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THE BALANCED LIFE | Routine vs. purpose—we need both

W e have to be open, paying attention and willing to listen to teachable moments, those rare times when a significant new idea or perspective comes our way.

We have to be open, paying attention and willing to listen to teachable moments, those rare times when a significant new idea or perspective comes our way. I just didn’t expect that mine would be handed to me by the nine-year-old Golden Retriever my wife and I are sitting for two weeks.

Mylo (the Golden granddog) is slowing down a bit, sort of like he’s entering pre- or full retirement mode. He’s around 60 in human years, much younger than me, but similarities abound.

He’s happy to see each morning arrive, as are most retirees, and rushes to renew his social connection with the family, tail wagging furiously and front paw extended repeatedly to shake hands. A quick trip to the back yard to pee and 30 seconds to gulp down breakfast, then it’s out for our routine morning walk. He wants to greet everyone we cross paths with, get a pat on the head or scratch behind the ears from them, confirming that his world is still filled with generous people happy to indulge him. He comes home tail a-wagging with a smile on his face, then promptly falls asleep for his morning nap. I can relate.

That’s his routine, and it reflects what a shelf full of human self-help books profess to be the benefits of maintaining day-to-day routines. Routine creates structure in our lives which can promote physical, emotional and mental health. Routine can anchor our lives, providing a road map to how we fill our days. Following a routine promotes self-care behaviours, better sleep, reduces stress and allows us to feel in control of our lives. Mylo had it nailed with his routines until...

Our walks always contain a few short bursts of jogging. Combining my limited knowledge of human health (physical activity with intensity is good) with my considerably less dog-care expertise (if it’s good for humans, it must be good for dogs), including interval training on our walks by jogging intermittently seemed to make sense.

Mylo apparently agreed. He would initiate the jogging early in each walk, then pull up sharply when he’d had enough. The next few short jogs would be initiated by me, with Mylo ending them each time. Distances became successively shorter until ultimately he’d dig his heels in and emphatically indicate our interval training was over. I knew it was because he couldn’t stand lagging behind on even one additional short run he had no interest in.

One morning something was different. Before the door was opened to head out, Mylo looked at me with calm intent rather than his usual excited impatience. We stepped outdoors, and within a few metres he took off at a jogging pace, trotting along for significantly longer than usual before stopping. A minute later he took off again, and kept running, twisting his head backwards to make sure it was still me he was dragging along by his leash. This continued until I could no longer sustain the pace, and it became evident that I’d been taught the difference between following routine and having purpose, by a dog.

It became evident that I’d been taught the difference between following routine and having purpose, by a dog

Dog-whispering isn’t a skill I have, so I’m not sure if or how he analyzed the risk that perhaps his stunt would backfire or fail. Whatever his logic, he decided to step out of his routine and comfort zone, and purposefully challenge me to a running race. Dog-whisperer or not, there was no mistaking his haughty stride and the twinkle in his huge brown eyes — he’d reaped a satisfying reward for breaking his routine and acting with purpose to run farther than me.

Psychologists frequently write about the importance and benefits of routine, including those mentioned earlier. Fort Behavioural Health, a Fort Worth, Texas addiction treatment facility, states in its promotional material, “Routines are conscious ways of doing things repetitively and in a specific order, like making your coffee, then brushing your teeth, getting dressed and making your bed every morning. Routines are often made up of many habits or action steps taken towards accomplishing a particular goal.”

They go on to claim that a study published by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information proved “Good daily habits during the early stages of life determine success throughout life.”

Okay? Then why do we have expressions like, “Slipping/sliding/falling into a routine; same old routine; creature of habit; going through the motions,” all which have the negative connotation of monotony and represent the unexceptional?

Why am I, and so many of us, afraid of routine? Do we value spontaneity more than routine? Are we afraid that routine represents a treadmill that will stifle our passions or drain our creativity? Do we believe that being able to choose whatever we do, with no set plans, whenever we want, provides happiness, or represents a measure of social success?

Is it all about personal control? This argument can play both ways.

For many, following a routine means that they know what to expect, and how to react to what they may encounter while performing their routine— basically that they are in control of their lives. Those who set their own routines, either in work or retirement, might argue that without a pre-determined routine they could not achieve their goals, that they’d be acting without purpose.

Or is the opposite true? Does being consumed by routine really mean that we have lost control of our lives? If our routines are dictated by others, or we slavishly follow routines we’ve chosen for ourselves without regularly re-evaluating them or allowing them to evolve, are we really in control?

Waking each morning motivated by a purpose to do or achieve something adds intensity to every day

The worst fear, perhaps, is that we’ve chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to give up control and gradually slide into routine, to follow the easy route rather than putting in the hard work to discover intrinsic purpose. Choosing a purpose can mean searching our heart rather than brain, exploring situations that excite and stimulate us rather than keep us comfortable and stress-free. Waking each morning motivated by a purpose to do or achieve something adds intensity to every day.

Accomplishing a goal may involve significant discipline and routine, but routine without purpose leaves us short-changed. Purpose creates direction in our lives, and fulfilling that purpose provides meaning and satisfaction. Purpose helps us differentiate between the important and what isn’t.

Routine may create a busyness that fills our days, but busyness doesn’t demand clear goals or specific plans. Purpose adds that extra dimension—focused goals, plans and actions that can add to our fulfillment.

Altruism may be involved in purpose, but doesn’t have to be. As we age and search for purpose, giving back to our community, contributing our skills to a cause we agree with, or promoting joy amongst our friends and family are laudable. Goals such as improving our personal health, relationships, or pursuing a new passion for our own interest work too. The positive attitude that purpose helps bring to each day, not the specific goal, is what’s important.

The benefits of purpose include increased optimism, resiliency and hope; experiencing joy, satisfaction and accomplishment more frequently; an increased desire to learn new things; and the ability to sustain setbacks as they arise.

Just as Mylo taught me, injecting our routines with new purpose can be rewarding and invigorating, and to hell with the consequences.