I read an article recently about routines and habits. It was a brain science-y look at why we’re wired to have default settings – things we expect, and things we do out of habit. And most importantly, why the pandemic is stressing us all out.
The short version is, our brains are an energy-intensive organ. Despite weighing relatively little compared to the rest of our bodies, they can use a whopping one fifth of our energy. So they’re designed to conserve whenever possible. Driving to work? Go on autopilot. Running an errand? Just tell your brain what you want to do and it starts the sequence.
Know what to expect? You don’t even have to think about it.
When this doesn’t occur, when our routines and habits don’t function as usual, or when what we expect doesn’t happen, we become stressed out.
Like when a routine trip to the store becomes a calculated equation of risk and reward. Is it safe? How crowded will it be? Will people be wearing masks? How badly do I need this thing, anyway? All those thoughts take up emotional energy – and by the end, we’re just plain depleted.
Up the ante – should I send my kids to school for the semester? should I see my family for the holidays? should I visit my grandkids? – and the stress level can become overwhelming.
The big picture result of all this extra deliberating is that “we have less bandwidth available for higher order thinking: recognizing subtleties, resolving contradictions, developing creative ideas…”
For as much as it clarifies the problem, the article also gives a solution: find new routines and habits. They don’t have to be the same as before. They just have to be… routine. Habitual. Predictable enough to allow your brain to go on autopilot.
I discovered this in my own life mostly by accident. When, after a dry spell that lasted much of the summer, I got a tableful of work to sink my teeth into, I had enough projects to juggle that I had to dust off my planner and my tasks lists and my highlighters just to keep track of it all. I was suddenly busy enough that I needed the tools and habits that keep me grounded.
And they did. I felt the first flush of creative energy soon after. Something I wanted to make just because, not for a customer. New ideas that would now have to wait until I had the free time to tackle them.
So if you’re stuck in stress, emotionally drained, or feeling disconnected or disappointed by it all, the solution is a simple one:
Do something, and then do it again.
Then do it again, and again – until your mind can finally take a break. It doesn’t much matter what. Something old, something new, something tried, something true. Because in the end, it takes something mundane to reconnect you with what’s exciting again.
Read the original New York Times article here
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