Someone close to me who I won’t out for risk of him losing his job chucked a sickie this week to go surfing. So proud. We all work too hard, put in heaps of unpaid overtime and generally donate our pound of flesh to the man week in, week out. In my book, if you can’t skive off once in a while when the waves are pumping, life’s not worth living.
It also got me thinking it’s about time I changed a few things about my life too. I had been feeling stuck in a rut, always in the same routine, devoid of inspiration. My daily routine consisted of: get up at ridiculous o’clock, do an hour’s work, go for a surf, come back and work until the end of the day, go to yoga, make dinner, go to bed extremely early. OK, as far as routines go, but if you do the same thing every day, it can get pretty boring.
So, taking inspiration from my surfing buddy, I decided I’d try to change. I set out to do things differently over the course of a week. Here’s what I tried:
- Get up later and surf in the middle of the day.
- Take a day off.
- Go out for dinner with friends on a school night.
- Go for coffee with a work colleague.
- Go to a press conference I normally would not have attended.
- Respond to emails I would normally not have answered.
They might seem like trivial things. And they are. But what I found when I did these things was that it really upset my daily routine and made me far less productive. I felt that, rather than help energise me and give me a new purpose, changing my routine hadn’t had a positive affect at all on my life. My perspective is that I have developed my routine for a reason – it allows me to get as much done as I possibly can, and changing that meant sacrificing productivity.
So I started wondering, how hard is it to change our habits? In fact, can habits be a good thing? I sought out an expert in habits, University of NSW psychologist Dr Amy Reichelt, to find out more.
According to Reichelt, we carry out many responses and behaviours every day, such as making our breakfast a certain way or driving a particular route to work. After a lot of practice at these behaviours our brain automates these responses.
“This is a way of saving on cognitive load – we no longer have to think about carrying out a particular response, we just do it automatically, such as putting our foot on the brake at a red light. These kinds of responses are described as habitual and we stop being aware of how we are doing them,” says Reichelt.
That makes a lot of sense to me. What’s the point of putting a lot of effort into thinking about our breakfast? But one of the things that struck me as I tried to change my routine was whether some habits are good and some habits are bad. Maybe it makes sense to have good habits, like always waking up at the same time, while other habits, such as falling asleep in front of the TV each night, are not so great.
Reichelt says habits aren’t necessarily good or bad; it depends on the behavioural outcome. “A good habit could be described as a part of your routine. So automatically picking up your gym kit in the morning so you can go to the gym after work has a positive outcome – you maintain your fitness. Bad habits such as craving a cigarette and then lighting up when you see someone else smoking have a negative impact on your health. Similarly, carrying out certain routines can be detrimental to our productivity. Checking Facebook routinely when you get into work can be seen as a habit that wastes time.”
She says to break a habit, people must recognise the behaviour and then override their habitual response. “This requires an additional cognitive load as you have to now stop yourself from doing something, and make an alternative, less-well-practised response.”
No wonder I felt that trying to change my habitual routine had made me less productive. I had given my brain more to do than it was used to, no doubt slowing me down and subsequently increasing the pressure I was under.
The upshot of all this is that I’ve decided my daily work routine is probably just fine and maybe it was a mistake to try to change everything all at once. A smarter thing might be to pick one thing to do differently and form a new habit around that. For instance, maybe I’ll try to do some exercise at lunch and finish work a little later, rather than work for eight hours-plus straight. That way, I’ll be injecting a bit of difference into my life without upping the stress factor.
What do you think? Can people change their habits?