In the light of Corona – Part 6: The mightiest of them all

In my wilder partying twenties, I held parties at my ground floor apartment in the heart of Helsinki. One of them left a more lasting memory. Sometime in the smallest hours I was engaged in chatting in the kitchenette of my two-room flat for quite some time, and when I came back to the living room, there was a three-meter-long, orange and black traffic restriction barrier standing in the middle of it. 

From the very giggly explanations I gathered that for some reason, some people had been carrying one by my open windows, and that for another, equally hazy reason, some of my friends who had been standing by the windows had agreed with them that depositing the barrier into my living room was a good idea. Well, with the barrier-carrying people long gone, caught in the mood of the party, I did nothing to get rid of the barrier at that time and thought about thinking about getting rid of it later. 

That later indeed arrived, later. While the monstrosity did not quite blend in with the rest of the furniture, and took up space that was not too abundant in the first place, it became fixture: my clothes were thrown on it, I sat on it, hit my legs on it, covered it with such paraphernalia that I needed to get off my hands – in other words, I became utterly blind to it. The only times I actually saw it was when I had such friends over who had never seen it, and who requested an explanation for my choice of décor. I lived with the barrier for three years before moving into another country. 

Has anything alike happened ever to you? Maybe when you’ve moved in, you have not found the perfect kitchen table, but as something was needed, you accepted an old and ugly one passed on to you by well-meaning parents with the intent of replacing it immediately, but still have it? Maybe you needed a stool by the entrance and set an empty box there to make do for the moment, and ended up getting so used to it that you never remember to buy a proper stool?

These are examples of the astonishing adaptability of us humans. Equally, they highlight the emergence and immense staying power of routines. Both the adaptability and the routines are elements of vital importance to consider when dealing with the new-normal-creating powers of a disruption. 

Awesome adaptability and remarkable routines

On par with rats and cockroaches, the survival mechanisms of humans are astonishing. Our resilience as a species is grounded on our ability to adapt to surprising situations, which is something many of us have on a very individual level very recently experienced. Four weeks into the social distancing in Finland, the initial shock has abated and while we’re far from business-as-usual, most of us find ourselves hunkered down to a daily existence where the days have started to follow certain patterns. We have adapted to the current status quo. 

Even though our days may consist of very diverse tasks and activities, most of us can now detect certain patterns in how the overall day unfolds. Maybe there is a certain corner at your home that you gravitate towards when it is time to work, even if you have wireless connection and laptop. Maybe the coffee tooth starts aching at a certain time – or you peruse certain news outlets or social media at some point, find that you prefer one teleconferencing software over another. For most of us it is simply impossible to live our daily lives for even a couple of weeks without the day becoming structured around some repeating elements.

This tendency and ability to create routines lies at the heart of all human accomplishments. The main benefit of routines on both individual and organizational level is the fact that through routinizing some parts of our existence, we free cognitive energy to do such things that cannot be routinized. The better our routines are, the more capacity we have for trickier problem solving. A famous example are the black t-shirts of Steven Jobs: he routinized everything wardrobe-related as far as possible, to save even the cognitive energy required in choosing the daily outfit for purposes he deemed more important. In organizations routines predate automatization as the corner stone of efficiency. 

Routines in a nutshell

Routines have been researched from many perspectives, and one of the key findings pertains to their interesting dual role as both sources of stability and change. The stickiness of routines comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever tried for example a dietary overhaul based on trying to change the routines involved in grocery-shopping, cooking and eating, so their nature as change requires more explaining. 

Routines consist of two parts. There is a part labelled “ostensive”, which consists of the general purpose of the routine – what is the routine supposed to accomplish? The other part, “performative”, refers to how the routine is actually executed when it is executed. Interestingly, the routines are not born through first thinking about what to routinize, through intent – remember the difficulties involved in trying to create healthier eating-related routines? Instead, routines emerge more unwittingly: we just start doing things in a certain way, and after a couple of repetitions it is easier to repeat them than to think about other ways of doing the same – or even question the need of doing the same in the first place. In scholarly speak, the performative precedes the ostensive. 

