As time passes, our routines become more and more ingrained. We switch into autopilot, passing through life without thinking. The more we partake in these routines, the more they become part of our identity, and the harder it is to break them. When there’s a big change in our lives, we become afraid and defensive. We believe — rather, we feel — these routines are integral to our lives. To break a long-held routine can be a tantalizing thought. We get so anxious when we don’t have wifi for 24 hours, but what if we didn’t have wifi for 24 days? How will we survive? The feeling seeps deep into our skin — we actually experience physical, mental and spiritual anguish.
We may never challenge these routines, because to do so would be to question the very foundation on which we run our lives. Our reliance on technology, which we know to be permanently stealing our attention, is met with a shrug and a hopeless statement like, “what other choice do I have?”
The important question, though, is at what cost are we living our lives in a string of predictable, non-changing routines?
It reminds me of a scene in one of my favorite movies, the Matrix, where Neo is distracted by the woman in the red dress, and Morpheus asks,“Were you listening to me, Neo? Or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?” When Neo realizes he’s been distracted, he turns around only to find Agent Smith pointing a gun to his face.
The lady in the red dress is a product of the system and represents all of the negative distractions in life; consumerism, unfulfilling work, harmful relationships, and addictions. When we let these distractions define and construct our lives, it can result in emotional, spiritual or physical death. That could mean we’re too scared to leave a harmful (or ‘convenient’) relationship, are stuck in a dead-end job, or let our drinking habit distract us from working on our startup project on the weekends. It means we never find real happiness or purpose.
Occasionally, a little Morpheus pinches our skin and we realize that we haven’t been paying attention; or that in the pursuit of achieving our dreams, we’ve gotten side-tracked. When we’re facing a big life decision, before we pull the trigger we nervously ask, “hmm, am I missing something? Is this what I really want to do?”
In our day-to-day grind, perhaps we feel something gnawing at our core; a call to adventure, desire for change, or the escape of “what if.” Most of us don’t act on it immediately, some do. We cover it up by taking modern-day medicine to drown out our existential angst; tequila shots every Friday to numb the pain, or over-priced packaged vacations to ‘escape’ (why are we running?). A tragedy, like a death of a close friend, can push these feelings to the forefront, resulting in a change in perspective, a revisiting of what’s important in our lives, and most likely some action. Or, old age comes creeping — the midlife crisis and plot line for countless movies like Eat, Pray, Love.
But most of the time, these moments are few and far between.
How to have more “aha” moments in life
Imagine having a creative, groundbreaking idea, or shift in perspective. What’s happening in your brain? Neurons are firing in ways in which they have never done before. It’s not possible for this sort of creative networking to happen if your mind is simply operating according to the pre-established neural pathways — if you’re always focusing on the woman in the red dress. Changing your routine gives your brain the opportunity to explore new and unfamiliar territories.
One study looked at the brains of rats as they negotiated a maze to get a reward. First, as they learned the route, experienced the challenge, reaped the rewards etc, their neurons went off like fireworks: creativity, learning, disappointment, reward! Magic is happening in the brain. But, as the rats repeated this maze over and over, they began to learn the route; their brains reflected this, leading to intensely reduced firing of neurons as the progress. If we want growth, creativity, innovation, excitement etc., we’re not going to achieve this by walking a path that our brains already know.
So, all we have to do is change our routines, or even just take a break from them for a few days. A simple concept, but difficult in practice. Unfortunately, there’s no substitute, no shortcut, because we cannot wish ourselves into seeing things differently. We don’t just wake up and say, “I should use my phone less,” and then actually follow through on that. Nor are we likely to break free from that habit by simply being persuaded by some video or article online — we have to experience something that causes us to see things differently, for ourselves. Personal experience is at the core of meaningful change.
Once we get out of these routines, even for a little bit, what follows is a burst of creativity, freshness, and perhaps even a full perspective change. The challenge is that we’re often too far down in the dark ditch to even know that we are in a ditch; so oblivious, that we often don’t recognize what those biases, or what those routines are.
Fortunately, we don’t have to quit our jobs and run off to the mountains for a year to get more ‘aha’ moments. While it may work, it’s hardly practical. And while we might not know what we have to change, or do, there’s something out there — in there — in all of us. It’s different for everyone, so we all have to find out for ourselves. No shortcuts.
Here are a few experiences you can try for yourself that will help peel away the layers.
Five routines you didn’t think you had, and how to break them
Fred Flintstone Didn’t Eat Everyday
For most of human history, we didn’t have reliable access to food. We’d hunt, gather, and store our nuts, berries and deer meat. We’d go days or even weeks without eating. But our bodies adapted and evolved to survive like this, not with UberEats and Wholefoods.
This changed after the agricultural revolution when we started to produce more than we could eat. At some point, we invented a (baseless) idea that we should eat 3 times a day. Nowadays, most people in the West go their entire lives without skipping a meal. Stop and ponder that for a second.
Prolonged fasting (not eating for 3 days or more) has many extensive health benefits, but eating regularly is such a hard routine to bust. Food is such an integral part to our survival, culture, and day to day life. We often forget that there are different ways to eat; or that we have to eat at all.
Fasting is appealing because it allows you to see life with a monk-like clarity. After fasting for long enough, your body starts to produce ketone bodies to be used instead of glucose. Ketone bodies are a very efficient fuel-source for your body. Your brain goes into hyper-focus mode, you don’t get fatigued, and many report experiencing euphoria.
