This is a guest post by Rob Crews of Find a Spark. When he suggested the topic of balancing routine and novelty, this immediately struck a chord, and it’s a balance I’ve been striving for myself.
The tendency is that we go from one extreme to the other when you quit your job or make a big lifestyle change: in rebelling against the strict routine of the corporate ‘9-to-5’ you swing to the other end of the spectrum with no alarm clock, no regular hours, no structure whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong, that can be fun! At least for a while… Most of us want some kind of routine, though, and it’s a question of finding what that delicate balance of routine and novelty looks like for each of us individually.
Take it away Rob!
The balancing act: treading the line between routine and novelty
I’ve always appreciated the importance of having some consistency to my daily routine. Having some aspects of my life remain fixed allows me to focus my mind on my goals. Distractions are minimised, productivity is maximised; I get things done.
Routine can, of course, become too much. We all need some novelty in our lives – it’s a vital ingredient for our wellbeing. Without novelty we simply go through the motions, becoming used to everything around us. Less of our day feels memorable, so we retain fewer memories. Time seems to pass more quickly.
Novelty is a source of inspiration and ideas, it’s food for our brains; but how do we find the right balance between novelty and routine?
It took a trip to the other side of the world for me to start figuring out the answer.
Starting with good intentions
I left my job in late 2014. I had plans to set myself up as a professional poker player, travelling the world whilst playing online.
My intention was to spend some time in the UK, honing my skills and getting comfortable with my routine. I wanted to be confident in my ability to earn a (relatively, for poker at least) stable income. Then I planned to take it on the road, spending a few weeks at a time in various places across the globe.
I had an idea in my mind of the balance between routine and novelty that I wanted. Travel was very important to me but I wouldn’t sacrifice routine entirely; I needed sufficient structure to my life to be assured that I could play enough poker each month to pay for my travel.
Falling into a routine
Fast forward 18 months. I’d been on several trips, travelling to quite a few of the places that were on my travel list. I’d come a long way with poker and had set up my website, Find A Spark. But I hadn’t done what I’d intended: I hadn’t taken my poker on the road. Work and travel had been separate – my trips were just holidays.
I still hadn’t become comfortable enough with my routine to feel like I could replicate it somewhere else. I was anxious about the practicalities – would internet be reliable enough? Would I easily be able to find somewhere to stay? Would I be productive? I made excuses.
My routine-novelty balance was heavily weighted towards routine. I’d have long phases of consistency, followed by a holiday to top up my novelty levels. At times my work became a drag, simply because my routine was getting old. I needed a reminder of my original plan!
The big reminder
My next trip was a little different to the previous ones. For the first time I was travelling to one of the countries that I’d originally intended to try working from: China.
The trip was incredible. The cities were frantic, never lacking in new things to discover and experience. The fact that everything was written in Chinese characters meant that even the simplest of road signs was novel and interesting.
All the routine-induced cobwebs were blown away, and I was inspired. I felt ideas flowing; I filled lists with new directions that I could go in with Find A Spark and with poker. I saw the benefits of novelty – perhaps more than ever before.
The trip also eased many of my concerns about working on the road. Living expenses were far lower than I had expected. I felt motivated and could easily see myself working there.
I knew I had to find a better balance in my life.
Back to the start
I came back to the UK knowing that I had to make my original plan work. I knew that I needed to be travelling again sooner or later.
I reaped the benefits of the inspiration that I’d found in China, developing a number of the ideas that I’d had whilst I was there. The knowledge that another trip was on the horizon provided me with additional motivation – I had something major to work for. I wrote my first Find A Spark ebook, a project that I’d never really believed I’d complete.
I knew that a better balance of routine and novelty was achievable. I knew it was critically important – I’d already seen so many of the benefits. But I still felt myself slipping back into my old habits.
Writing now, just six weeks later, the memory of the trip has faded a little. Even after seeing such tangible advantages to having novelty in my life, I’ve found myself tempted by the ease of routine.
I could easily revert to my previous habits, finding novelty only when my routine becomes unbearable. I could alternate between the two extremes, never really attempting to find that balance.
I’m confident that I won’t, however, because of the goals that I set myself immediately upon my return – goals that balance routine and novelty, work and play. Each time I return to them, I’m reminded of how I felt when I returned from my trip.
It’s easy to neglect novelty when goal setting. Now, thankfully, I see how important it can be.
Find a balance that works
Different people seem to need different amounts of novelty in their lives. Although it can seem tough to figure out where you lie on that spectrum, all it really takes is a little experimentation. Add a little novelty to your routine – change the route you walk to work. Experience something new – a new destination or activity. Reflect on the experience. If you’re seeing a benefit to this new novelty, add some more.
I made changes to my life because I saw that my balance between novelty and routine was off. Here’s a recap of the steps that I took and some suggestions on how you can try applying them to your own routine:
1. I experienced more novelty than my current routine allowed
In my case this involved a trip to China but it can be far simpler and totally inexpensive.
You can incrementally add novelty to your routine with basic steps such as changing the route you take to work or eating lunch somewhere different each day.
You can also try meeting new people and travelling to new places. These experiences can have a domino effect: you could meet someone who introduces you to many new things or travel somewhere where you discover new sounds, sights, food and much more.
2. I reflected on my experience and saw the benefits of this novelty
However big or small the change to your routine, take the time to reflect on the experience.
A journaling routine encourages reflection and gives you the opportunity to decide whether you’d like to stick with the changes you have made, make further changes, or revert back to your original routine.
The journaling process can be simple – 5-10 minutes at the end of each day, noting down your thoughts on anything new that you’ve encountered that day.
3. I set goals that reflected both the importance of my routine and the importance of novelty
Goal setting can be as simple or as complex as you like – different processes work for different people.
Whatever your process, your desire to maintain a balance between routine and novelty should be reflected in your goals. For me, this involved simply adding goals based around novelty – having goals that involved planning trips and travelling regularly.
If you fail to set novelty-based goals, it’s incredibly easy to revert to your routine – everything unrelated to a goal can seem less important than everything that is directly linked to one.
This will always be an iterative process – you won’t nail it first time. Make sure you surround yourself with supportive people who understand your goals. If you’re struggling to clearly define your goals, consider finding a mentor who can provide clarity and accountability.
Routine and novelty are a balancing act. Find the right balance and your path to achieving your goals will become a lot smoother.