The Downside of Routine: When Trying Something New Is Exactly What You Need

RoutineI’ll admit I’m a creature of habit in many ways. I tend to settle into routines that feel good, and I get pretty invested in them at times. (It amuses my wife.) It’s not that I don’t love to drop everything and travel to an exciting place or take a day off to do something totally out of the ordinary. In fact, my job requires me to do a lot outside of my routine, including a lot of travel and off the cuff events. All of it makes me more grateful, however, for the formula of a regular day in the home office or the traditional events around which we tend to anchor our calendar. When it comes to my Primal efforts, I likewise lean into a certain amount of routine. It’s nice to know I’m going to eat some version of the same thing for lunch. I like hitting the gym at around the same time and enjoy cycling through the pattern I often use. Routine in a similar way is especially helpful for folks who are just getting started in a lifestyle change. It can simplify the process, making it more likely they’ll stick to their intentions. Routine naturally solidifies behavior change without a lot of extra hand-wringing. All this said, there are times when it outlives its benefit in the grand scheme of health and happiness. This is where routine becomes rut – when consistency can morph into complacency. In the process, we consciously or unconsciously forgo the possibility of further progress and may even dull our awareness of what is genuinely compromising our well-being.

A couple of days ago I shared the results of my “no alcohol” self-experiment. Truth be told, now that I’ve enjoyed the benefits of the change, I wish I’d done it sooner. Why didn’t I? I honestly didn’t think it would matter this much. I thought the routine I had was founded on logical thinking and sound personal reasoning. After a while, I stopped questioning it. That’s generally how routine works after all. I didn’t bother bringing enough awareness or scrutiny to it.

Of course, the drawbacks of routine aren’t limited to the issues of alcohol and gut health. We often get ourselves stuck (or very comfortably situated) in a pattern and lose sight of the bigger picture. In many cases, it’s the insanity of doing the same thing expecting different results – or maybe forgetting we can (and should) expect better results than what we’re getting.

I think this is most evident in the fitness realm, where the law of diminishing returns is well understood. At the performance level (especially elite level), workout programs are obsessively scrutinized and updated, tweaked and measured with precision most of us would never think to attach to “exercise.” In that realm, however, it’s all about gaining a little more, pushing a little more, overcoming a little more, achieving a little more through various fitness training and recovery strategies. Yet, the basic principle applies to anyone. The body will physically adapt to whatever demand is put on it again and again until it doesn’t need to adapt anymore. Then it simply maintains the current level of fitness required to meet that same demand.

You see this happen every day in the gym. People will go the gym every other day for years doing the same workout (e.g. same machine even) at more or less the same intensity. After a while the improvements taper off. StairMaster Man, for example, has gotten all the benefit he’s going to get out of that drill. His body is capable of doing StairMaster. (He is StairMaster Man after all.) It’s time to move on and mix it up, but if he’s like a lot of people, he ultimately won’t. I get it. You get into a routine. It’s challenging and then later just comfortable. Life is busy, and you’re grateful just to fit in the workout time. You keep thinking you should switch it up, but every time it’s more about getting in and getting out of the gym – and getting on with the day. Maybe you change a couple minor things but nothing substantive. Next time, you say.

The same could be said for diet. You abide by the Primal Blueprint basics (or most of them, most of the time). You worked so hard to get to that point that it felt like a huge enough victory. You took a breather and devoted your energy to maintaining for a while. That while has become several months or maybe even years. Maybe you ditched sugar and gluten but still hang onto a grain or two in your diet. In another case, maybe you said goodbye to grains without a look back. You started eating clean meat and upped your vegetable and fat intake. Yet, when you look at your diet realistically, there’s plenty of open frontier to explore. There’s plenty in your routine that could be holding you back. For some of us, alcohol or caffeine doesn’t do us any favors. For others, it’s exploring more subtle food sensitivities like nightshades. If you’ve made significant changes but still have nagging symptoms or stubborn body fat levels, in most cases doing the same thing won’t be getting you different results no matter how long you keep at it. Even if the symptoms aren’t anything to write home about, do you ever wonder if those headaches are inevitable or the occasional gastrointestinal discomfort or the low grade but bothersome fatigue that hits from time to time.

For some of us, the routine factor isn’t so much an issue with the basics. We work hard at living healthily (e.g. diet, exercise), but we get stuck somewhere between living healthily and living well. Maybe it’s a job that keeps us at a desk (or in a long commute) against our ultimate wishes. Maybe it’s a family or personal schedule that doesn’t allow for optimal sleep or restoration. Maybe it’s a draining relationship or cluttered living space or a city apartment when you’d rather live in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s simply not feeling fulfilled socially or creatively. This matters.

