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Your brain loves routines. Here’s how to build new and better ones

Every once in a while, you need to take a step back and ask whether your routines are serving you optimally.

Your brain loves routines. Here’s how to build new and better ones
[Source illustration: Nazarii/iStock]
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Routines are comfortable. When you’re stressed out, you tend to fall back on your habits. Why? There are two intersecting reasons why habits feel so good.

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First, the brain is a prediction engine. You are most comfortable in situations in which you know what is going to happen next. Routines are situations that have happened so often that you know exactly how the events are going to unfold, and so the familiarity of a routine feels nice.

Second, the brain wants to minimize the amount of energy it expends on any particular activity. The brain uses a lot of energy—about 20-25% of your daily energy expenditure—despite its small size. That energy use stays about the same no matter what you’re doing, so time is a good proxy for energy usage in the brain. The less time you spend thinking about something, the less energy your brain wastes on it. The best way to minimize the time spent on a process is to do it by habit, where you can remember what to do next rather than having to think about it.

Because routines feel good, though, you may persist in engaging in those routines, even when they don’t serve your current needs very well.

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A classic demonstration of the role of routine comes from the “water jug” problems studied by Luchins in 1942. In these problems, people are shown jugs that can hold different units of water. The aim is to end up with a certain amount of water in one of the jugs, but all you can do is fill up a jug completely from a tap or pour one jug into another. For example, if you had jugs that were 10, 9, and 2 units in size and you wanted to end up with 6 units of water, you could fill up the first jug once and then pour it out twice into the 2 unit jug so you were left with 6 units. Luchins gave people a sequence of these water jug problems in which several in a row could be solved by this strategy of filling the leftmost and then pouring it twice into the third.

Eventually, people adopted this routine—even for problems that could be solved more simply. Essentially, people chose to stick with a routine rather than planning from scratch each time. The pull of the routine was so strong, people simply didn’t notice the easier solution.

Every once in a while, then, you need to take a step back from your routines and ask whether they are allowing you to function effectively. Here are three scenarios where you might become more efficient by switching up your routines:

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When there are better tools

One place where routines cause problems is in the way we interact with technology at work. Often, companies develop software platforms to automate processes that you used to have to by hand. For example, when academics write papers, they have to create bibliographies of all the resources they cited in the work.

This process used to take hours (or even days) and it was easy to make mistakes. Then, software was developed to allow researchers to keep a database of articles they have read and to tag citations in a paper. The first time I clicked a button at the end of writing a paper and saw the entire bibliography formatted perfectly, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Over the years, though, many new packages were developed that incorporated additional features, but having stuck with the software that I used initially, I missed out on those advances. Eventually, I realized that the tool I was using was not as good (or as inexpensive) as ones that had been created more recently. Shifting out of my routine ultimately saved me time and enabled me to automate many other tasks that was still doing by hand.

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When you followed the garden path

Some of the routines you create were perfectly good at the time you started them, but they have grown into a problem over time. The classic version of this is email behavior. Often, people develop habits around email at a time when they only get a few really important emails a day. I got my first email account when I was a teaching assistant in college in the late 1980s. at that time, the only emails I got were important ones.

Over time, though, the number of emails you get grows substantially. Eventually, the habits you developed early on to deal with email get in the way of your ability to get anything substantial done at work. It can take you a while to realize that you have walked down the garden path of a routine and arrived at a place you don’t want to be.

When your job life has changed

For many people, the job you were hired to do initially can be quite different from the one you end up doing as your career advances. For example, many people who succeed in technical jobs find themselves tapped to be managers. Their responsibilities shift from solving technical problems to solving people problems.

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Despite the change in responsibilities, though, the routines you bring to work may not shift as rapidly. As a result, you may find yourself doing things that would have made perfect sense in a previous role, but are less helpful in the role you have now.

For example, in technical roles it is often quite important to point out flaws in a design or process as quickly as possible in order to ensure that they get fixed before they cause a problem. In leadership roles, though, you also have responsibility to teach others how to be effective in their work.

When you see a design flaw, you might want to point it out immediately, but you might also want to give a team some time to find the flaw on their own—and even to teach the skills to find these flaws—rather than just pointing it out. But, it can be difficult to stop yourself from acting as you always had.

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Why periodic evaluations are key

To find these kinds of mismatched routines, it is useful to evaluate your routines every few months. Ask colleagues about their favorite software tools so that you are aware of other available ways you might address work issues. Track the amount of time you spend on key tasks at work and examine whether the amount of time those tasks are given matches the importance of those tasks for your key goals. Think about the elements of your current position that are critical for success. Look at your routines to see whether they support those goals.

When you find routines that need to be changed, find a time at work that is not too stressful, and introduce the new tool or skill. Initially, it will feel uncomfortable to make this change, because your brain will not be able to predict exactly what will happen next, and you will spend time on something you used to be able to do mindlessly. In a few weeks, though, that new routine will help you to align your habits with your key drivers of success.