If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine: it kills. Paulo Coelho
The more actions are repeated, the harder it becomes to see any other way. In neuroscience terms, we have an ‘observational selection bias’, where we notice things we’ve done before more often and it’s easier to look for the similar things. In Simon terms, we have Routine, which is one of the Creatures of Habit. It can hold us back by being too comfortable with the familiar and not letting our imagination off the leash.
How much does Routine play a role in our lives? Nokia did a study where they tracked 100 people for a month using GPS. 90% were in the same place at the same time everyday.
Here’s an experiment for you to try right now. Get a stopwatch (yes, you have one on your phone) and see how fast you can say the alphabet out loud. My time is 3.64 seconds!
Ok, now get ready to start your stopwatch again. This time say the alphabet out loud… backwards. I’m not even telling you my time!
Don’t get me wrong, having Routine is necessary and has all sorts of benefits. Efficiency is the biggest. If tasks had to be thought through fresh every time, then we’d spend forever figuring things out. Our brain creates patterns so we can recall and repeat without wasting mental effort. Most of the time, our brains are on autopilot. It just means we can focus on the things that need our fuller attention.
It’s actually easy to get stuck in a bit of a bubble. We tend to stick to doing the things we’re used to and enjoy doing. Even Facebook ensures you see predominantly information that matches your known preferences. We are often limiting our influences without consciously realising it.
The more we perform certain tasks, the more they become mentally cemented and the less we have to think about them. The actions become part of us. We really are what we repeat.
Why does that matter? If we perform the same tasks over and over, then the narrower our field of vision becomes. When change is required or a new opportunity presents itself, you will find you can only connect your existing knowledge and experience. Put simply, Routine can halt innovation and progress.
Routine is like having sat nav for your brain, only no-one is telling you to turn around whenever possible if you end up going too far in one direction.
It’s important to up your inspiration so you are ready to connect the dots to create new opportunities. Innovation often comes from connecting new sources of information. It certainly doesn’t come from repeating the same information again and again. You only know what you’re surrounded by.
Ok so what can you do about it? Here are 4 things to keep your inspiration tank topped up.
1. Switch up your usual
Jolt yourself out of your typical patterns. Start small by doing one thing differently than you did yesterday. Observe how it feels and notice the difference. Once you’ve succeeded there, try out a range of ways of doing your usual activities in a different way. This is great to prime yourself to be open to new sources of inspiration.
Do you ever get stuck for ideas of what to cook for dinner? Most of us eat and cook the same things over and over. Even though we may want to experience new tastes, Routine makes it too easy to stick to what we know. Next time you go shopping, try picking up that odd fruit or vegetable you’ve never used before. You can guarantee you’ll be making something different. Or you could try out Chef Watson. Built from IBM’s Watson, this allows you to generate all sorts of new flavour combinations that have been paired using Artificial Intelligence. I never thought I would be making sage and mushroom chocolate truffles until I got a nudge from Chef Watson!
Also put yourself in new environments as often as you can. Environmental context is so important for our thinking patterns. If the mind is stimulated by new surroundings, it will be more open for input. It could be simple as taking a walk to talk rather than sitting in the usual spot.
J.R.R. Tolkien got a lot of inspiration for Lord of the Rings when visiting the intricately carved and fantastical salt mines in Poland. Golem was inspired by a trip to neighbouring Prague where Golem is a mythical mud creature.
2. Put yourself in a different mood
When in the grips of Routine, we are more prone to selective tuning when we filter out the things we’re not looking for and see more prominently the things at the front of our mind. That can really close of a whole world of new inspiration. We’re looking to confirm what we already know rather than push our boundaries.
The next time you start a project or an ideas session, try creating a mood board. I do this all the time with clients and it never fails to open eyes to new possibilities that would never have crossed their minds otherwise.
The process is really straightforward; just use any sources you like (magazines, papers, websites). For example, Pinterest is always a gold mine for new inspiration and it’s easy to create a private board and invite people in.
There’s just one rule- use sources of inspiration that you wouldn’t usually choose or are from an unrelated field. If you are working in safety, see what inspiration you find in extreme sports. If you are working education, look at ideas in fashion. If you are working in science, see what angles religion can throw up. You get the idea.
3. Change the frame of reference
I once heard a story of a company director that refused to take on board the idea of mixing up the staff in the office to work within different teams. However, he was told the story of the Dutch Total Football team from the 1970s. This team’s training strategy involved players switching positions to get a wider perspective of everyone’s role and be more adaptable when playing. The team became legendary because of this.
That analogy was the trigger for this company director to realise switching around staff could be something well worth trying to increase team collaboration and performance.
Analogy and metaphors are great because they force you to think in a new frame of reference. You have to mentally decouple yourself from the usual associations. Then your world can really open up.
4. Be a bit more random
When I was at drama class in school, we were often challenged to put on a play at short notice. We weren’t given a script or a theme, just an image. Each group got the same image and the resulting plays were always completely different. This is an example of how a random stimulus such as an image can create a great deal of variation based on new interpretations.
Try it yourself now. Here’s a random picture I found on Unsplash. Use this as your stimulus and see what story premise you conjure up.
Your brain often craves random inspiration to spark some magic. It’s often much easier to jump start the creative process this way than relying on the thoughts currently circling around in your head. The further removed the inspiration is from your challenge, the harder you have to work to make an alternative interpretation and find new associations. But that makes for more creative solutions that you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.
At the end of the day, you should be able to feel when things become all a bit too familiar. That’s when you know it’s time to switch things up and snap Routine out of it.
Find out how under the influence of Routine you are by taking the Creatures of Habit Quiz.
You can also preview the first chapter of the Creatures of Habit Action Plan. It’s goes into more depth about Routine.