So, is there something inherently wrong with simply maintaining a respectable fitness level or a good diet or moderately happy life? No, not at all. I think it bears considering, however, what we ultimately want. Have you, for example, achieved what you want in your health and well-being? I’m not talking about the castle in the cloud mentality of once upon a childhood. I mean as a conscious, mature adult who wants to thrive in this lifetime. What it means to thrive is subjective to each of us. The more salient question is this: is what we’re doing getting us there? The same old, same old will yield the same old every time. Mathematical and physiological (and often emotional) truth.

I’m not suggesting anyone reading this needs to overhaul every aspect of life (although there are plenty of MDA readers who have and couldn’t be happier with their choices). I’m not suggesting you have to upend anything major each month. What I am suggesting is this. When we let go of routine – even if it’s just an earnest mental exercise or, better yet, a period of self-experimentation – we open up what might be possible. If nothing else, we identify where some of our blind spots are, where our unquestioned assumptions and unexamined habits operate. What worked for us once might not be the best fit for us now – because of age, family situation, personal transition, health status, etc. Change for change sake can be practically productive in ways we can’t always anticipate, but it can also be profoundly life-giving. We’re creatures who are by nature drawn to novelty. How does novelty, spontaneity and experimentation live in your life now? Is it worth asking yourself whether what you’re doing now is going to give you all that you hope for? (For some of us, maybe we even need to entertain the thought that our own wishlists might set the bar too low.) In the cost-benefit ratio, where does your routine sit right now? What’s your routine done for you lately, and what can you visualize beyond it? What would life be like at a higher health “octave”? Chances are, the same old won’t get you there.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Where is routine a help, and where is it a hindrance in your life? Share your thoughts, and have a great end to the week.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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35 thoughts on “The Downside of Routine: When Trying Something New Is Exactly What You Need”

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  1. I recently made changes to my (running) training schedule, adding in progression runs, a speed interval session and making the easier days easier. Plus I’ve started really working on core and plan to incorporate more strength training. Doing the same thing over and over doesn’t lead to improvement and can wind up injuring you since you’re not varying the muscles you use and you’re overstressing the same ones constantly.

    I also believe the same applies to diet. It’s so easy and comfortable to get stuck in a food rut but mixing up the meats, veggies, and fruits you eat on the daily is necessary!

    Routines are cozy, but getting a little uncomfortable sometimes untimately helps keep your body healthy I think.

    1. If your going to start some strength building sessions, I have to recommend a book called “Convict Conditioning” by Paul Wade – this builds upon similar principles to what Mark talks about, and I wish I’d had this book 20 years back – For me it is THE definitive guide to building strength (actually its much more than just a strength training manual), especially from the old school “primal” perspective with almost no equipment. I also have his second book “Convict Conditioning 2”, and it has helped me recover a number of injuries and my approach to training.

  2. I was on the same routine for most of 2013, and this Summer decided to focus on improving my run times. It’s been a challenge but I’m enjoying the variety and it’s reinvigorated my love of running!

  3. Routine can be your enemy. I think it’s mine for sure. I’ve upped my fat intake, kept carbs low, eliminated grains, eat root vegetables, but I’m still hanging onto a layer of fat around my gut despite losing 15-20 lbs.

    Three changes that I’ve been resistant to make:

    1) Sprints. I do a kettlebell routine that has given me good muscle definition, but the layer of fat remains.

    2) Giving up nightshades. I’ve always had an issue with tomatoes and peppers, but then I tried the chile pepper sauce Mark Sisson put up. Wow did I have a reaction. Now I know I must give up nightshades, but I’m resistant because I like potatoes. I like hot sauce. But I’m fairly certain I’m moderately allergic to nightshades.

    3) Alcohol. I’d like to give it up for a month, see how I feel, see if the layer of fat goes away.

    Systematically I should try one of these at a time, see how my body reacts. Self-experimentation can be fun.

    1. I’ve been thinking about giving up nightshades also. I deal with seasonal eczema and this is one of the proposed dietary treatments. I’ve conquered the potato thing (for low carb purposes), but peppers and hot sauce are a big part of my diet now, so that would be my next step.

      1. When I cut completely on alcohol 2 years ago I also stopped drinking coffee and lost 20 pounds without changing my diet whatsoever.

