The Routine of Life
Turning mindfulness into a healthy habit.
We just touched on political divisiveness in this country in our last post, and later the same day that the episode was recorded, Ellen DeGeneres attended a Dallas Cowboy game which was a beautiful example of that divisiveness that is eroding our ability to learn and grow as a society. She sat next to George and Laura Bush at the game and social media exploded with angry outcries - as if somehow Ellen was betraying her beliefs and theirs by speaking, and even laughing with, the former president.
The reason this reaction qualifies as mindless is because the message it sends is that we can each only talk to other people that we agree with on every front. How in the world can we expand our perspective, learn anything new, or find empathy or understanding for others if we only talk to people we know agree with us? Ellen is a liberal and Bush is a conservative, yes. But they are both human beings with the same basic universal needs as everyone else on the planet. If we can’t talk to the “other side,” how can we ever figure out how to work together, live side by side, and fix the big problems we’re facing in the world? We need to stop being so judgmental and stop being so hateful to people who have different views. We need to listen to other people, respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and to question our own assumptions and values. We don’t have to agree with other people. But when we decide that we know for sure that we are right and they are wrong and then block any communication between the two sides, it can only lead to an unhealthy discourse that prevents us from growing, shuts down creativity, and ultimately leads to increased ignorance and uniformity divided into two camps.
Many studies show that diversity is a key factor in organizational and team success. The more perspectives available, the better the outcomes. That applies to societies as well. We can’t live in silos, ignoring everyone who has a different opinion if we want to flourish as a civilization. So maybe today’s a good day to have a conversation with someone who has different values and beliefs, with the intention of learning, not of condemning or changing their minds.
In addition to broadening our perspectives related to other people and issues, this topic brought to mind our very human preference for routine. The brain likes routine because it requires less processing power. But have you ever felt like you’re in a rut, in the proverbial hamster wheel, doing the same thing day in and day out, which at some point prompts you to wonder what the point of it all is?
Think about a typical day. While there is some variation of course, based on whether we’re single, married, have children, etc., most of us have very similar routines. The alarm goes off, we get up, grab a cup of coffee or tea, check our smart phones, and then head for the shower.
We dress, primp, maybe eat breakfast, definitely feed the family or pets if we have them, and head out the door. We sit in traffic, get to the office, grab another cup of something, turn on the computer and begin our work.
Later, perhaps we have a quick lunch at our desk, in the hope that we’ll be able to leave on time by shortening our break. At the end of the day, it’s back to sitting in traffic, then we arrive home, make dinner, eat while checking our phones, clean up, watch a little TV and get ready for bed.
Then we do it all again the next day. And again. And again. And one more time. The weekend arrives and we get up, get ready and do the grocery shopping, house cleaning and laundry. Perhaps we go out to dinner or even see a movie. Then it’s TV or social media and back to bed. Sunday might include a day of rest, or church, or fun. Then TV or social media and back to bed. Our lives are so routine that our brains are on auto-pilot much of the time. Have you ever gotten in your car on a Saturday and discovered that you’re heading for the office, even though it’s not a workday?
We repeat our routines for about 1,800 weeks of our lifetime.
Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not all identical. Some people might get married, have children, get divorced, relocate, get remarried, change jobs and maybe take an annual vacation. But the odds are, the routine for most people won’t change very much. It doesn’t sound that appealing, does it?
Life is more than a series of mundane events, sprinkled with a few exciting episodes.
How do we find meaning, purpose and joy in this lifetime? I’m sure you know I’m going to say: through mindfulness.
When you look at your specific routine each day, how much of it are you paying attention to? When your alarm goes off, is your first thought one of gratitude for the night’s sleep you just enjoyed? Or are you thinking about how much you have to get done this morning?
As you stand in the shower, are you noticing how the warm water feels as it hits your skin? The aroma of the soap as it mixes with the steam in the air? The richness of the shampoo as you lather it in your hair? Or are you worrying about being be late for work?
As you sit in traffic, are you listening to a good book or uplifting music or learning a new language? Perhaps noticing how interesting or beautiful your surroundings are? Or are you complaining in your mind about all of the stupid drivers on the freeway and hoping you don’t get stuck in it again on the way home tonight?
As you pour a cup of coffee or tea at work, do you inhale the steam, noticing the notes of berries, herbs or other flavorings? Or do you simply chug it down so you can move on to your next task?
When you sit at your desk, do you consider how you feel about your work? How about the space you work in? How about your coworkers? Or do you delve into a stack determined to reduce its height by the end of the day?
If you have school aged children, when you arrive home in the evening, do you give them a space of your full attention, taking in their stories and chatter, or do you rush to get dinner started, homework done and chores completed?
Mindfulness is awareness, both inward and outward. Most of us have to work, we have to wash our clothes and we have to buy groceries. But doing any of the mundane tasks we have to do each week with a mindful attitude greatly enriches those experiences. It is no longer so routine, as we notice the abundance of what’s around us. When we pay full attention to other people we’re with, we discover things about other people and ourselves. We can find meaning in what we do, even if we do the same thing every day. We find a deeper purpose, whether it’s our families or the environment or society, as we pay attention to what is happening around us and within us.
There’s nothing wrong with routine itself. In fact, according to studies, we spend about 47% of each day acting completely out of habit, which means our prefrontal cortex doesn’t have to work hard at all and that benefits us in many ways. I can attest to how unsettling life can be without routine. After 25 years of practically being the definition of routine, my life now has almost none. I don’t go to the same place two days in a row, my workdays have no time-based routine, with some workdays 4 hours and others 16. I have very little notice of what work I’ll need to accomplish in any given week, my schedule changes constantly, and my weekends are completely dependent on what’s needed for the following week. I frequently miss routine a lot, as not knowing what to expect or where I’ll be each day can be stressful. The opposite of routine is chaos and to keep that in check, I have to create other routines to keep me grounded, like meditating each day. Mindfulness helps me pay attention to what’s occurring and allows me to find the richness and enjoyment in the chaos, just as much as it can enhance the daily rut of a regular routine.
Mindfulness takes practice, but the more we practice, the more it becomes a habit. Mindfulness can become routine, but instead of the boring cycle of daily living, it enhances each task we do each day of living, so it’s a routine that benefits us and those around us.
Try paying close attention to each task you perform today. Notice the sights, sounds, smells and feel of everything you do. As you drive, notice what you’re passing. In conversations, pay full attention to the speaker instead of thinking of what you’ll say next. Spend a day immersed in the sensations of what you’re doing. It’s still routine, but it will be much more interesting and rewarding, making it not the same old thing every day.