This is part 2 in a series.
In Part 1, I wrote about why we default to taking the same route each time we travel between the same two places. This behavior gives us a sense of safety and helps us establish a predictable rhythm. It also reduces cognitive overload and decision fatigue.
These goals are also at play in our goals to create habits of our desired behaviors. Whether it’s exercise, drinking water, eating more healthfully, meditation, writing, or something else, much of the focus in habit creation focuses on the goal of automating our actions.
It’s true that habits help us establish a predictable rhythm. They also reduce the mental energy drain that comes from processing so much information and making many decisions.
Perhaps for this reason, the pursuit of “better habits” is so embedded in our cultural conditioning that we rarely pause to consider whether this is a worthy goal.
You likely know the upsides of habits. How often do you consider the downsides of habits?
Before we get to the downsides of habits, let’s define what a habit is.
I define habit as an automatic response to a given trigger or prompt.
In this article, I’m talking only about action habits, or behaviors.
It’s important to recognize, however, that habits can also be thoughts, emotions, or automatic physiological responses. If you’re trying to create change your behavior, you must also change your other habits. I cover this in more depth in The Ritual Revolution.
5 Downsides to Habits
Here are 5 downsides to action habits.
(1) Miss out on Better Alternatives
A study done for traffic planning that showed most commuters take the same path every day (75%). And of those, 73% do not take the shortest path. This defies logic.
If we were rational, we would always take the shortest path. Of course, we know we do not make decisions from a place of rationality. The majority of commuters value predictability of the same path over the shortest time, or even more scenic way, to get to their destination.
This illustrates one of the downsides of taking the same route every day. If you stick with the same route that worked the first time, you might never discover other routes that may be faster, or more scenic.
(2) Develop Physical and Mental Imbalances
If you walk or run along the same route all the time, your body adapts to the terrain. The good part about this is that the run becomes easier. The downside is that your body will compensate for the uneven terrain. Over time, this can lead to structural imbalances and injury.
Varying your running route is a form of cross-training for the body to keep it from developing imbalances.
Similarly, your brain gets lazy when you always take the same route. It stops paying attention, believing it can run on autopilot. Often, that’s when we injure ourselves.
Our brains need cognitive diversity to stay sharp. Whether it’s running a new path or doing tasks in new ways, varying your approach helps your brain develop new neural pathways and aids your cognitive function.
(3) Monotony and Boredom
We have an innate need to experience new things. And life itself changes every day. Taking the same path every day, or eating the same foods every day, may reduce decision fatigue and keep you grounded in a changing world, but over time it becomes boring. Routine becomes routine.
Our bodies and brains need variety to stay sharp. Exercising them in new ways expands our capacity to hold more.
(4) Disconnect from Presence
When we do things automatically, our minds stop focusing on the on the thing that we are doing. We end up in trance, lost in thoughts about the past or speculating about the future.
These mind trips away from the present are often responsible for our fear, anxiety, regret, and other emotions that keep us stuck.
In trance, we lose connection to our selves and our ability to fully connect with others. We lose connection with the life that we are living.
As Dave Pollard explains,
This lack of presence I think manifests itself in an inability to take joy in simple, beautiful things (“no time”), an inability to concentrate on one thing at a time, an inability to meditate, pay attention, ‘quiet your mind’, think differently or imaginatively, or relax, an ‘insensitivity’ in every ‘sense‘ of that that word, an inability to have non-competitive fun, a distrust of our instincts and emotions, and perhaps even an inability to really love (other than in the shallowest, escapist way).
(5) Disconnect from Meaning and Purpose
When we do things without thinking about them, we lose our connection to our purpose.
By “purpose” I don’t necessarily mean your “Life Purpose” (although: that too). I’m talking about the more immediate practicality of why you’re doing that thing you’re doing. Sometimes the only reason we can offer is “because that’s the way I’ve always done it.”
A friend recently shared with me that he finds himself in the same pattern every day. He takes the same subway to the same stop. Then he goes to the same Starbucks, where he orders the same coffee. He takes his coffee and walks the same streets to his office. It’s functional, but after a while it starts to feel empty.
A life on autopilot can become devoid of meaning and purpose, two important sources of fuel that propel us through challenges. Without a connection to a meaning and purpose for our actions, we are more likely to quit or burnout when challenges arise.
Finding a Middle Ground
Doing new things in new ways creates decision fatigue and cognitive overload that drains our energy.
Yet life on autopilot blinds us to the beauty and diversity around us, separates us from ourselves and others, and disconnects from our meaning and purpose.
This leaves us with a challenge:
How can we create consistency in the things we want to do and create a life of meaning without falling into the monotony of routine?
That’s coming in Part 3.