Most of us face an endless barrage of choices, one after the other, all day. What should I wear? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? Should I answer this text or email now, or should I finish what I'm working on?
When we go to a store or a restaurant, we wonder Should I order the cheeseburger or the turkey wrap? Should I buy the green skirt or the floral one? Will I be happy with this car or that one?
This can be exhausting.
And whatever we select, we may fear that another option would have been better. Although we may think that more choice is a good thing, too many alternatives can slow us down, make every decision harder, and even make us question our competence. As Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice, writes, "It's not clear that more choice gives you more freedom. It could decrease our freedom if we spend so much time trying to make choices."
Choice becomes easier when we rely on habits that smooth the way. Just as we don't need to dither about whether we should brush our teeth before bed, or wash our hands after visiting the restroom, we can remove questions about when to get up in the morning, when to check email, what to eat for dinner, or whether we should go out for a drink.
In fact, if we intentionally build a routine, and practice it daily, it creates a framework that takes care of necessities so that we have energy and creativity to spare for work, leisure, parenting, and relationships.
You could have habitual food choices (oatmeal with fruit on weekdays, bacon and eggs on weekends, for example), clothing choices (black pants and skirts with jewel-tone tops, or navy suits, white shirts, and eye-catching socks and ties), and shopping choices (limit your search to three web sites when contemplating a purchase, say, or only patronize one grocery store that generally has excellent prices, rather than driving all over town to save a few pennies). You might check email or social media at certain times of the day for a limited time period, exercise at a certain time, or pray at a specific time. You might always single-task, only watch movies on Friday nights, and only buy toys for your kids at Christmas and birthdays.
The psychologist William James wrote about the way that habits could enhance life, even though at first glance they might seem to limit it.
The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of [habit], the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom... the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.
So build a routine. Schedule your day, limit distractions, and limit the number of choices you need to ponder. Gain stability, and even comfort, by freeing your mind of mundane thoughts and decisions. Save your willpower and attention for more important tasks.
Especially during this time of Covid-19 social distancing, and work and school from home, you may find much more peace and accomplishment when you follow a routine. You may feel a more positive outlook when you rise and dress and eat at the same time every day, and set specific times for tasks and relaxation. Rather than living in pajamas and bingeing on everything from news and TV to snacks and online purchases, establish a routine and live with it. I think you'll find yourself happier and more focused.
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