This week I switched coffee creamer. I decided to cut way back on the amount of dairy I eat, more as an experiment than anything else. This meant trading in my half-and-half for a non-dairy substitute. Right now, it’s coconut milk based. It tastes fine. I won’t be effusive in its praises, but it works. The problem is, it’s heavier than my coffee, and unless I stir it it sinks to the bottom of the cup. Stirring coffee, however, is something that I gave up ages ago, when one morning I woke up and found the thought of sugar in my coffee deeply disturbing. Now, I cannot remember to stir my coffee before I get as far away from the kitchen as possible. Looking at my woefully unstirred coffee has me thinking about routines.
I’m a creature of habit. Most people are, I dare say, and most of us experience a jolt of some kind when we vary from what we consider our normal routines. Sometimes this is a good thing. My automatic, completely thoughtless clipping of my seatbelt is great. Sometimes it isn’t. Most self-improvement resolutions either want to eject elements from a routine (say, smoking a cigarette after dinner, or watching too much TV) or to add something new (exercising, writing letters, going to the dentist). The problem is that the pure routine-ness of routine makes this incredibly difficult. Routines work for us because we don’t think about them, and change requires thought.
When I was in graduate school, I made a scheduling mistake that meant I needed to be on campus at 8am five days a week. I was struggling to get on my 7:20 bus. At the time coffee was giving me terrible headaches, but I couldn’t go cold-turkey on the caffeine. A few weeks into the semester I bought a teapot. And suddenly, I had a new routine. If I wanted time to make my tea and drink it from my favorite teacup, I needed to be awake earlier. And that was that. I was even able to switch to the earlier bus, getting out of the commuter crush and arriving to campus blissfully serene. Alas, waking up at 5:30 did not become a permanent part of my routine, but I did learn that I would rather have more time in the morning to do my own thing than more sleep. (Truth time: I have an envy that borders on loathing for people who naturally wake up early. Somehow I’m a morning person who struggles to get out of bed, making it very easy to sleep through my favorite part of the day.)
“Improving” a routine is often hard work. Without little mileposts of habit, it’s easy to feel adrift, and adding new elements feels invasive. The teapot example interests me, both because it’s one of the few times that I changed an entire routine almost instantly and because it hinged on a tangible object. To the extent that I can draw generalized wisdom from it, I suppose it’s an example of the fact that substitution (tea > sleep) is easier than creating new behavior out of the air. But mostly I’m just musing.