There was a period of several years that I lived in a townhouse in the south side of Lexington, Kentucky. In the mornings, I had to wake up and get to the training studio to see clients through the early hours. As I rushed to get ready and be on time, I would find myself driving down Hartland Parkway, taking a right turn onto Tates Creek Road and follow that all the way into Chevy Chase. I would then navigate my way to the studio, heading down Ashland Avenue. One of the things that was a constant irritation was sitting at the Tates Creek and Man ‘O War stoplight. It seemed to last forever and I almost always had to wait for it. However, despite the irritation, I took that route day after day. At some point they put in a Starbucks in Chevy Chase on Ashland Avenue, which also became part of the regular routine.
As I look back on that behavior, I am a little amused and confused at the same time. If I had just evaluated that behavior and asked myself, “are there any other options”. I could have easily found that there is a route that would have allowed me to enter the Man ‘O War and Tates Creek intersection off Man ‘O War, giving me a right turn. Due to the early time of day, I would not had to wait long at that intersection, even at a red light.
The question that I have asked myself many times since I realized this behavior, is “Why did I not make this observation?”
The answer is that it’s a common part of human behavior, for many people, not just myself. We develop routines to help limit the amount of decisions we make each day. These routines limit the cognitive load we encounter, allowing our decision making to be dedicated to more critical analysis. Imagine a day where you had to consciously consider every decision you made. It sounds exhausting.
When you look at the routines and patterns that exist in your life, how many of them are automatic? Your morning routine in the bathroom. Your first 5 minutes after you get home from work. The way you tie your shoes. The way you park the car in the driveway. How many of these regular activities, do you have to spend mental energy on?
There is value in having these patterns. As noted, it allows us to focus our attention on more critical decision making. However, these patterns can also create problems for us, when we are trying to live happier and healthier lives. For example, my happiness was less than it could have been, simply because my route to work was on autopilot. What about the Starbucks coffee? What happens if that coffee is loaded with sugar and fat? How often do we turn on the television at night and can not find anything enjoyable to watch, yet we continue to search for hours out of habit?
When you understand that these routines can be positive or negative, it becomes important to review and analyze the patterns overtime. Have you developed helpful patterns or harmful behaviors? The follow up question, once you understand what your routines are, is how can you change them? This entire behavior change program is about establishing routines, by starting and growing positive behaviors. That being said, there is one strategy that I have found very beneficial over the years to break me of these routines and providing enough space to evaluate what those behaviors are.
That strategy is to change your setting and environment.
Think about the last time you were on vacation, what did it feel like when you woke up in a new room and had to get ready in a different bathroom. It was pretty strange, correct? At the moment I am in a pretty blessed position to have been in the Black Hills of South Dakota for 5 weeks. In the time here, I have had the following priorities: prepare for brother’s wedding, write, run, work on programming jobs and finding new work. What is interesting about having this opportunity is that many of the daily activities I have while at home, are no longer necessary. It has provided the space necessary to look at what some of those activities are and question if they are truly critical. When I return home, I can decide if I will keep them, eliminate them or replace them.
The reality is that I have had an opportunity like this previously, which upon returning home, I quickly fell back into my standard routine. That observation highlights the power of settings and environment. The routines and behaviors have a way of returning when we put ourselves back into the original setting. While you may not have the opportunity to remove yourself from your day to day environment for several weeks, I would encourage you to be observant of your routines the next time you have a vacation. Even if that vacation is being gone for a day.
Here are some other actions you might consider to take advantage of the power your environment has on our behavior:
- Move the living room furniture around, so your seating and television are in different locations.
- Take a different route to work everyday.
- Reorganize your kitchen cabinets, especially the pantry.
- Reorganize your refrigerator.
- Change the decorations in your office or cubicle at work.
- Change the air freshener scent in your car.
- Move your bathroom items to a different bathroom and use it for your morning routine.
- Rearrange the bedroom furniture.
- Remove anything from the bedroom that doesn’t have to do with sleeping, dressing or sex.
- Eliminate any distractions, primarily televisions, from the dining room.
The value of routines in our lives can not be understated. There are many habits we develop that are carried out without any thought on a daily basis. The environment that we live in reinforces many of those behaviors, as our minds work to limit the amount of decisions it has to make each day. Changing your setting not only provides an opportunity for you to evaluate those behaviors, it puts you in a position to be more successful as you develop routines that lead to greater happiness and health.
Check out my free behavior change program: Happier and Healthier You