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One Small Change

When Habits Are a Bad Habit


Nearly four years ago I left a job that I had worked at for more than two decades. I grew tired of the routine and wanted to travel and pursue other creative opportunities. So I became a freelance writer/editor and took to working out of my home. But last week I was invited back to the company where I’d spent nearly half my life to fill in during summer-vacation season. It was the first time I’d been back fulltime in an office environment since December 31, 2006. I was returning to my long-established routine of waking up, shaving, showering, getting dressed, commuting, sitting in a cubicle, eating in the cafeteria, etc. And two things happened that both amazed and frightened me:

  1. Many of my old friends were no longer there. And I don’t mean they had left or been laid off. They were still in the same offices, doing the same jobs, but they had these vacant expressions and a mechanical way of coming and going that suggested they weren’t really there. They reminded me of robots.
  2. By the end of each day I was exhausted. Even though I was working 8 hours instead of my usual 10 to 12. And even though I wasn’t getting a chance to exercise like I usually do, by the time 6 o’clock arrived I was completely blasted (and it wasn’t because they were working me so hard). In fact, while driving home, I had to will myself to wake up and break out of the office-induced funk. I felt downright stupid.

Don’t get me wrong. This is no slight against my employer or its loyal and hard-working employees. Rather, it’s evidence of how debilitating sustained routine can be. Roy Sugarman, Ph.D., is an Australian neuropsychologist and the director of applied neuroscience for Athletes’ Performance. He explained to me that—metabolically speaking—the brain is a very expensive organ to operate. So it will try to automate as much behavior as possible. “It’ll try to run on empty if it can,” says Sugarman, “which is why we often have no memory of driving a familiar route after we get there.”

Indeed, a habit is sort of like a neural footpath—worn and requiring minimal effort to traverse. Unfortunately, the older we get the more our daily existence becomes a collection of habits, which results in a dumbed-down, autopilot existence. This is what I was seeing in my friends and experiencing in myself. Even though we were still doing our jobs, since we were so familiar with them our brains had essentially switched off. They were walking that footpath.

But it was never meant to be this way. “Enrichment of our bodies, minds and lives requires that we take on new and increasingly difficult challenges,” says Sugarman. In fact, that’s the very definition of evolution, and it’s one of the most important keys to healthy aging.

And that’s why I’m making it a point this month to break as many of my habits as I can. I’m brushing my teeth with my left hand, sleeping on the opposite side of the bed, driving different routes to familiar places, and generally trying to shake off the funk of life itself. Is living more vibrantly really just a simple matter of living differently?

“I have a friend who is 94 years old,” Sugarman says. “He is a doctor, an orchestra conductor, an architect, an archaeologist, plus he volunteers in a museum and speaks a host of languages. His motto is ‘never stop’. The reason he does so well is that breaking habits breeds resiliency through vitality.”

In fact, Sugarman gave me a test that measured five different aspects of mental performance (verbal memory, processing speed, executive functioning, social acuity and dual tasking). I’ll take it again at the end of this month to seeing if breaking habits has indeed raised my vitality.

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Work, Focus, Energy, Longevity, Health