Science Of Structure: Why Your Routine Is Killing Your Creativity

by Dan Scotti

I’ve always considered human beings to be “creatures of habit.”

Throughout our lives, it seems as though we’re constantly jumping from one schedule to the next. From preschool to the workplace, we’ve been conditioned to follow an agenda and have learned that straying from it can create room for error.

Structure is something that's constantly being engrained in our heads.

For this reason, we develop these things called “routines.”

routine, as Meg Selig of Psychology Today writes, is nothing more than a “series of habits.” We follow them with intentions of making our lives easier, but rarely ever stop to think about how limiting they might be.

Then again, that’s sort of the underlying convenience of routines in general. They allow you to get sh*t done without thinking, simply out of habit. According to Selig, routines allow you to “go on autopilot and still accomplish your goals.”

Every single morning: You wake up, watch SportsCenter for 15 minutes, hop in the shower, get dressed, grab a granola bar, double-check you’ve locked your door, and then you hop on the train.

See, your mornings probably require very little thinking because you’ve been so programmed to do the same thing at each and every start to your day. As Annie Murphy Paul suggests, in an article for Time, your morning routine might also be a creativity killer.

Paul writes, “the way most of us spend our mornings is exactly counter to the conditions that neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us promote flexible, open-minded thinking.”

The type of mornings Paul is referring to here is the one I briefly alluded to earlier – you know, the typical “rushed” morning routine: wake up, shower, clothes, food, commute etc.

According to Paul, we’re actually the most creative when we’re slightly groggy – because “the mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made.”

Essentially, by not following a strict morning routine – and allowing your brain to naturally unwind itself – you’ll also be allowing yourself to carry out your most creative thinking. Additionally, adhering to a strict routine will inevitably result in the buildup of stress.

By creating routines, you’ll feel pressure to meet the demands of these routines, and when you don’t, you’ll begin to feel as though you’re falling short of your own standards.

Let’s say you’re used to a daily routine of working out every day at 8 pm. On those days when you skip the gym, it isn’t uncommon to feel a bit guilty after doing so.

This break from your normal routine can apply stress to the rest of your day. Suddenly, you might begin to alter your daily diet in an attempt to compensate.

As Paul continues to explain,

The stress hormone cortisol can harm myelin, the fatty substance that coats our brain cells.

And damage to our myelin sheaths decreases the frequency of what Paul refers to as “Eureka!” moments – or, in other words, the formation of those quick “light bulb” ideas.

This is why it is important to constantly make revisions to your habits, to avoid becoming too fixated – to the point where you’re almost obsessed with your daily routine.

That's the downside of too much structure.

According to Selig,

Even good, healthy routines can drag us down if we don't break them and re-form them from time to time.

Selig continues to explain how routines can lead to complacency if you’re not actively making changes to them.

John Tierney, of The New York Times, has a slightly different view on maintaining routines.

According to Tierney, humans are best suited by following a routine of complete and utter spontaneity – in other words, no routine at all.

Interestingly enough, Tierney first explored the behavior of ancient Chinese Confucian “gentlemen.” He continued to explain how the Confucian gentleman “was supposed to learn proper behavior so thoroughly that it would eventually become second nature to him.”

In a way, this is how many of us go about our mornings. You know, practicing it so frequently that it becomes almost like second nature to us.

He then goes on to explain the opposing viewpoint, one followed by the “rival” school of Taoists. “Instead of following the rigid training and rituals required by Confucius,” Tierney states, “they sought to liberate the natural virtue within. They went with the flow.”

The Taoists stressed the ideals of personal meditation as opposed to formally structured educations. Dr. Edward Slingerland, an Asian studies professor at the University of British Columbia, views the Taoists as the “original hippies” and states they were “dropping out, turning on and stickin’ it to the Man more than 2,000 years before the invention of tie-dye and the Grateful Dead.”

All right, well, that’s an interesting way of putting it, Dr. Slingerland.

But he doesn’t stop there. Slingerland goes on to explain how our culture excels at pushing an agenda to people – one that requires attaining a certain set of skills, such as high grades, for getting into competitive colleges or a bulky résumé for a better job offer. He attests,

But in many domains, actual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing or simply forget ourselves as agents.

This is why it’s important to follow a certain path – even if it is a somewhat redundant one – but not to fall victim to it. Tierney then brings up the ideals of a third group of ancient Chinese philosophy: the Mencius.

The view of the Mencius is one Tierney believes results in the most success – both internal and relative to the “real world.” It’s simple, and it’s one I have inadvertently been following all along:

Try, but not too hard.

I feel like the same underlying concepts apply to life and our individual strategies of attacking it. In life, it’s important to follow structure – such as the type of order promoted by our daily routines – but not too much structure.

Too much of anything can never be good.