As soon as something becomes habitual, it no longer brings you anywhere near the amount of benefits it did when you were fresh to it. This law of nature applies to every aspect of life: the yoga move or gym circuit we finally achieved last month is doing little or no good just 30 days later, if all we’re doing is repeating ourselves.
Likewise, the positive relationship that so improved how good we felt will begin to wane if we fall into ordinary routines together, comfortable though it all might seem.
The harsh fact is that once we habituate to an activity, we don’t just harmlessly plateau; the habitual can foreclose on innovation, or even feel actively negative.
We’ve all experienced how unpalatable a favourite food can become if we overdo it; just as a partner who was once so enthralling can lose their charm if we don’t occasionally find new ways to delight each other.
We could explore this principle with our approach to exercise, our commute to work, what we choose to read and dare to think.
Bill Gates has said he always reads the whole of a magazine so as to prevent himself cherry-picking what he’s already familiar with. By doing so, he becomes a fractionally more colourful person than when he started, rather than merely entrenching the views he already holds.
Yet, weeding out habit and its stultifying effects is only half the solution to our spirit growing stale and our capabilities falling weak. What exactly we do instead, to sidestep the mundane, deserves our close consideration: because if habit can be a serious problem disguised in sheep’s clothing, then our salvation is the wolf of surprise. Surprise is anything that wakes us up and shakes us up, in all the right ways, and it’s a vital ingredient in every successful enterprise.
Telling a story, pitching an idea, starting a company, fighting a foe, or winning a friend only work well if we don’t telegraph our next move. That’s how surprise achieves its effect: it stays ahead of the other’s expectations.
Which means that when we’re swapping our everyday ways of doing things, we need to reach for the positively unexpected.
Being realistic, there might not be endless alternatives available, so it could be a matter of letting some activity lie fallow for a month or two, akin to fasting… then finding a face-slapping alternative… only returning to the old way after a good break, at which point we’ll find its potency much revitalised.
That would be putting into practice the idea that if we wish to thrive, our only habit should be innovation.
In January this year, microbiologists at Northeastern University in Boston announced a new breed of antibiotic that is widely described as a ‘game changer’ because of its potency in the face of some highly resistant infections.
How did they develop this Batman bug? They stopped trying to grow it in the usual laboratory conditions (too clean?), and instead buried the good guys in soil. Everyday garden soil is teaming with thousands of virulent microbes, and it turned out that because the benevolent antibiotics had to evolve in this feistily competitive environment, the resulting ‘strains’ – the ones that survived – packed a hell of a punch.
It’s akin to Tarzan growing up in the jungle: the aggressively steep learning curves imbue him with skills far beyond his peer group of politely schooled youngsters.
Our capabilities are only as good as the training environment we create for them.
So therein lies the goal for you and I: how helpfully surprising can we make our most important environments? Our best work, our most rewarding relationships and our rude health could all blossom from our daring to embrace far greater challenges.
Ieva Kimonte is a psychologist for corporate and personal wellbeing. Visit kimonte.lv