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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