We all need order and discipline in our lives, and developing good habits and useful routines helps us feel productive and directed toward our goals. But sometimes the routines we rely on turn into ruts without our realizing it. We may find ourselves feeling trapped, joyless, bored and boring without really understanding why.
And even if we recognize that we’re in a rut, we may feel helpless to get out of the deep groove we’ve worn into daily life. Either way, it’s a recipe for stress. Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist and author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever (McGraw-Hill, 2005), reminds us that even small alterations in our routines can open the door to a more spontaneous and fulfilling life.
STRESS SOURCE: RUT-LIKE ROUTINES
Doing the same things in the same way, day after day, can sap our energy and enthusiasm, leaving us unsure how to restore excitement and spontaneity to our lives.
- Obliviousness: “We may not even recognize that we’re stuck,” says Newman. “We can be so anesthetized by our habit of doing things the same way that all we feel is low energy and vague unhappiness.”
- Fear of change: For some people, the challenge of altering their routines brings fear of what may happen — or anxiety about how they will respond. “One unspoken fear is that I simply won’t be up to the challenge of change, that I’ll fail and disappoint myself,” says Newman.
- A sense of futility: Even if you acknowledge a rut, says Newman, “you may feel that trying to escape it is pointless — that ruts are inevitable,” or that this is simply your lot in life.
- Obligation: When we feel relied upon to perform tasks we’ve grown to resent, or simply to do things “the way we always have,” a sense of duty can evolve into a feeling of martyrdom — one we wear like a badge of honor, even if no one else is forcing us to.
HOW TO COPE
- Wake up to the problem: Take a look at which routines in your life may have morphed into ruts. “In a rut, your productivity declines,” says Newman. “You do everything more slowly” and tend to get less bang for your buck. When you’ve completed a healthy routine, there’s a sense of satisfaction. With ruts, you’re more likely to have a sense of helplessness or beleaguered frustration.
- Make a small change: Even a small alteration in a rut can have remarkably liberating effects, Newman says. “If you usually work over your lunch break, get out of the office for a walk. Call someone you haven’t talked to for a long time. Try a new recipe or workout regimen.” Instead of watching TV in the evenings, dig into a compelling book.
- Take a field trip: “Once in a while, plan a bigger change of scene — say, a museum visit, or a hike,” Newman suggests. Go somewhere or do something that interrupts your established patterns and kicks your mind and spirit into a different gear.