All over the Web, you’ll find people advising you to “break your routines”. It has become a kind of popular meme: it keeps cropping up on improve-yourself sites, and even buzzes around on Twitter. You want to be more creative? Happier? More productive? Change your life for the better? Well, this is offered as the simple answer: “Break your routines!”
And you know what? In its vague generality, this wisdom is wrong as often as it is true. If you are suffering from depression, a general advice to “break your routines” can even be dangerous.
Let me make a few simple points. But first, let’s define what a “routine” is.
A routine is a regular habit that has become something you keep repeating almost automatically, without the need of making difficult decisions or giving it much thought.
This has both advantages and disadvantages. A routine can be time- and energy-saving, and can help you to maintain a kind of supportive, structuring schedule. On the other hand, it can also become a dull, boring kind of rut, a mindless repetition that can keep you from doing or discovering something new.
Those who indiscriminately preach the “break your routines” gospel seem to look mostly at the latter (the disadvantages of routines) while forgetting about the first (the advantages). Sometimes it looks like these people think every routine is bad by itself, just because it’s a routine. This is evidently not true.
Point 1: There are good routines (like taking a healthy walk every morning) and bad routines (like smoking a packet of cigarettes every day). Breaking a good routine may be unwise, while breaking a bad routine may be a good idea.
Point 2: Obviously it is not wise to break some bad routine only to replace it by a worse routine, for example if you break a daily routine of smoking marijuana only to land in a new daily routine of using heroin. So we should always take into consideration exactly what activity, if any, will replace the broken routine.
Point 3: No routine is all-bad or completely-good: every routine has its own disadvantages, but also its own rewards. This goes even for a bad routine like smoking. So when we are about to break a routine, we should always rationally weigh the cons against the pros: if missing the rewards will leave us in a much worse over-all situation than before, then breaking the routine makes little sense.
Point 4: What is a good routine for one person in one situation, can be a bad routine for another person in another situation. For example, regular jogging may be a good routine for many of us, but it may be a bad one if you happen to have a heart condition.
Point 5: A severe depression tends to break your routines anyway, without replacing them with other routines. This reduces your days to one gray amorphous shapeless mass (like, you stay in bed for most of the time, giving up on whatever used to be your daily routines).
This last point is of course why, when your depression is bad enough to land you in a psychiatry ward, the staff will first of all try to re-establish some very basic routines with you. Simple daily things like taking a shower, eating a breakfast and so on.
Taken together, the above points mean that a general advice to “break your routines” makes little sense: there are too many things we need to consider first, for each particular case.
Let me take an example from an online list, the “Ten ways to routinely break your routine” list. Many websites seem to have literally copied this same list from each other (see a random sample here). One of the general tips in this popular list is: “Avoid wasting time. Don’t watch television.”
Well, this is a typical example of Point 4 above: a bad routine in one situation, can be a good routine in another situation. A routine of watching TV for some hours each day may be bad if you have the energy to do more demanding, more productive things. But watching TV can actually be a fairly good routine if you are suffering from severe depression.
Depression usually brings concentration problems; when you are very depressed you may often lack the focus to read a book or play a game. Watching TV is a less demanding routine that (at least for a while) may distract you, shift your focus a little, make you forget your depressed mood for a moment. At least (here we have Point 2) it’s much better than the alternative of just sitting and brooding.
Don’t Break: Bend
Of course this does not mean that we should leave every routine as it is. The “break your routines” people are right when they say that a routine can also become a dull, boring kind of rut, can keep you from doing or discovering new things. It can be good, very good, to discard an old routine and replace it with something else.
But when you are very depressed, this is often asking too much from yourself. In a situation of depression, your first goal should rather be to keep your normal routines in place, to prevent depression from erasing them all, leaving you with nothing but a black hole.
And your second goal should be to gradually bend your routines a little, not breaking them but bending them just enough to remind you that you’re alive, that it’s still you making the decisions, that new things still can happen.
If one of the routines that help you to keep your depression at bay is watching TV, don’t abruptly break that routine. Just bend it a little. So if you routinely watch South Park or Simpsons cartoons for most of the time, try switching to a National Geographic documentary for a change. And if this doesn’t work, just switch back!
Or if your weekend shopping routine includes walking the same route through the same supermarket picking up the same items almost on autopilot, bend that routine a little by trying another supermarket where you don’t know the exact location of everything. This asks for a little more energy and effort, but it also means that you’ll do your shopping routine in a more “mindful”, conscious way.
• summary: In a situation of deep depression, your main concern should not be to break your routines, but rather to maintain your routines. They can serve as part of the framework that (hopefully) keeps you going.
In such a case, over-ambitious routine-breaking goals can leave you with a depressing void instead of new impulses.
Of course variation is nice, as is doing things in a more conscious, “mindful” way. But in a depression, it’s safer to gradually bend existing routines, not trying to break them.