Surprise! Eschewing Routines Can Be Good For You

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune.

When I was newly divorced and living in a cramped condo with my two kids, I took unexpected pleasure in bucking small conventions.

Gouda cheese for breakfast instead of cereal. Jumping jacks before bed instead of morning jogs.

It was partly my reaction to being the only parent in the house, no responsible grown-up to look at me askance when I proposed a bike ride to Dairy Queen at bedtime. (Or ate hunks of Gouda.)

More than that, though, it was the dawning recognition that life is wildly unpredictable, ridiculously busy and achingly short. And if you want to do certain things, you fit them in wherever you can.

I’m no longer the only parent in the house, having remarried in 2013. I envisioned my life evolving into a series of routines, morning jogs would resume now that my husband could remain at home with the kids. Meals would become planned-ahead, family affairs. That kind of thing.

But our life doesn’t lend itself to routine, three kids, two ex-spouses, jobs that don’t fit neatly into office hours (my husband is the Tribune’s film critic) and all of the attendant curveballs that life tosses our way.

I have, at times, felt defeated by this, in part because experts so often hold up routines as the certain path toward success in all things: an organized home, physical fitness, proper sleep.

I devoured Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives” (Crown), hoping to determine my personality type (marathoner or sprinter; finisher or opener), thereby unlocking the secret to establishing habits and routines.

I liked the book, but I didn’t recognize myself in it.

Then it hit me over the weekend, as I took a short jog around my neighborhood at 2 p.m. The day before I had jogged at 11 a.m. Sometimes I jog at 6 p.m. Sometimes I jog at 7 a.m.

Instead of trying to figure out my type, I realized, I should focus on what I value. What do I want to make room for in my life? What do I want my kids to see me doing? What will I regret never getting around to?

My priority list looks something like this: family, friendships, exercise, reading, writing. Yours may look similar.

My calendar looks something like this: A mess of scrawled half-plans that ebb and flow depending on which nights my husband is working and which night my ex-husband takes our kids to dinner and which day my daughter’s gymnastics practice ends at 6:30 instead of 7:30 and which evening I have an interview and which morning I have a tighter-than-usual deadline and which day I’m Secret Reader in my son’s classroom and, well, enough. You get the idea.

Yours may look similar.

The point is, it’s rather freeing to decide that you don’t have to adhere to a routine to commit to your values. Once you identify and prioritize them, you get to squeeze them in whenever you see fit. You get to be the grown-up in your house.

Now I’m devouring another self-help book, this one titled “Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected” (Perigree), by researchers Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger. It argues that a predictable life doesn’t always leave room for growth and creativity.

“Our brains, and the brains of most living things, are prediction machines, constantly sifting apart the expected and the unexpected,” they write. “Whenever we aren’t surprised, it’s because we’ve managed to predict what would happen in the next instant with relative accuracy. … So long as what happens is very close to what we thought would happen, our brains sit back peacefully with an ‘I told you so’ kind of smirk.”

I’m not a fan of smirking.

“When we detect something we didn’t predict,” they continue, “our brains get all riled up and jump into action.”

Frequent, healthy doses of surprise, they argue, can ward off depression and keep us resilient in the face of adversity.

“Surprise forces us to stop in our tracks, look within, look around, and consider new directions,” they write. “So often the path we’re on is simply the one we ended up on. We are too busy walking to wonder if we’re walking in the right direction.”

I love that. If predictable routines offer a path to success, surprises offer a path to self-awareness.

I still consider that a win.

When routines are a pipe dream, pick what you value and squeeze it in accordingly

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