In 1949, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein visited Norman Malcolm (a professor of Philosophy at Cornell and a former student of Wittgenstein’s) for three months. On the first night of Wittgenstein’s visit, the Malcolms presented a makeshift dinner of liverwurst sandwiches, apologizing that they had not had a chance to do much shopping in preparation; however, Wittgenstein enjoyed the simple repast and declared that he wanted the same sandwich again – for dinner every night of his three-month stay.

This story is emblematic of Wittgenstein’s eccentricities (which were many), but it is also a powerful, if simple, example of how routine can create freedom. Wittgenstein simply did not want to think about what to have for dinner each night – he was presented with something he enjoyed, and so decided then and there to have it for dinner every night from then on. He made the decision only once, and did not have to waste any further time on what, to him, was a trivial and annoying problem.

Wittgenstein wasn’t the only one who routinized trivial daily decisions to free up bandwidth for more important issues. Steve Jobs famously wore black mock turtlenecks and jeans every day as his uniform, refusing to waste time deciding what his daily wardrobe should be. Winston Churchill took a nap every day at 5pm, relying on this rejuvenating habit even during World War II; Churchill’s valet, Frank Sawyers, said “it was one of the inflexible rules of Mr. Churchill’s daily routine that he should not miss this rest.”

There are many more examples of famously productive and successful people creating daily routines that contributed to their success, either by allowing them the freedom to focus on more important things, or by building a foundation of health, skills, and mental clarity critical to success. Supportive and healthy daily routines and habits are critical to a meaningful, free, productive, and happy life.

Just as important is not letting these daily habits and routines become ruts that prevent us from being creative and exploring new opportunities.  How do we prevent routine from fostering in us an Emersonian “foolish consistency” that makes us afraid to contradict and challenge ourselves, to grow and change on a daily basis? How do we both reap the enormous benefits of routine, but not slip into ruts that deprive us of our creativity and freedom?

The key is to ask yourself two questions on a regular basis:

  1. What are the things that bring joy and meaning to my life?
  2. Are my regular routines and habits helping or hindering me in doing those things?  

For example, in my case, music has always been a part of my life, as an amateur pianist and singer. So, for me, a daily habit of music practice helps me to keep music in my life and keeps me focused on the big picture of living a life built around the things I enjoy. Another habit is having a protein shake in the morning for breakfast: like Wittgenstein, I get to eliminate the time-consuming and tedious thought process of deciding what to have for breakfast (it’s always the same), and it also provides consistent nutrition that supports physical health – so it’s a doubly-successful habit that saves time and helps me stay healthy so I can continue to enjoy my life fully.

As you ask these questions on a regular basis (daily, if you can stand it, or weekly if that works better for you), keep a simple journal of the answers. After 3 or 4 entries in your “routines or ruts” journal, you’ll begin to notice what regular habits really are healthy and helpful routines that you should keep or improve (e.g., if running 3 times a week makes you feel terrific, would adding a 4th exercise session of bicycling make you feel even better?), and which ones are really ruts that are holding you back (e.g., if you’ve fallen into the rut of waking up late every morning, that might be preventing you from exercising every day and developing a healthier lifestyle). With a little care and attention paid to the routines in your life, you can improve your healthy routines, prevent routines from becoming ruts, and get yourself out of ruts that are not helping you live your best life.  

2 Replies to “Develop Routines That Free You – Not Ruts That Trap You”

  1. Great post and insightful questions to ask regularly. I especially like the idea that simplifying some decisions (like a liverwurst sandwich!) can make life better, and your questions to get to whether those simplifications help or hurt over time.

  2. Wonderful reflection, Tony, and I second the protein shake comment – I recently made this simple dietary change and it frees up thought and time in the mornings.

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