Very few of the routines we have on a daily basis are the result of intentional reflection and analysis about the best possible way of going about doing something. Most of the routines that uphold the structures of our mundane lives have just happened, based on what seemed the path of least resistance when we first started doing whatever it is that then became a routine. Their stickiness is partially due to the unwitting nature of their emergence, and partly due to the expenditure of cognitive energy required in a) reflecting whether the ostensive part of the routine is in general any longer relevant, and b) thinking about the alternatives to pursuing the ostensive ends. It saves cognitive energy to keep doing what one has been doing. 

But routines also sneak in change. As we are not machines, with every repetition of the routine we do something slightly different. Sometimes those differences just fluctuate, but sometimes they slowly nudge the whole routine into a new direction – even to an extent where the routine ends up accomplishing something quite different from its first ostensive end. An example, familiar to all born in pre-mobile phone era is the routines of handling the phone. When the first mobile phones arrived, we created a routine for carrying them with us in case we wanted to get in touch with people. With every application added, the performative part changed, as we stopped carrying cameras and diaries, and instead adopted the routines previously geared around those separate items into our routines with our mobile phones. Now the ostensive part of having a mobile phone with us is something quite unrecognizable from its origin: I handle my phone every ten minutes, but actually don’t even daily speak to anyone on the phone. 

Putting it together: adaptability, routines and disruption

While there is an underlying dynamism in the routines of our daily lives, with routines emerging, dissolving and fluctuating continuously, we seldom meet such circumstances that would require us to radically alter many of them or develop completely new ones. Changing routines often requires a notable external push: a new IT system at work, doctor’s diagnosis, unemployment, the birth of a child. When such a push happens, we are first left afloat, but rapidly and intuitively begin patterning our actions in ways that give birth to new routines. 

The more of the routines we must change, the more desperately we grope for new structures. And the more desperate we are, the easier it is for us to settle for the very first solution that comes by. Regardless of whether the first solution we stumble upon is a good one or not, as long as it seems to ease the unbearability of needing to reflect each of our tiniest actions, it is welcome. We grasp it with all our might and while we may think that the solution is a temporary one, like the passed-along kitchen table, the box by the front door, or the barrier in my flat, we soon adapt to the new patterns and routines to an extent where we no longer even seek for better solutions. After all, human brain is the most effective energy saving machine ever invented. 

And herein lies the genuine threat of a major scale disruption. When enough of the people are deprived of enough of the routines essential for the people to continue functioning, uprooted from the vital safety-net of being able to outsource the more mundane of our actions to familiar patterns, a huge vacuum opens up. And as we know from physics, vacuums are not sustainable, but always end up being filled with something. Regardless of whether that something is good or bad for us.

The pandemic and the actions aimed at curbing it have forced most of us to change a majority of our everyday routines. We feel tired, because we cannot rely on routines to save our energy by tiding us over the minute details of a regular day, but instead need to make decisions about the tiniest and simplest parts: where do I sit, which teleconferencing method do I use, do I cook, work or do laundry? By now, what was at the onset the first thought that came into mind (“just grab something from the fridge, mom will cook later”) has for many of us already become at least a seed of a routine (“I’ll make lasagna tomorrow, see if there’s something in the fridge you can eat today”). 

Only four weeks in, we have still a chance. Now that the dust of the impact has to an extent settled, we can as individuals genuinely accept that these weird times will not be over in a flash, but that we are living in the early days of a new normal. Now it is time to evaluate whether the routines that we are now constructing are really such that we want to have in the longer run? We have still time to see the ugliness of the traffic barrier, the undesirability of the kitchen table, but give it a few more weeks, and they become invisible. 

We are not helpless victims of our routines, but they are a power to acknowledge. Recognizing them, assessing their merits, weeding out the bad ones, and nourishing the good ones is easier the less repetitions there has been to entrench them. This applies equally on the levels of the individual, the firm and the society, and in the next post, I will view routine-building on the level of collectives.

For now, I’ll end with a suggestion for us individuals: let’s take a look at the routines we are allowing to evolve and think about them. On my behalf, I promise to actually make the lasagna today. 


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