Some people say that happiness and fun is a function of spontaneity, to do the unpredicted.
But sometimes the opposite is true. My wife spent the past two weeks on night shift while I continue to work regular day shift. For two weeks our schedules overlap only between 6pm to 9pm on a lucky evening assuming she doesn’t return home late in the morning and need those few extra hour of sleep, and assuming that her service doesn’t require her attention earlier.
We spend those three hours after she wakes up doing the same thing every day. I begin dinner on the stove, always shortly after returning home and before she wakes up. We share a meal over a discussion, always about her night, my day, and everything in between. After dinner, we put Netflix on the TV, always following The Mindy Project, laughing either with or at the show. Her pager always rings during this time. We say our goodbyes, and off she goes to work.
Rituals are an important part of life. It’s what makes the high-achieving medical student through the arduous months of studying for the USMLE. It is what brings you to brush your teeth every day long after mom and dad stopped urging you. And for young busy professional couples that rarely spend time with one another, it’s what gives you the sense of bonding, signaling that this is our time together.
: a formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way
: an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time
From Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Continuously practicing is how we become better at something – at school, at work, at sports, at a hobby. The converging destination at the end of countless hours of practice is usually routine. The task becomes routine. This is what we want. Finding the toughest questions on the problem set routine and banal is how you realize you are ready for the calculus final. Having managed myriad complications and knows what to do for each combination of things-gone-wrong is how you would want to pick a surgeon. Routine is good. Routine means no surprises. Routine is how you know you’ve gotten there, surpassing the threshold of difficulty and now looking down at the remains of the world.
Surprises can sometimes be bad, but so can routines. As we learn to become experts we take on the thought patterns of other experts. Experts make the mistakes of experts, and, surrounded by other experts, become blind to these cognitive errors. Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to see just how far off center we have gone.
Slow down and take a breather. Then look around and see if things look a little different. Of course things are not actually different. Your tasks remain the same, the calculus problem is still there, and the surgery will not perform itself. No, what was different in those 10 seconds was you. Deliberately doing something a little differently, even something immaterial, breaks up the routine and monotony, bringing back new perspective to the old problem.