We all need order and discipline in our lives, and developing good habits and useful routines helps us feel productive and directed toward our goals. But sometimes the routines we rely on turn into ruts without our realizing it. We may find ourselves feeling trapped, joyless, bored and boring without really understanding why. And even if we recognize that we’re in a rut, we may feel helpless to get out of the deep groove we’ve worn into daily life. Either way, it’s a recipe for stress. Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist and author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever (McGraw-Hill, 2005), reminds us that even small alterations in our routines can open the door to a more spontaneous and fulfilling life.
Stress Source: Rut-Like Routines
Doing the same things in the same way, day after day, can sap our energy and enthusiasm, leaving us unsure how to restore excitement and spontaneity to our lives.
Obliviousness: “We may not even recognize that we’re stuck,” says Newman. “We can be so anesthetized by our habit of doing things the same way that all we feel is low energy and vague unhappiness.”
Fear of change: For some people, the challenge of altering their routines brings fear of what may happen — or anxiety about how they will respond. “One unspoken fear is that I simply won’t be up to the challenge of change, that I’ll fail and disappoint myself,” says Newman.
A sense of futility: Even if you acknowledge a rut, says Newman, “you may feel that trying to escape it is pointless — that ruts are inevitable,” or that this is simply your lot in life.
Obligation: When we feel relied upon to perform tasks we’ve grown to resent, or simply to do things “the way we always have,” a sense of duty can evolve into a feeling of martyrdom — one we wear like a badge of honor, even if no one else is forcing us to.
How to Cope
Wake up to the problem: Take a look at which routines in your life may have morphed into ruts. “In a rut, your productivity declines,” says Newman. “You do everything more slowly” and tend to get less bang for your buck. When you’ve completed a healthy routine, there’s a sense of satisfaction. With ruts, you’re more likely to have a sense of helplessness or beleaguered frustration.
Make a small change: Even a small alteration in a rut can have remarkably liberating effects, Newman says. “If you usually work over your lunch break, get out of the office for a walk. Call someone you haven’t talked to for a long time. Try a new recipe or workout regimen.” Instead of watching TV in the evenings, dig into a compelling book.
Take a field trip: “Once in a while, plan a bigger change of scene — say, a museum visit, or a hike,” Newman suggests. Go somewhere or do something that interrupts your established patterns and kicks your mind and spirit into a different gear. (For ideas, see “Your Ultimate Day Off.”)
Set boundaries: Take a close look at where your time and energy are being drained by what feel like unpleasant obligations. “Count up the things you do for others that don’t bring you joy,” suggests Newman, “and begin by saying no to just one.”
Stress Solver: Wisdom Cards
Fresh messages, delivered daily — or whenever you need insight.
Following in the footsteps of the tarot deck, which began as a set of game cards but has been used for centuries as a fortunetelling and meditation tool, today’s reflective card decks — sometimes dubbed “wisdom” or “oracle” cards — are a lively, versatile resource for relieving stress and sparking new insights. Personal coach and best-selling author Cheryl Richardson recommends wisdom cards as tools for introspection, and is herself the creator of two widely used decks: Grace Cards and Self-Care Cards (see sidebar). Like many popular decks, they combine a soothing and evocative image with a short inspirational passage.
The enigmatic images of the tarot are sometimes traced to ancient Egypt, but the cards first appeared in Italy in the 15th century. Used for fortunetelling and meditative purposes as well as game playing, they have taken a multitude of forms and inspired the oracle decks, which emerged with the New Age movement in the 1960s.
“Drawing a card at random when you need renewal, support, inspiration or calming, you almost always get just the message you need,” says Richardson. Eventually, she says, the experience can convince you that you are connected to the universe or a higher power that has your best interests at heart. “By combining a beautiful image with inspiring words, cards register in a person in a special way,” she adds. “Their messages can bypass the busy brain and speak directly to the heart.”
There are scores of ways to use oracle cards, and new ones are being devised all the time. You can pick a card and make its message a meditative theme for the day by tucking it into your planner or wallet, or displaying it on your desk. (“Pick at random, and take the one you get,” Richardson suggests. “Choosing the one you want defeats the purpose.”)
When faced with a problem, you can also use a card’s message as one answer to your dilemma. “You can pick a card for your partner or your kids, and they can pick one for you,” she says. “It’s a great way to communicate within the family.”
Richardson loves the feeling she gets when she sends her cards out into the world. “No piece of mail leaves my office without a card in it,” she says, “and I leave a card for my servers at restaurants. More than once, a server has followed me out of a restaurant saying, ‘How did you know I needed to hear this?’”