Routines are to our time what budgets are to our money. We adhere to them to spend our time wisely. But, while routines can provide us with a sense of control, especially during a pandemic and ensuing unpredictability, they can also grow to take up the valuable time that we need to experiment with and change things. As changing opportunities accelerate, we ought to be revising our routines a lot more. They’re certainly not meant to be set in stone, forever.
I say this as I recover from my old routines, which I mindlessly waded through for a long time. I was cribbing routines from successful people, trying to see how I could fit each one into my day. But after some streamlining, as I woke up, showered, meditated, journaled, made breakfast, ate, and made some notes, I’d spend two very valuable morning hours just in my routines. Some people may find this fulfilling—but I didn’t enjoy it. The disconnect was simple. I felt best when I wrote in the mornings. I simplified my routine, and rescheduled some things.
As I became more mindful of my routines, I also found myself in social media rules I’d set for myself (e.g., not checking Facebook before 6 p.m.), participating in communities I was familiar with, writing articles I was familiar with. That’s the joy of the routine, but also what holds us back.
In my early days of writing at Medium, I noticed Sarah Cooper’s work—especially her article, “10 Tricks to Appear Smart During Meetings.” Even though many of her new fans might consider her an overnight success, Sarah’s road to success is a long one that winds through the meeting rooms of Google and Yahoo!, and involves many different platforms.
Unlike some of her peers—for example, vloggers who make a video on YouTube every day for 10 years—Cooper experiments. She said to the Financial Times, “I’m the type of person that I try something, and then if it doesn’t work, I move on to something else.” In 2020, she tried TikTok, and after a few weeks, her video entitled “How to Medical” was going to be one of the last things she posted. But the video went viral, and the rest is history.
In every industry, there is a tension between experimentation and consistency. One must dare to try, but they must also know when to play the hits. Cooper’s case shows it doesn’t have to be a binary choice—one or the other—but it can involve nuance. For example, the lip syncs that made her viral actually do tie into her parodic style and technique, but they’re also completely new, in the sense that she didn’t lip sync anyone before.
Even in the regular world, this tension exists in the aforementioned budgeting—what time and money should go to which projects? What’s the likelihood of it paying off? “If you keep doing what you’ve done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve got,” my friend Ray O’Kane tells me. Experimentation is just as necessary as routine—to see what you can get, what’s out there for you. Every day you don’t try it, the opportunity cost rises—and every day is like a river, there are new opportunities floating around. Here are three ways to integrate a little bit more experimentation into your routine.
Try to make something people will like
I’ve found the process—not always the end result—to be useful. In my writing, that might mean I immerse myself in the news cycle or look at the Popular or Trending feeds. I’ll come up with 10 ideas myself, based on those ideas. Or, I’ll just look into my own data and analytics, and find an idea that a lot of people are reading. Most of the time, the ideas stay on the page—but sometimes, one of them catches my attention, and I try to develop it.
This proposition might involve the crummiest, hackiest, of all verbs. It’s about getting permission to sell out, pander, and make your worst piece of work. Of course, this doesn’t mean you actually need to release it, especially if you feel it compromises your standard of quality. But the goal here is to meet people where they are and to develop the makings of an understanding of what works.
Come up with three variations of one piece of work
You can choose to make experimental, riskier, versions of the same piece of work. A certain degree of risk is a necessary ingredient in tapping into and feeding, the chaotic energy of creativity. The risk could result in something original, which could mean progress. As Marina Abramović writes in Walk Through Walls, “I always question artists who are successful in whatever they do. I think what that means is that they’re repeating themselves and not taking enough risks.”
Release your work in a closed environment
Typically, creative work takes place in what professor Fabra Robin Hogarth calls a wicked learning environment. These are environments that involve many variables, which make correlations and causations difficult to form. Predictions are very difficult to clearly make.
Cooper’s willingness to try new things and see how they work out is crucial to her success. When I spoke to her a few years ago, she was in the habit of sharing her ideas with a small group of friends and family to gauge feedback.
Let routines and experiments go
Consistency is great, but sometimes quitting can be the best thing for you. There comes a time when every experiment has to come to an end if it doesn’t provide results. The same goes for routines, if you feel it growing too stale for your liking, or if there are changes in your life that you need to adapt to. Just let it go.
Herbert Lui is the author of There Is No Right Way to Do This, a book that supports people with their creative work. He is also the editorial director at Wonder Shuttle, an editorial studio that makes publications for software companies.