In previous posts, I have talked about the importance of a routine. If you have read those posts, you may wonder why I am asking the question about whether a routine can have a downside, or can even undermine one’s health.
I do not mean to send mixed messages. Certainly, if I didn’t have a routine for taking my medications, following dietary and fluid restrictions, keeping up with a daily exercise schedule, and making and keeping medical appointments, my heart health would likely be in really bad shape. I always get kudos from my health care providers for following instructions, and in large part, my success is due to my discipline in maintaining a routine.
But in my life, I have noticed that even the most positive skills can become negative if they are taken to the extreme. What do I mean by that? Well, sometimes a routine can become confining rather than healing. When that happens, the routine has been taken so far that the person falls into a rut that they are trapped in. You know you are in an unhealthy rut when even the slightest need to deviate from a routine makes you nervous, even upset.
And while order and routine can be good, it can also make you boring and rigid, and no fun to be around! In the case of an illness, when routine becomes more important than finding some joy in life, it can consume you. The result can be that you make your illness even worse because you get so worried by not fitting into the rigid schedule. You forget to stop and smell the roses, try new things and see the beautiful sights.
Getting out of a rut doesn’t have to be that hard. Sometimes it is just taking a moment to notice things that put a smile on your face, something that lifts your spirits. For example, I had a young friend who would always try to look for something new each day to keep himself appreciating how beautiful this world really is.
My sister-in-law, who is a very wise and creative person, says that spontaneity keeps life more interesting and opens us to new experiences that enrich our lives. She had some outstanding examples of how deviating from the routine brought a benefit:
Sometimes I think my anxiety can keep me wedded to a routine that is no longer functional. I think you get into a comfort zone, and even though you want to change, you are afraid to do anything that may be more challenging or difficult. The Forbes Magazine website has a really good April 21, 2015 article by Amy Morin entitled “How to create a healthy routine without getting stuck in a rut.” The article recognizes the importance of preserving energy for important mental tasks. This is the reason why you might want to wear a certain “uniform” look to work or plan your menus out in advance. But the article also cautions against losing spontaneity so that no one day will stand out as being special years down the road.
What does the article tell us to do to insert spontaneity back into our lives? The first is to examine the bigger picture to make sure you are honoring your values in your daily life. The second is to schedule leisure time. This is probably where I erred in my career. In the last five years, leisure time was given short shrift, and I think it ultimately impacted my health. You need to make sure you have an appropriate balance between work and play. The third is to challenge yourself. This is where the comfort zone concept is discussed, with the idea that it can soon turn into a rut that is not so comfortable. But as the author points out, you don’t have to decide to get out of the zone by say, bungee jumping. You can take baby steps, like taking a new class or investing in personal development.
What do I intend to do? Maybe I should take a page from the book of my Mom’s life. That seems a little strange to me, because I remember that my Mom could get as anxious as me, plus I am sure I got my obsessive-compulsive gene from her. Yet later in life, after my Dad was in a nursing home and eventually passed away, she became more spontaneous. Even adventurous!
For a number of years, my Mom would go on trips with two of her sisters. She would fly into St. Louis or Kansas City, Missouri to meet them, and then they would drive anywhere and everywhere. They had plans relative to where they wanted to travel to, but in a spirit of spontaneity, they would also stop for unexpected sites along the way. Now here is the adventurous part which would have made me very anxious. They never had a motel reservation. They would just decide when it was time to stop and look for a motel in that area. For my Mom, who rechecked a million times to make sure doors were locked, and who worried about lots of things, this seemed to be hugely outside of her comfort zone.
But instead of being anxious, she enjoyed these trips and looked forward to the next time they would hit the road. She would call me every night and let me know where they were staying. I would hear giggling in the background and ask, “okay what’s going on?” The answer was usually something like: "Nothing – we’re just drinking Pina Coladas and playing Skipbo.” (Skipbo was her favorite card game. I hope she has talked Dad into learning how to play it in heaven!)
So, I need to both follow in my Mom’s spontaneous footsteps, and always recall the advice of my sister-in-law: You don’t see the beautiful things in life if you keep driving down the same old road or keep performing in the same old rut.
I agree that being spontaneous (or as I say, being spontaneous and unrehearsed) can enrich your life. But there is another reason why am starting some experiences in spontaneity. I think it can make you a more authentic, genuine person. So, what do I mean by this?
Well, I guess it is through my writing where people have the chance to see the real Melanie. The sometimes zany sense of humor, the ability to bare my soul and perhaps help others, and the ability to provide information that others might find useful. But I have sometimes fallen into a rut with my writing by editing it over and over so that the sincere nature can sometimes seem forced.
What am I doing to inject some authenticity into my writing? You may remember in a recent post I talked about preparing two advent devotionals for my church. Instead of studying each verse in the list offered by the minister and selecting one that I liked, I let him select one for me. With respect to the second verse, I just picked it based on the fact that I liked the name of the book of the Bible that the verse was in, and I wanted a verse from an even numbered chapter. In other words, I really deviated from my normal routine of putting a lot of thought and analysis into the topic I was writing about.
But it went further than that. I just started writing quickly and edited the text maybe once and put it through spell check. Then I let it go for days unchecked until it came to the day I had to send both devotionals in so the church could organize them for publication. I think I read it one more time before I hit send. I thought it sounded really good – and most important, it sounded like me and not like something that was so polished and perfected that it lost candor and feeling.
Thinking back on my career reminds me of the danger of getting so used to a routine that you ignore the feedback from your supervisors and the voters. I worked for the government, and it was always difficult when you ran into the obstacle of "but we've always done it this way!" How does any new process or idea or direction ever succeed if we just look to how we've always done things? Sometimes you would encounter an employee who would refuse to do what a new leader wanted to try because they were convinced that "this way" was written into law. I would have to tell them that the new leaders easily could read the law and would see that this was not the case.
I mean, let’s face it - what if Thomas Edison had said: "You know, do I really need to put effort into inventing this new form of light called a light bulb? We can just keep using these old candles!" Well, for one thing, as a lawyer who worked for an agency that investigated arsons and fires I would be concerned about the additional fire risks.
But I am also question how do we evolve as a civilization if we don’t take new risks, explore new ideas and just be open to spot new opportunities? Therein lies the problematic part of being wedded to a routine that has become outdated, stifling or even counter-productive.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.