  4. I had gotten into a routine of evening workouts that was stressing me out, but I just kept working out every evening, making dinners late and bedtime even later. Two weeks ago, I cut back to two WODs a week and one sprint session, during my lunch hour. I feel like I’m on vacation. I’m more relaxed, fall asleep easier and I can get so much done around the house (finally put in some raised beds). This is a much better routine. More time for evening walks and fixing delicious paleo meals. Yay!!

  5. Recently, I changed a routine that had evolved to be not- so-useful. I was working out in the evenings to maximize my high morning productivity for work. Well, deadlines, firefighting, and the like were eating into my day leaving me at the desk well into the evening and counting many missed workouts at the end of the month. So, I bit the bullet. I now get up disgustingly early and get to my CF box before work. I find the exercise before work actually helps my productivity. I never thought I’d be one to keep farmer hours. However, I feel better getting in more regular workouts and I sleep great– it’s been an unexpected self-reinforcing change of routine! On most mornings I now jump out of bed bright-eyed and bushy tailed. I’m also starting to be more mindful about prioritizing what I spend my time on at work and drawing some lines, but that’s a whole other can of worms, eh?

  6. And this is why I’m so sore from the “easy” yoga class I went to yesterday (my first time taking a yoga class in a year or so!).

  7. I was in the same routine for a few years and have recently started mixing it up… definitely see a lot of benefits from it!

  8. This! I know my diet is working for me… but at the same time it isn’t. I typically follow the strict paleo format (think Whole30), but I don’t think too much about how much carbs I’m eating the way some do. My hang up is, I keep slipping back into the danger zone with sugar. My cravings never go away – they only slightly get easier to manage. I do a month of no sugar, and then throw in the towel for a brutal week, and then go back to eating clean. I am an all-or-nothing person with sugar. I just want freedom from the cravings, and I keep doing the same thing (Whole30) over and over. Definition of insanity, I know, but I honestly don’t know where I should go from here. AIP because I have Celiac Disease? Low carb? There are so many options, that it is just confusing. Can anyone relate to this? What did you do?

    1. I did a Whole30 and while I enjoyed it and at the time really needed the “reset,” I also found that I prefer to adhere to a 90% primal way of eating, and allow about 10% of other stuff that, as it comes up, I decide whether it’s “worth it” or not. Really, this shakes out to more 80/20, and that works for me; but I’m not really trying to lose weight right now, although I probably could stand to lose some pounds. I guess my focus is on eating well (enough), managing my stress, getting outside a lot, and enjoying time with friends. That means I probably drink a few too many beers and indulge in carrot cake from my favorite cafe, but when I know I can have those things when I really want them, it keeps me from binge eating the less-than-amazing junk that comes up (ie. my co-worker’s average homemade chocolate chip cookies, bless her heart).

    2. I had the same issues – able to eat clean for a while and then CARBFEST!!!

      I have found that adding resistant starch and fermented vegies has helped with the cravings – but also being mindful (being female) that my cycle will drive me to carbs at a certain point as well and I may just have to fight through them.

    3. I have the same issue, but for another reason. My parents are great, and are on board with the primal thing. However, they also sometimes pretend to be on board and try to push me to go out for dinner with them. I’ve postponed for a few months now, but their anniversary is coming up, it’s my sister’s birthday and some other festivities. I have finally given in and although the dinner is this Sunday, I have held a carbfest this previous week.
      After Sunday though, I’m getting back to AIP until I’m back to less auto-immune responses!

  9. I like having a set routine, but then diverting from that when I am mentally and emotionally able to handle it. For instance, I always eat at the same time every day, but on vacation I tried a compressed eating window because I had more time to plan for and implement that. It’s just good to know when I am stressed or busy, that I do have a routine that I can follow with little or no effort.

  10. I’m a swimmer. And that’s what I do, day in and day out. I love being in the water. But does it help me meet my fitness goals? Not so much. So I decided, after months of trying things that I just couldn’t get into, to take at least one class at the gym every week. Just one class. Any class. Although it was hard to step outside of my comfort zone, it has led me to TRX and effective bodyweight exercises, Tai Chi, Spinning – oh, and I’ve met a lot of really nice people who help keep me motivated and notice if I miss a class or two.

    Ya gotta mix it up once in a while!

  11. I’ve spent the last 3 weeks in Guatemala living with a host family.

    Out of social necessity I have switched from a diet based around veggies, eggs, meat, nuts, fats and the odd potato to tortillas, beans, potatoes, lots of fruit, rice and smaller portions of vegetables.

    I was worried at first that I’d be insatiably hungry and gain weight but I’ve actually lost weight and am not any more hungry than I would be at home. The meals ARE tiny however and I dont eat the bread, desserts ir sweetened yoghurt the family offers.