During my last fast, I wrote the entire outline for a book. Then, I listened to 10 podcast episodes (on 2x speed), read 2 full books and went for a 2 hour hike in the mountains. That was in a 12 hour period on 6 hours of sleep. Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, fasts once a week because it increases his creativity. Hemingway wrote that hunger made him a more disciplined writer. The ‘starving artist’ has some truth to it after all.
Default Mode Network Shutdown
There is a voice inside of our heads all of the time. Don’t believe me? Sit still with your eyes closed and wait a couple minutes. Is anyone in there nagging you to do stuff? It narrates our lives, thinking incessantly. It worries about the future or regrets the past. But what if you could turn it off for a few hours? You’d probably think less about yourself, and if you could really shut it off, your ego might even disappear for a few moments.
It also makes sense that if we muted this voice, we’d get new, creative ideas and perspective — when we’re not worrying, or over-thinking, we can spur more aha moments. That’s why the lightbulb goes off when we’re doing “nothing” like taking a shower or going for a walk.
Neuroscientists have identified the part of the brain (it actually consists of several parts) that’s active when you’re not focused on anything or doing anything in particular — the default mode network (“DMN”). That’s the little voice. There’s still a lot of research to be done, but studies have shown that the quieting of the DMN is linked to creativity, but overactivity in this area is associated with anxiety and depression.
Two ways to silence that little voice:
- A small dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, quiets this region down. Similar studies have been done on ayahuasca, a shamanic medicine used in Peru. I wouldn’t recommend psychedelics for everyone and you should always consult an expert, but some promising work is being done by organizations like MAPS, so it’s worth looking into. Check out a list of retreats here.
- Brain scans on advanced meditators have shown a significant quieting of their DMN region. Lessened activity in the DMN allows you to experience the present moment with greater objectivity, less clouded by your feelings. Even just two weeks of meditation, for 10 minutes a day can start to produce noticeable effects. Check out the Headspace app, which I use.
Starting a meditation practice or taking a psychedelic may be far from our current routines, but can definitely open the floodgates.
In a constant appeal to our inalienable right to individualism, we strive to control every situation in our lives. We want to make more money, look better, seem funnier. We constantly optimize our time, diet, productivity. If we’re working a 9-5 job, or a 10am-8pm job like so many in Japan where I live, there can be little room for anything else. In the process, we often forget to give to others.
I fall into this trap, like we all do, but when I remind myself to do something (even a small act of gratitude), it does wonders to calms my mind. Of course, we have to be selfish sometimes, and be selective with our time. There’s a smart way to be a giver, which Adam Grant writes a lot about.
The simple act of giving books, for example, can bring you closer to friends that you haven’t seen for a while. It’s a habit I’ve gotten into the past few months. It forces you to ask the question, “what kind of books would this person like?” Momentarily, perhaps, we step into their shoes.
What about connecting two people in your network who you think would have common interests, every single day for a month? Also, what about donating to someone across the world on sites like Kiva. These are all actions that can lead to a greater sense of connection and getting beyond thinking just about ourselves.
Get Rid of the Stiff Upper Lip
Most of us –especially men– don’t cry on a frequent basis. This is weird considering it was common throughout history. In Homer’s classic Iliad the entire Greek army bursts out in tears at least 3 times. It was not uncommon for men to weep in public back in the day, but somewhere this became embarrassing.
Crying is more than just a stress relief or a purging of emotions during a tear-jerking movie like Life is Beautiful. Emotions are built up over time, blocking your mind from something potentially important — maybe we should listen to it. We can’t see things clearly when we’re clouded by a sea of emotion, and nature has given us a perfectly healthy way to see the sunny, blue skies. There’s also evidence to suggest that holding back tears is actually bad for your health.
When’s the last time you cried? (That said, times have changed. Maybe not a good idea to let the floodgates open in the middle of the office.)
Break the (Physical) Comfort Zone
In the 200,000 year history of Homo sapiens(and all of our ancestors), we have had to endure a varying range of harsh environments, with little protection from the amazing yet often destructive forces of nature. Our bodies adapted to the stressors — brutal winters and killer summers — and if we didn’t, then we died. But what happens when we take these stressors away, and replace them with our warm clothes and unchanging, comfortable temperature-controlled buildings?
Not only is it bad for our health, but being comfortable all the time creates a type of mental stagnation. Getting out of our comfort zone isn’t just about stepping into new social situations, it’s about the physical ones, too. The solution seems almost too simple…Submerge ourselves in an ice bath. It’s no surprise that entrepreneurs, who are always looking for new ways to reduce stress and boost creativity, are catching on.
Scott Carney has a great book on this called What Doesn’t Kill Us that goes into the evolutionary price our bodies are paying for our comfortable lifestyles. Also, Wim Hoff, who climbs ice-capped mountains shirtless, popularized the ice-bath (and an immune-boosting breathing technique). He has some great tutorials here. Every once in a while, I buy a few kilos of ice from the local 7/11, fill up my bathtub and switch on my favorite Enya track as a I lay submerged in freezing-goodness. How to have an ice bath.
- Food: Most go their entire lives without skipping a meal. Skip a few.
- Ego: Consider proven ways (meditation etc.) to shut up that little voice in your head.
- Temperature: Our temp-controlled homes give zero stimulation. Seek extreme cold/heat.
- Give. When we take actions of giving, our beliefs start to change too.
- Cry. Our tears are trying to tell us something. Don’t forget to let them out.
Lastly, perhaps apart from the fear of public speaking, our fears tend to be hidden signs of some passion. It’s an unrealized passion, curiosity, idea. Whatever it is, however scary it might seem, or fascinating it may be, lurking inside of us, I think it’s certainly worth looking.
So, which routine will you break today?