A friend recently told me about her weekly ritual of walking through the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. She was away over the summer for vacation and work, and she returned to discover that a new construction project blocks the path she typically walks. The construction forced her to find a different path for her walk.
She admitted that she was slightly annoyed by this.
We are such creatures of habit.
Studies show that most people take the same route to work every day. And most of those people stick to their chosen route even when another route will be faster or more scenic.
It reminded me of how we tend to sit in the same spot in a classroom.
What’s going on here? It’s a confluence of a few things that meet both our emotional and cognitive needs.
It’s a fundamental human need to feel safe. Similar to how we would stake out our seat in classroom, traveling the same path is a way in which we establish territoriality over our path. Once we know the path “works” — i.e., it’s safe, we assume it will be safe again.
Similarly, once we find a path that reliably takes us to our destination, we know how long it will take. This allows us to plan for the time, which gives us certainty and allows us to give others certainty.
When we know where we are going, and that we can navigate that path safely, it frees up our mental resources to focus on other things
(2) Energy Conservation
When we talk about the core human needs, we are generally speaking of emotional needs. The need for certainty, which includes safety, comfort, and predictability, is an emotional need. We also have mental/cognitive needs.
(a) Cognitive Load
Imagine that you have to go somewhere for the first time and you do not have GPS. You may have directions and an old-fashioned map, but no voice telling you where to turn or how long to stay on the stretch of road. You don’t really know where you’re going, how long it’s going to take, or what danger awaits you.
When you’re in an unfamiliar environment your nervous system is on high alert for danger. Because don’t know what information is relevant to your safety or your navigation, you process all of it. This uses a lot of mental energy.
(b) Decision Fatigue
Throughout your journey, you must make dozens of tiny decisions about how to navigate. Every decision we make drains our cognitive energy and leaves us with fewer available resources for the next decision.
Choosing a path we have previously navigated is a way we protect the brain from overexertion and preserve our mental energy. As we acclimate to the surrounding environment we are better able to filter out what’s irrelevant. As we navigate the path, we rely on decisions that we made previously. This reduces cognitive load and frees up our energy for other things.
When we choose the same path repeatedly we habituate to it. After a while, we no longer have to think about how to navigate. It happens automatically.
This is what we often strive to attain in our daily routine. We seek to turn the actions and tasks that are good for us into habits — things that happen automatically.
Doing various things consistently, and sustaining those actions over time, is a worthy pursuit.
But habits also have a downside.
More on that tomorrow …