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Do you feel like a human, or a robot going through the motions of life?
The question may come up if you’ve been watching “Westworld,” the much-talked about new sci-fi series on HBO, where the action involves “hosts,” robots built to look and think as if they’re living ordinary lives in the old American West.
Most have no clue they’re actually machines on a loop, programmed to spend each day in the same way, saying and doing the same things — stuck in a routine dictated by their code.
It’s fascinating to watch the robots’ lack of awareness, at least at first. But how different from us are they really? One of the eerie things about the show is realizing how many of us live on a loop, programmed not by a futuristic algorithm, but by ourselves and our circumstances.
Chances are you wake up at the same time every day, travel the same route to work, spend a set amount of time at the office before returning home. You eat dinner at a certain time, spend the evening relaxing in a familiar way, go to bed at a set time, before doing it all again the next day. Can you really tell the difference between one week and other?
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Why we like a routine
That's not all bad. Having a routine offers lots of psychological benefits, mental health experts say.
“Usually, humans do seek out structure and there’s something to be said for that,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, a New York psychiatrist and host of “The Power of Different” podcast.
“It gives some predictability, a comfort — you know what’s coming.”
Living on a loop helps anchor you and control your impulses, Saltz added. You may want to fly away to Paris tomorrow, but you can’t do that if you have to go to work or drop the kids off at school. There’s less chaos and more opportunity to develop good habits.
A routine is also therapeutic for people who have experienced trauma in their lives, like a death in the family. It creates a normalcy and familiarity, which is comforting at a time when something is distressing, Saltz noted.
When a routine becomes a problem
But there are plenty of downsides, too. A routine can leave you feeling stuck in a rut and frustrated by the monotony. You may miss the creativity and the excitement that comes along with newness. Your brain, which reshapes itself as it encounters new experiences, has fewer chances to be stimulated.
“For people who really enjoy change or gravitate toward risk-taking, there becomes an intense boredom and maybe even a numbness in doing the same thing over and over,” Saltz said.
If you’re unhappy about your routine, it’s worth paying attention to how you’re feeling, she advised. Then, think about whether there’s anything you can do to shake up your loop a bit.
1. Take small steps
“Sometimes, we wait until we get to the worst place in our minds and then we’re like, ‘I have to throw a grenade in here,’” Saltz said. “It doesn’t have to be grenades; it can be in small ways.”
Do something different, something that you’ve always wanted to do or thought would be interesting to try. Eat lunch at a different time or with a different person. Or, instead of eating at lunch, pop out and go for a run, or visit a local landmark. Take a different route to your office. Come up with a new project at work. Introduce something new, playful and a little exciting in your relationship, like dancing lessons.
2. Travel can help, but…
A trip can be a refreshing way to break your loop for a while, but you can’t bring that change in routine back with you.
“So you go back to the same thing after you’ve traveled,” Saltz noted. “More bang for your buck would be brainstorming a way to do it within your existing life, because you want something that’s ongoing.”
3. Examine your anxiety
If you’re obsessed with sticking to your routine and feel anxious about deviating from it in any way, that’s worth taking a closer look.
Saltz recommended asking yourself: What is the anxiety about? “The artificial structure you think is protecting you probably isn’t,” she noted.