How Too Much Routine Suffocates Your Brain
Habits and other automatic behaviors — even healthy ones — fail to train some critical cognitive muscles.
It took a lot of work, but you did it. You optimized your daily routine.
You hop on the Peloton first thing every morning, and you drink a nutrient-packed power smoothie for breakfast. You’re the picture of diligence at work, and your evenings and weekends are similarly streamlined. Productivity experts could write books about you.
The best part is, staying with it is a breeze. You’ve turned your goals and intentions into habits, and so now they’re nearly effortless.
There’s only one problem: Whenever you’re forced to break from your routines, you struggle. Even small disruptions seen to knock you off your game. Just the thought of not being able to work out in the morning stresses you out. What’s with that?
The idea that humans are “creatures of habit,” and that you can perfect your life by perfecting your routines, is based on sound behavioral and cognitive science. Habits and other automatic behaviors are so named because they require little planning or willpower. You just do them. And so once you’ve wrestled productive and healthful routines into place, you should be able to sit back and let autopilot guide you to a better existence.
But there’s a fly in the ointment, and it has to do with a group of critical brain operations known as the executive functions.
“The executive functions are a set of attention regulation skills that allow us to attend selectively to something, and to shift flexibly from one way of looking at it to another,” says Philip Zelazo, PhD, a professor and developmental psychologist at the University of Minnesota. “We use them primarily when solving problems — and in particular novel problems.”
The executive functions are the cognitive tools your brain employs when life presents you with changes or challenges. They rely on working memory, willpower, and concentration. And there’s evidence that the less you engage them, the weaker they become.