On Novelty and Routine

January 26, 2009

There is value in the comfortable and familiar; there is also value in the fresh and exciting. As is quite often the case for us humans, we must attempt to strike a meaningful balance between these two conflicting goods. Life devoid of one or the other would be not nearly as fulfilling and rewarding as a life which includes both predictable routine and unexpected surprises.

Creating familiar routines is a necessary source of sanity. Imagine if, every time you were to take a shower, you needed to process how exactly to go about the operation. There are many steps involved in a successful shower, and if you stop and think about it, it is a fairly intricate procedure. However, you likely don't actually think about each step as you conduct your shower. Once, when you were quite small, you were taught how to take a shower, and have done much the same each day since. At this point, your shower taking is likely on auto-pilot.

Similarly, many of our day-to-day activities are done without any conscious thought. Do you think about how to drive to work each day, or do you let your brain relax while your hands guide the wheel? Do you think about how your fingers work as they tie your shoes, or is this another activity done on auto-pilot? These routines, mindless and uninteresting, permeate our days.

What of these thoughtless routines? There are those who will caution against them, to be sure. Be always mindful, some sages will tell you -- they will admonish you to be always conscious of your tasks. And no doubt, mindlessly being a zombie and slave to routine is no way to live one's life. A day without any conscious thought is a day which could have been lived well enough by a dog or a stalk of corn, but not the sort which gives us humans a fulfilling life. Indeed, as Socrates himself said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

However, I'll disagree with the sages who state that there is no value in mindless routine. While we humans have significant cognitive capacity, it is not boundless. The virtue of these routines is that they save our brains from overload. Imagine that you did not have the benefit of routine in conducting your daily shower. How much effort would be expended in determining how to go about cleansing oneself. Reading the soap container, reading the shampoo bottle, determining a satisfactory water temperature -- the task becomes fairly arduous. In fact, as I type this, my fingers strike the keyboard without so much as a thought. Typing is, for me, routine. If instead I needed to hunt for each desired key on the keyboard, typing this up would be a nearly impossible task.

In short, routines are necessary because they allow our limited brains to avoid making the same calculations again and again. Having once driven to work while thinking about it, you can trust that you have arrived at a satisfactory route and no longer give the matter much thought. And the theory behind using routine is quite sound; given a particular situation, if you have arrived at a good enough solution once, you can use that solution again the next time you encounter it. Thus is the familiar comfortable; you tend to know already what to do in familiar situations, and thus you may let your mind relax.

These are the benefit of routines. However, they have their danger too. If you become too set in your routines, then you may continue in those routines even when they are no longer optimal. For example, perhaps once you have made a routine of driving to work, a new road is opened which would enable you to have a faster route; if you fail to consider this, you may cost yourself time each day. The danger of routines in thinking extends well beyond driving to work. Old notions about social policy, political theory, and governance may persist long after they have been shown to be incorrect by history. Even in matters of such grave importance, it is often far easier to follow a routine blindly rather than think actively about what is transpiring.

Beyond the danger of being under the yoke of a doctrine long past its time, to eschew all that is novel is to close off one's life to excitement, adventure, and fresh experiences. Adrenaline is reserved for those occasions whose ending remains murky. You also learn more from new situations, as you are forced to engage your mind rather than rely on those paths already carved by experience into your brain. Socrates' admonition about the unexamined life not being worth living does not mean that each of our daily activities must be scrutinized, but it does mean that we should at least put some of our lives under a microscope.

And there it is. To live a life in which every decision and activity is thoroughly examined would lead to madness, as the brain is overburdened. To live a life without any new experiences is to abandon much of what makes the human experience so colorful and worthwhile. We are blind in total darkness, and we are blinded staring at the sun.