Subscribe to Inc. magazine
INNOVATE

An Argument Against Routine

Everyone from business gurus to the President has endorsed the idea of putting much of your day on autopilot, but be warned, the idea has some serious drawbacks.  
Advertisement

Your capacity to make good decisions is a limited resource, research shows. You've probably heard one sensible recommendation drawn from this truth: Conserve that capacity by automating many small daily decisions through instituting an unvarying routine. Barack Obama, for example, always wears the same color suits so that he doesn't have to waste mental energy matching his clothes.

This approach is grounded in science and sounds like solid advice, but before you put a significant part of your life on autopilot, be warned that not everyone is a fan of routine.

"Having a proper working routine is comfortable. You have your tools, your methods, your process, and you know how to get in the flow. Every other morning, you punctually wake up after your third alarm clock has rung and cruise with your eyes half-closed through your apartment to reach that shiny red button at your tea pot or your coffee machine," writes freelance designer and developer Vitaly Friedman on The Pastry Box Project recently.

The Costs of Routine

That sort of unthinking routine can spare your brain if your day, like the President's, is full of tough decisions that are worth more of your mental bandwidth than choosing which tea to wake up with, but Friedman points out that the approach isn't without its costs--especially if you're aiming for creativity.

"The beauty of good ideas lies in their unpredictability. You can't schedule good ideas, and you can't come up with just the right sparkle of innovation at just the right time. They come up when you don't expect them, and often the best way to approach a problem is to leave it alone for a while, walk away, study something completely unrelated--in fact, as much as possible--and then get back, synthesize the ideas you discover in distant places and apply it in the right mix, in the right proportion in just the right context," Friedman writes.

"Routine is deadly for creativity. It's deadly for innovation and challenging design problems, too, because it hinders spontaneous decisions, random experiments, and weird ideas," he adds, before suggesting, "So what about scheduling break outs of the comfort zone a few times a month?"

When to Turn Off the Autopilot

Friedman goes on to suggest ways designers can break out of the their routines from working in a different medium to setting their alarms for weird times. Others have suggested you break out of your routine by physically getting out of your office more.

"My instinct tells me I'd be a lot more creative in some kinds of places (rooms filled with art work, or with outdoor photos or large windows--or literally outdoor places), more analytic in others (a library, or a bare-bones office?), and thoughtful and reflective in yet another place (a church? a mountain retreat? a sailboat? a cafe?)" Harvard Business School professor Jim Ware has written. "How much creativity and innovation have we lost forever by plopping people who do different kinds of work from day to day and even hour to hour into those all-too-common, drab, one-size-misfits-all, cube farms?" he asks.

Which isn't to say Barack Obama isn't on to something (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Simon Cowell have all endorsed the daily uniform idea as well). The best path may be to walk a middle way. Need to keep your brain fresh for tough decisions? Automate away. Need some inspiration or innovation? It's time to ditch the routine.

Do you stick too slavishly to your daily routine?

IMAGE: Kevin Morris / Flickr.com
Last updated: Aug 18, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: