January 15, 2016

Routines vs Mindfulness

“I want to be aware of everyday that I am alive. I want to wake up when I am 85 and be exhausted.”

Three distinct pieces of content came my way today extolling the Pros or Cons of having a routine. Interestingly, they were very contrary in what they were espousing. Written below is a discussion of the thought provoked by the content. I don’t have the answers (obv) but below is  my attempt to find a balance between the two opposing sides of a very important and intriguing debate.


A quick background: Creating routines is an intrinsically human behaviour. Its part of what is called Habituation – a process where our brains create habits out of tasks that we repeatedly do and internalises them such that their execution is done subconsciously. This is done because human brains are capable of a fixed number of decisions and once we reach the end of this diurnal capacity we feel tired.


The first related thing I encountered today was a video about a traveller. The purpose of the video was to ask Jed (the subject of the video) why he quit his job and decided to travel from his hometown to edge of South America on a bicycle.“once your brain establishes a routine, it stops, it, the alertness goes away, the fascination with the way the world works. And I think thats what travel in general does. It wakes up your brain.” The video makes a moving point (aided by stunning visuals of South America from Jed’s travels).


Jed’s founding idea was that people who were 80 years old said that they never realised how quickly their life went by. That “they blinked and it was over”. Jed wishes a different ending for his life. “I want to be aware of everyday that I am alive. I want to wake up when I am 85 and be exhausted.”


While this seems like a genuinely interesting proposal, I remain skeptical. My gujju neighbour would say “ Arrey this Jed bhai, I wonder who pays for his travel. He must have rich parents” While Jed’s libertarian ideas are novel and well argued I refuse to believe that my life should be governed by a hedonistic wanderlust. Don’t get me wrong – as someone who is currently wandering around the world I have actually experienced first hand the truly eye-opening value of living outside my comfort zone. I daresay I might even be addicted to it today. But Jed’s version of travel and self challenge feels a bit, … empty. It looks and sounds like a well thought out justification for what is otherwise perceived as a joyride or a long vacation. And I am not buying it.


The second piece of content was a article on Medium written by Francesco. The article was titled ‘How to be successful’ and one of first tips he gave was to create routines out of things that don’t need our explicit attention. His example is President Obama who only wears grey or blue suits. Reducing the amount of decisions Obama makes ‘frees’ his mind saves his cognitive ability for more important things that will probably come up in the day. He always reference’s Barry Schwartz’s very well known book ‘The Paradox of Choice’ where he discusses that reducing choice is more beneficial to most people in many contexts. As a designer this is something I am actually consciously aware of. To complete a task, I often make my user go through steps of screens which I believe are the necessary to fully educate about the task he is doing while he is doing it the user and communicate a sense a of control as well.


However a life full of routines seems rather dull. I have a habit of falling in love with unpredictable artists. They usually end up breaking my heart but somehow I never learn. There is something about the feeling of excitement that us humans find very hard to resist. We may say that we are very well evolved but somehow this basic almost primal sensation of excitement (often manifested in a number of ways) gets us every single time. So to to increase the number of routines in our life may be contrary to what I would actually want. An example to comes to mind is of food. I don’t romanticise much for food. “Food is fuel” is what I often find myself saying when a friend invites me to go to dinner. I would be happy to eat the same thing everyday and actually I do. However in my past trip to Italy eating a great deal of food and enjoying it much more that I expected. I felt a perceivable shadow of gluttony came over me and yet I dismissed it saying I will go back to my routine when I return home. I think what bothered me the most from this experience was how much I ‘enjoyed’ this variety of food when I broke out of my stable and regular eating habits. Funny feeling this enjoyment.


The third piece of content was TED talk by Tony Fadell who describe the value of ‘Looking Closely, Looking Broadly and Thinking Youngly’ He said the path to discovering problems to solve, to discover opportunity is to un-train the brain to not get used to things it has already gotten used to (habituation) This will open our eyes to “to how the world should be and not how it is” Not sure if its his phrasing, but somehow Tony’s words struck a better chord with me that Jed’s.


I think it’s ultimately about what is the purpose behind breaking up the routine. Is it to travel to South America on a bicycle or is it discover how to make the world a better place.



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