In a Rut? Bored? Is Routine Getting You Down?

Think about shaking things up for the New Year


Early sailors dreaded them.

Days and nights of no wind.

Just drifting and slowly going crazy.

You might not be languishing in the middle of the Atlantic, but you’re not going anywhere fast.

You’re in a rut and if you stay too long in a rut, you get dull, complacent, bored.

It’s the same, old thing over and over and…one big snooze.

You start to drift through life and work.

Drift too long, and life passes by.

“Being stuck in a rut can kill your creativity, stress you out, and zap your productivity. Doing the same thing over and over again causes your days to blend together.” Amy Morin

Routines Are Both Good and Bad for You

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Routines are a series of habits that you rely on since they save time and effort.

Imagine how unproductive you would be if you had to think about everything before you made a decision or acted.

Routines mean that you can make choices without thinking about them since you have made them previously, and they worked. After a while, you run on automatic and organize your life around your routines. They give you structure and a sense of security.

When 33 miners in Chili were trapped underground for more than a month waiting for rescue, they created routines to impose structure on the chaos. They organized themselves into work teams to clear rubble, to eat together at set times, and more. All 33 survived and were rescued.¹

Establishing routines and maintaining them kept them safe and sane in a situation that could have had disastrous results for all of them.

But there is a dark side to routine. Too much routine could presumably make us locked into rigid patterns of thinking and behaviour from which there will be no escape. Indeed, some clinical disorders seem to have exactly this character: people with obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, may find themselves continually checking doors, washing their hands, or cleaning and tidying. But mostly there is an opposing psychological force that successfully breaks us out of such loops: too much routine becomes crushingly boring.²

Too much routine can stifle us and lead to those energy sapping doldrums.

Are you routines helping or hindering you?

  • Do you find that you are less creative or innovative?
  • Are you less eager to take on new challenges?
  • Do you tend to resist and resent anything that forces you to alter your routines in any way?
  • Do you feel as if your life and/or work is gray and lifeless?
  • Does it seem as if you’re just going through the motions on autopilot?
  • Has your mental acuity dulled?


You’re in the doldrums.

It’s time to wake up your brain.

Challenge Your Brain to Sharpen Your Mental Acuity and Memory

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Research on brain recovery after strokes or injury show that the brain changes throughout your lifetime and needs cognitive challenges for brain acuity to thrive.

The late Lawrence C. Katz was the James B. Duke Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center. He and his coauthor, Manning Rubin, coined the tern neurobic to refer to exercises that challenge your brain. Neurobic exercises help maintain memory and improve your ability to learn new information.

The simplest neurobic challenge is doing a simple routine in an unfamiliar way like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. This breaks you out of your routine and causes the brain to make new neural associations.

“Just like aerobic exercises emphasize different muscle groups to enhance coordination and flexibility, neurobic exercises involve activating many different brain areas to increase the range of mental motion,” says Katz. “They result in a mind that’s fit to meet various challenges — whether it’s remembering a name, mastering a computer program, or staying creative in your work.”³

Neurobic exercises require you to do something in a novel way that the brain doesn’t recognize.

An old proofreader trick is to read a document from the bottom up. Since the challenge with proofreading is familiarity with the what you wrote, this tricks the brain into thinking the writing is something new. Your brain sits up and takes notice, so you see the words more accurately.

Here are some ideas.

  • Reorganize your desk and reposition everything. You no longer can automatically reach for something; you have to think about where you placed it. This type of challenge fires up your visual and spatial neural networks.
  • Challenge your sensory maps by learning how to recognize Braille numbers on the elevator keypad or try writing your name with your non-dominant hand until your signature is recognizable.
  • Hold the phone to your opposite ear when answering it.
  • Turn photographs and clocks upside down to make the brain figure out the meaning of what you’re seeing.
  • Study topics you know little about. Try ancient Egyptian art, quantum physics, divergent thinking, mental models, the history of streets, set theory, and so on.
  • Tackle logic puzzles, sudoku, chess, and games that require analytical thought.
  • Take up painting, sculpting, cooking, and so on.
  • Learn a musical instrument or study a language far removed from your native tongue. If you’re a native English speaker, try learning Japanese or Russian. The farther removed from your native tongue, the greater the challenge.

Physical Challenges Keep Your Brain Growing and Healthy

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Studies show that physical exercise contributes to neuroplasticity, especially in the region of the brain responsible for cognition and memory.

A study from the University of British Columbia found that aerobic exercises boost the part of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning. Harvard University researchers discovered that people who do moderate physical activity for six months or more increase volume in different areas of the brain.

Surprisingly, robust, aerobic exercise isn’t necessary to realize benefits for your brain. Stanford University research shows that just taking a walk can increase creativity by up to 60 percent.

No time to exercise? Focus on just being more active. Park farther away from entrances, walk during lunch, take the stairs for one flight, walk around the house for 5 or 10 minutes every hour on the hour, and so on. Look for ways to integrate more activity into your day.

To boost your brain even more, take up an exercise that is unfamiliar to you. Challenge your brain and body to learn new movements, especially those that require hand-eye coordination. Consider tai chi, yoga, fencing, bowling, archery, and so on.

Now Is the Time to Break Out of the Doldrums

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With the New Year looming over us, it’s a good time to rev up your engine and give your life and work more meaning.

Easy “take-a-new-route-to-work” solutions are band-aids at best. After a while you know all the routes to work, and they’re all boring.

Old routines tend to creep back into your life or are replaced by new, eventually equally boring, routines.

Getting out of the doldrums requires putting some wind in your sails. What’s called for are challenges that shake up things.

Try a new, smaller neurobic exercise each day, like eating with your non-dominant hand or moving around the objects on your desk.

Decide to take on a more complex brain challenge for 2020.

  • Learn a new language
  • Study an unfamiliar topic each month
  • Master sudoku
  • Take a karate class
  • Sign up for line dancing

Do anything that engages your brain, enhances your life, and revs up your enthusiasm for living.

“Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.” Edith Wharton


  1. “Freed Chile miner Mario Sepulveda reveals darkest days,” Daily Telegraph, London
  2. “Why most people follow routines” by Nick Chater, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick
  3. Keeping Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness, by Lawrence C. Katz and Manning Rubin
  4. “Physical Exercise Habits Correlate with Gray Matter Volume of the Hippocampus in Healthy Adult Humans” by William Killgore, Elizabeth Olson, and Mareen Weber, Scientific Reports, Nature
  5. “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills by Heidi Godman, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School
  6. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, Stanford University

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