“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”
I agree with most of Gretchen Rubin’s happiness and habits advice, but not this particular concept. Maybe that’s just because I’m bad at doing things every day. As a hard-core Rebel, I find routines and daily responsibilities stifling and unhappy-making. But I enjoy certain amounts of consistency and routine in my life. Obviously, routine and novelty conflict, so I’ve spent some time thinking through the right balance. Here’s the framework that works for me.
But first, a caveat: Gretchen’s advice works very well for certain types of habits. Something relatively mundane, like flossing, you can likely add into your daily routine with relatively little psychological backlash. My issue is more with lifestyle changes meant to create more happiness.
At the base of Gretchen’s advice is the idea that you need certain actions to become automatic in order to form a habit. That’s true, and it’s good advice (especially in an area like exercise), but we can extract a major benefit without having to do the same things every day. For me, the benefit of repeating certain actions comes in the layering of the experience, not the streak of daily accomplishment.
What is layering experience?
For me (and perhaps you? perhaps everyone?), repeated actions or experiences blend into seamless memories in my head. One drive home from work is relatively indistinguishable from another and all my drives home from work coalesce into a general feeling that encapsulates driving home from work. I don’t remember how I felt during that drive on any given day (beyond a few days, at least), but I know how it normally feels.
The key then, is in making that combined feeling a positive emotion. The strategies for shaping that feeling differ depending on the type of experience. There are 2 major categories of repeated experiences: Necessary Repetition & Core-Filling Repetition.
We’ve already touched on necessary repetition–these are the unavoidable actions in your routine: commuting, cooking dinner, caring for animals/children, doing certain types of work, etc. Habits are (and I may be splitting hairs here) removed from this definition. In general, I find these to be vital daily tasks or routines, not things I develop or encourage. [Technically, any regular practice or routine is a habit, but you know what I mean.]
I recommend 3 principal strategies for creating positivity around necessary routines:
Repetitive routines are great for mindfulness because your brain can autopilot the big stuff and focus on smaller details instead. As an action becomes routine, try to notice different elements of the experience. Does the sun hit the buildings a certain way during your morning commute? Is there a special smell to your favorite lunch spot? What does the dog food sound like hitting the bowl?
At first, this may seem silly, but routine actions are one of the few times our senses aren’t overwhelmed with too much information. Searching out the small details can help you feel more present and engaged with your body. (I know this sounds very new age-y, but as a writer, I find that focusing on my senses instead of abstract ideas is very helpful for balance and happiness.)
My favorite examples: sunrise over the downtown bridge on my morning commute; the smell of acorns crushed underfoot during autumn walks; squirrels playing in the trees next to the parking lot at work.
This is, quite possibly, the strategy that works best for me. Pairing combines two actions/experiences, often one negative and one positive, with the probable outcome of masking the negative emotion with the positive feeling. In this case, it starts with a question. When you notice a routine, particularly one that you’re unhappy about, ask “How could I multitask during this time?”
When your goal is productivity, multitasking does not help. But most routines don’t require high-level productivity. Start with the primary sense engaged by the activity. If it’s visual, you can probably supplement with something aural. If it’s verbal, you may be able to supplement with something tactile. If it’s tactile, you can probably supplement with aural or verbal. And so on.
Once you’ve determined what type of multitasking you could accomplish, consider your Q2 priorities that are ignored. If you’re unfamiliar with Stephen Covey’s matrix, Q2 tasks are very important but not urgent. They’re often forsaken in favor of urgent tasks, both important and unimportant. In your personal life, these priorities are probably your core-filling tasks, which we’ll get to in a minute. In short, they probably fulfill a core need, something you need in your life to feel balanced and happy, but maybe not something that fits on a calendar or checklist. Give yourself permission to enjoy that priority during your routine.
For example, I was required to take a college class that was mostly useless for me. For a few weeks, I spent that hour in annoyance and boredom. Eventually, I realized that I could draft silly stories and poems in class. For the rest of the semester, I looked forward to that class because it was my only recreational writing time all semester.
Other favorite examples: podcasts while commuting, phone calls to friends and family while commuting, YouTube videos while cooking supper.
I think this is harder than the other two strategies, but if all else fails, introduce novelty to your routine. Drive to work a different way. Test a different coffee every morning. Cook a different meal every night for a year. Swap cars with your spouse for a day/week/month. Sit in a different seat. Mix and match your outfits.
Introducing novelty in a daily routine is pretty difficult for me, but it does work.
I want to write more about my idea of core happiness at some point, but basically, your core is your foundation of values, closely followed by the actions that support those values. In short, you’ll be happy when your actions align with your values. This idea is not new.
“In the chaos of everyday life, it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters, and I can use my habits to make sure that my life reflects my values.”
― Gretchen Rubin
I separated these actions from necessarily repetitive actions for a few reasons, but a major one is this: core-filling actions are almost always a choice. So creating positive emotions surrounding these actions is vital to overcoming our natural reluctance to act.
Some common core arenas may be: expressing love (to family or friends); worshipping; exercising; eating well; working; learning new things; spending time outside; volunteering.
With many of these arenas, the layered experiences work more like a bucket. (This is an analogy I stole from someone, but I don’t remember who.) You need to fill your bucket up with good emotions so that the bad emotions don’t completely empty. For example, when I think about getting out of my house for a training run on Saturday morning, my bucket is full of memories of beautiful trails, of good weather, of feeling accomplished, of congratulations after previous runs. I can draw on those layered positive memories to act. If, instead, I remembered pain and cold and dreary trails and hating every minute, I probably wouldn’t go running again.
Most core activities probably shouldn’t happen every day, but you do need to evaluate what your core arenas are and plan for including more core activities in your life. (Some activities are the exception–like hugs or kisses or cuddles–and should probably happen many times a day!)
In the bigger picture, I also think of core activities as filling up your life happiness bucket. When I’m having a bad day or feeling lonely, I draw on core memories for comfort and inspiration. And here we come full circle on the idea of routine and novelty. While core activities aren’t probably routine for most of us, they provide the foundation for a lot of our happiness. On the other hand, necessary routines often need novelty to create happiness.
I’m not proposing a philosophy of happiness here–Gretchen Rubin’s much better at that–but I do think that finding a balance of happiness-building activities can be difficult, especially in a world where we fetishize routines and productivity. These ideas have helped me create more foundational happiness in my life. I hope they help you too!
I want to know about your happiness hacks and habits! What small changes have increased your happiness the most? Have you made big changes in trying to find happiness? Do you think these ideas will work for you? And what’s your Tendency?? Let’s discuss in the comments.