You’ll Be Better Off Not Following a Routine. Here’s Why.
It is the hallmark of our culture that we try to routinize everything. From our mornings to our toilet visits, it’s all about creating a proper routine. Why? Well, because routine is just a different word for efficiency and effectiveness! Routine means we mean business; it means we want to improve by streamlining the stuff we do often so we can focus our attention on stuff that, well, requires our attention.
This is, without a doubt, something people should strive for. The amount of stuff you can automate does, to an extent, affect your productivity. Yet it also, in a weird and entirely human way, caps it.
Take a 21st-century blogger. To stay relevant, this blogger has to churn out content regularly. A couple of times a week at minimum, this blogger sits down to pen yet another piece about productivity and figures out that if he’s able to automate and streamline the research process, the writing and publishing, he’ll be able to pump out even more content. So, he sits down and outlines his magnificent plan:
- Plan each piece a day in advance.
- Cap your research to X minutes.
- Write for Y minutes.
- Publish, even if you don’t feel like it.
Dazzled by his invention, he incorporates his plan into the daily routine. He plans a day in advance like a pro, outlines his pieces like Hemingway, and researches his stuff better than a bunch of scientists on steroids.
Yet the results are lacking. All this carefully manicured routine destroys something fundamental, and the writer gets stuck. No matter what he does, he’s unable to proceed. Is it the infamous writer’s block? Perhaps.
Our valiant blogger tries in vain to push through. He thinks and ponders, but the piece still feels off.
Dispirited, he sets the piece aside. The failure robbed him of his momentum. He now finds it increasingly difficult to sit down and write. He misses his deadlines and gradually falls off the wagon.
What happened? Our fledgling writer forgot one crucial piece of advice: to move on when stuck.
Niklas Luhmann, a German sociology professor, penned 550 articles and 50 books during his lifetime. He’s probably the reason the word “prolific” is associated with writers.
To achieve what he did, you might think he’d also had a stellar routine like our writer. You’d think he just did something — some fundamental thing — differently.
Maybe. But maybe the secret behind his success is less mysterious. He writes,
“I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.”
Who said that writing has to be hard? The truth is, we make it hard. We’re experts at that. The more we’re stuck, the more the obstacle seems like an insurmountable black hole sucking the color out of our dreams and aspirations. What we’re left with is a gray blob of nothingness that eventually gets spaghettified. But there is a way out:
Keep going. If you’re stuck, change.
If you do, you can still escape the event horizon, unspaghettified.
Another case for keeping the ball rolling comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This ballsy philosopher concurs with similar advice to Luhmann’s. This time the subject pertains to reading. He writes in Black Swan,
The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research.
Trying as many things as possible — constantly adjusting what you do — you’re bound to find gold.
But does it mean you should abandon your routine and become a frivolous opportunist? Well, kinda. I think routines are important, but breaking out of them perhaps even more so.
If your routine keeps you engaged and maintains or improves your momentum, stick with it. But if it hinders you, if you become stuck, quit as soon as you can. Stop whatever you’re doing and rethink the situation: do you really need to push through now or is cutting your losses and moving on a better strategy?
Humans are wary of change because it might mean loss. And we hate losses.
But what we don’t realize is that within a dysfunctional routine, we lose too.
What we don’t realize is that regaining our momentum after we’ve lost it is costlier than a few days of confusion before we figure out a new direction.
Whether it’s writing, reading, or life in general, it’s all about keeping momentum. It’s about not getting stuck. Being stuck costs us time, energy, and nerves. Stuck means that our routines turn into a sludge that makes our every step miserable.
We have a choice to wade through the sludge or leave our shoes behind and escape it.
The key here is to do what Luhmann did and Taleb does: Keep the ball rolling. Change the piece you’re working on. Pick up another book. Do whatever it takes to keep going.
As Woody Allen put it,
Eighty percent of success is showing up.
You can’t show up to something you’ve lost faith in.
Switch gears, be flexible, be dynamic.
Keeping up momentum is the only thing that matters.
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