant’s bread basket, I may end up eating half of [my husband's] dessert.
In reflecting on this passage, and juxtaposing it with BLW’s post, I’ve come to a convenient conclusion: When it comes to healthy habits, ruts – or less pejoratively, routines – are a wonderful thing. They free us from the drain of tiny decisions and they prevent us from depleting our cache of self-control too quickly.
Having routines can facilitate all sorts of good behavior. Not eating bacon for breakfast every morning takes no self-control because it offers no temptation since it isn’t part of my routine. I don’t have to decide to floss at bedtime each night, I just do it as part of my routine. I don’t have to haul myself out the door to walk the dogs each morning because it’s just part of my day. Not surprisingly, areas of my life that are less routinized are more subject to decisions I may regret. I’m only sort-of diligent about packing my lunch each day. My stomach starts growling at 11:15 almost every day, which means that by the time noon rolls around I’m much more likely to give in to a buffalo chicken wrap and fries in the company cafeteria. Also, despite my best intentions my observation of a bedtime is weak, which means that when a ballgame is tied or a blog post isn’t yet written (ahem…) I end up getting to bed much later than I’d like.
I’m not here to say that our lives should be completely programmed. Diversion from such routines is, I think, what brings surprise and delight into our lives. The inability to stray from our routines ends up making us slaves to them, which is no way to improve any aspect of your life. But most of us live our day-to-day lives in a lather, rinse, repeat mode – at least to some extent. This means that whatever decisions become routinized may be small within the confines of each specific day, but are magnified significantly when extrapolated out over weeks or months or years. So if I make a good decision once, and then implement it every day I get the benefit of that good decision without the stress of making it over and over and charging against my “bank” of self-control.
All of a sudden my toast and yogurt aren’t looking so bad. Now if I could just get past the fries.