Have you ever really truly analyzed how much of what we do is by rote?
Paying for groceries, the clerk asks,
“How are you?”
Our expected reply, stated without thought:
“Fine, how are you?”
Continuing the script she responds, “Great,” and upon finishing the transaction, adds the obligatory, “Have a nice day.”
Did she really care?
Should we opt to spill our guts about the problems we’re having with aging, would she request the other shoppers stand elsewhere while she counseled, consoled, and cajoled us? Survey says: Not a chance. The brief exchange near the cash register is a pre-ordained, almost-required, nicety; it’s just “what we do.”
That just scratches the surface; dig deeper and discover how much of our lives are run by autopilot.
Picture a typical weekday; we either arise with the help of an alarm — that pushes us to consciousness at the exact same moment as every other weekday — or we don’t use one at all. Upon rising, patterns control everything from the order of our morning constitutional to the clothes we choose. We are either “breakfast eaters” — or not. It’s not “I am” one day and “I’m not” the next. The average grocery store stocks over 40,000 items; yet even those of us who opt for breakfast choose from fewer than a handful of items every morning, the same selections we had yesterday and will eat tomorrow.
We either consume morning news and information — from consistent stations and channels (or newspapers) — or we don’t. We know the hosts; sing along with our favorite tunes, and read the same columnists. (Thank you by the way for that one.) In a frantic, fast-paced world, it’s just easier that way.
Either a commuter we are — departing at the exact unchanged minute; driving similar streets; parking in identical locations, and greeting the same people with matching words — or we aren’t. Even one’s attitude is expected to play along. After all, should just one person be “in a mood,” everyone is thrown a kilter.
Come lunchtime, we frequent the same eateries accompanied by the same crowd, and order “the usual.” We later return to engage in afternoon patterns carried over from previous days until close of business, when the repetition reverses; coming home per schedule; eating yet again from a limited selection of foodstuffs, and discussing cyclical events.
Finally as day winds down, we either continue working — or finally settle in for the evening. Either a “TV watcher” or “reader” we become. Yet whatever route, we opt for the same shows or authors; and we do it when the clock reads what it reads each day. Upon retiring, we wear the same night-time clothes, go to bed at the same time, and — dare I say it — sleep with the same person we have every night, year after year; only to wake tomorrow and repeat the whole process.
Don’t confuse habits with boredom, for there is an upside, which is why we create these lifestyles.
After all, imagine facing each day with no behavioral landmarks. Sure, it would lend itself to an exciting, eventful life. Equally true is that it would be mentally grueling, never knowing what to do or when to do it (explaining why we so often need “a vacation” from our vacation).
Patterns and habits comfort and protect, providing us with well-needed structure and regularity. They allow us to put our thoughts on the backburner turning down the mental noise to simmer, giving us the necessary energy to focus on those events for which we didn’t plan.
The downside is being seduced into a life of mediocrity.
Habits are the bricks on which we build our lives. Should we be content with what we have, we created a protecting fortress. Should that not be so, we designed a prison.
The key lies in our choices.