    I have definitely noticed that my joints are super creaky though…I’m thinking it’s the beans and corn but who knows.

  12. Having kids definitely shook me out of my routine, and I’m so grateful-I’ve grown so much as a person having to be flexible and role with the punches.
    Inspiring post. Thanks, Mark.

  13. A very wise clinician once told me: “your life is an experiment and you live in your laboratory.” I just wish I could be more patient with changing once variable at a time and taking better lab notes. But fun to try new things…..

    1. Speaking of new things, I was checking out the news today on Yahoo and in their financial section they actually had a paleo friendly article!! Then the sadness set in. 9 out of 10 of the comments were completely clueless regarding diet and nutrtion and so very protective of their SAD diets. It’s depressing to me because I can’t see victory for our side.

      1. HI Victor,

        I know its exciting to see PAleo friendly in the news, but lets not make this us vs. them. The Okinawans eat soy and grains and live to be 100, etc. There is more than one diet (the SAD diet not being one of them) that can heal and be sustaining. We can have lots of personal victories of all sorts of stripes. Viva la difference. Go plant eaters!

        1. Mims, I responded to one of the commenters defending a vegatarian diet saying it is one of the healthy ones out there. As to your reference to the Okinawans living to be 100 . My take on that is the poor souls on the SAD diet could probably live that long if they just reduced their caloric intake 1000 calories per day likes the Okinawans do compared to the ave. US diet.

  14. I’m loving the articles from MDA. Changing my routine is exactly what has happened over the past week. I am new to the Primal Blueprint, but aside from the light head aches in the early morning, I’m loving every minute of it. I was a very sedentary person, and now I am actively trying to get out and explore.

    Just as a test I decided to throw on a pedometer and go through one day as my sedentary self, using this for a rest day due to some hard training. I was surprised and ashamed to see that I didn’t even complete 400 steps. This has been just the shock I need to get out and make a difference.

    The food actually tastes like food, the movement is enjoyable, and the nature walks leave me energized and grinning for hours. Thank you for helping me realize that I needed the change.

  15. My primary mantra in working out is to “always keep my body guessing”. Aside from the fact that it works better for me, I am also easy to stray from routine. I hate routines, actually. It makes me get bored easily. – Howie

  16. Definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results – lol

  17. I think the valuable part of a routine comes from replacing an old “bad” routine with a new “good” routine. We are creatures of habit after all, and I think that we need to form habits in order to be effective. I agree that people get stuck in their once “good” routine that is no longer working for them, and they are too fearful to make another change.

  18. There is a small portion of the workforce (including myself) who MUST have routine in order to be productive at any level. My working brain simply ceases to exist outside of a working routine. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t incorporate small changes into my regular routine in order to reap some of the benefits that can be had from shaking up said routine every now and then. For me, the key is pretty much the ratio between routine and changes, and I recognize that I need about 90% routine continuously with a few changes thrown in here and there to challenge my problem-solving skills (among other things!).

  19. Change is good. Actually, what’s really important is knowing that you need a change. I’ve been low carb primal for about two years now, and although I feel a lot better now than I did as a SAD vegetarian, I wasn’t really feeling my best either. Weight started creeping back on even though I was sticking to good foods, and I was often quit tired. Plus, I was still having issues with my teeth and gums despite the fact that I wasn’t eating any sugar and only fruits occasionally.

    Well, when everyone started taking about resistant starch recently, I thought, what the heck? After two weeks of slight gassiness, I started feeling amazing. My mood went way up, to levels I’ve only ever experienced a few times (like on my wedding day). I kept saying to myself, I can’t believe how happy I am! My energy levels went up, I started doing art again for the first time in years, I enjoy going outside for walks. With that huge change just from adding cooked and cooled rice and potatoes, I decided to do a little more experimentation. I got my hands on a book called Cure Tooth Decay, which suggests a Weston A. Price diet to help stop and reverse tooth and gum issues. So I’ve been adding in raw dairy, more veggies, lots more organ meats, and I’ve been taking cod liver oil and butter oil. I can already tell there’s a difference in my teeth, and it’s only been a couple of weeks. I can actually see a hole in my tooth filing in! That’s beyond cool.

    So yes, I think changing things up once in a while can help, and we shouldn’t be down on people of they need something different than what we need.

  20. I was on the same routine for most of 2013, and this Summer decided to focus on improving my run times. It’s been a challenge but I’m enjoying the variety and it’s reinvigorated my love of running!