I enjoy having a digital art display on an otherwise blank wall because I can imagine it as a window into many places. The company that made it is no longer in business, though, and I can’t always count on being able to log into the online art library to change the picture. Not enough bandwidth where it is now hosted, apparently. Of course, I’m lucky that it still functions at all, rather than ending up as just a dead screen.

It’s a bit of a disruption to my routine because I had gotten used to changing the picture every morning, so as to imagine myself starting the day in a new and different place. Now I can rarely log in that early and instead have to wait until the afternoon. Today I wanted to display this peaceful image of a garden path, but I had to try several times before it worked.
 

Flagstone path through a perennial garden.

(Photo credit: Jennifer Rafleyan)
 

I found myself thinking about how people create calming rituals and routines to make a busy, complicated world feel a little more manageable. When it works as intended, it’s all good; but when something doesn’t go quite right, it becomes another source of anxiety.

Looking at it in perspective, the time of day when I change the picture is so insignificant that I shouldn’t care at all. Most disruptions to everyday activities are just as small and unimportant, but people often find them hard to cope with anyway. That’s probably because in the modern world, there is always so much going on at once, the least little disruption can feel like it might all spin out of control.

That feeling is just an illusion, though, like the window on my wall that isn’t really a window. Those little disturbances and interruptions usually cause no problems at all. The more difficult part is simply to convince the subconscious mind that it’s all okay. Looking on the bright side, a nice, relaxing imaginary walk along the garden path should help with that…

Over the weekend I read the book Counterclockwise by Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard who studies how people react to social cues. She is best known for a study in 1979 of elderly men who spent a week living as if they had gone back in time 20 years, in a building that was furnished entirely with items from that time period. They read books and magazines from 1959, listened to the radio shows that were popular then, and watched TV programs from that era on a tiny black-and-white set.

The participants in the control group were told to reminisce about life twenty years earlier in the past tense, while the instructions for the experimental group were to use the present tense and discuss events as if they actually were living in 1959. The men in both groups looked and acted younger by the end of the week, with significantly more of a difference for the experimental group. They stood taller, walked more easily, spoke more confidently, and showed some improvements in objective measures of health such as lower blood pressure readings.

That study, and others discussed in the book, illustrate the effects of our environment on what we believe about ourselves and how the body conforms to those beliefs on a subconscious level. Noticeable changes can happen even if we don’t rearrange our physical surroundings in great detail, but simply reframe the way we think about them. The key, according to the author, is to be mindfully aware of the possibilities. When we realize that our habitual assumptions are not necessarily the only way to look at things, we allow ourselves—whether consciously or subconsciously—to discover other ways of being.

I’ve noticed this effect when changing the images on my digital art display. Nature scenes leave me feeling rested, while photos of interesting places abroad make me feel adventurous; and I’m likely to feel younger and more creative when I choose fanciful scenes, like this seashell picture that I displayed on Sunday. Doesn’t it look like a fairy tale illustration from which a mythical creature might suddenly emerge?
 

Large seashell on beach. 

As for all the things we don’t notice because we get so used to them, I found myself in one of those situations on Monday afternoon. I went into a jewelry store to get a watch battery, and one of their salespeople pointed out that the prongs holding the diamond in my ring had gotten very worn. Maybe he was exaggerating when he said that the diamond might fall out at any moment; however, once I looked closely at the prongs, there was no doubt that they really did need replacing, so I left the ring for repair.

Of course, if I had ever stopped to think about it, I would’ve realized that after being worn every day for the 32+ years since I got engaged, the ring would naturally show signs of wear. But it happened so gradually that the changes were not at all noticeable from one day to another, so my mental picture of the ring was that it had stayed the same as always. When I went back to get the repaired ring, the new prongs were much longer. It’s such a difference—I keep poking myself on them and getting surprised!

After I ran the Turkey Trot, my heels felt a bit achy, and I realized that it was time to get new running shoes again. I had bought the old ones in early 2016, and they didn’t look decrepit, but it’s not always noticeable right away when the cushioning starts to go.

I decided that was okay, though. This was a good time of year to replace them, both because of the Thanksgiving weekend sales and because the cheerful colors of new running shoes always help to make the short, dark afternoons a little brighter.
 

New pair of running shoes. 

As with many things for which a regular routine works best, it’s a good idea to replace old running shoes on a schedule so that they don’t get too worn out and cause problems. So, from now on, I’m going to make a habit of buying a new pair on Black Friday. That’s very easy to remember, once a year seems like a reasonable interval, and I expect there will always be a good sale somewhere.

The division of labor for yard work around my house is that my husband mows the lawn and puts down mulch, while I plant and weed the flowers and prune the shrubs, and we pay a lawn service company to do the fertilizer. I mostly use small pruning shears and cut small branches, which hasn’t been a problem except that when we had an unusually cold winter a few years ago, some of the larger branches on the backyard willows started dying. I cut them off with my husband’s lumber saw from the tool chest in the garage, but it was kind of big and awkward.

My husband didn’t say anything about it for a while, but last weekend he took me along on a trip to the hardware store and pointed out that they make long, thin saws especially for pruning. I bought one that folds up neatly and is just the right size to fit in my basket of small garden tools. It is much easier to use and does a better job of cutting branches, too, since that is what it was designed to do.
 

Folding pruning saw on garage shelf. 

I took two useful lessons away from that: (1) In the modern world, if something is an awkward chore, there is likely to be a better tool for it; and (2) even if I don’t know what that tool might be, it’s probably not that hard to find out what it is, either by doing research or by asking someone who knows more about it.

Finding useful new things isn’t the hard part—what takes a bit of mental effort is cultivating the mindset to look for them, rather than habitually using the same old stuff just because it’s what happens to be there.

I didn’t get around to writing a Clutter Comedy blog entry last weekend, though I had good intentions. There was some disruption to my schedule, and also my husband upgraded our home computers from 32-bit to 64-bit Windows 7, which he said took a long time because it should have been done sooner. When tasks are left to wait longer than they should, there’s usually more work as a consequence. With software, there are more upgrades to install.

This is not even the final task; it’s all just preparatory to installing Windows 10 later this year, which will require buying more memory because operating systems have gotten enormous. That’s the way of things in the modern world—technology has given us much more capability, but keeping up with all its changes can feel like running frantically on a hamster wheel.

During my mostly unplugged weekend, I started thinking about how there’s not much difference between upgrading our gadgets and refurbishing our minds. If we let too many bad habits, outdated assumptions, and other mental junk pile up, then it’s harder to clear that stuff away than if we had done timely maintenance all along. Same thing with clutter in the house and weeds in the garden—there’s always something in need of attention that wasn’t a problem when we last looked.
 

Big leafy green weed between orange and yellow snapdragons. 

I have no idea how a weed resembling a small tree got into my snapdragons, when I’m sure it can’t have been more than a couple of weeks since I last did something in that garden…

Of course, our ancestors also had to do plenty of weeding and other chores, without benefit of today’s labor-saving devices. Their work couldn’t be neglected because if too many weeds got into the fields and choked out the crops, they might starve over the winter. Still, their lives were much simpler and more structured than ours, so they didn’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure of having to keep up with thousands of different things all at once.

We don’t really have to juggle huge heaps of tasks either—it just feels like we do, sometimes, because we haven’t yet settled into comfortable routines for such a fast-paced world. There are plenty of computer programs and smartphone apps to keep track of the little things. For example, my husband has a reminder in his Outlook calendar to run the self-cleaning cycle on the oven every four months, which was easy to do last weekend when it was cool enough that opening the windows was comfortable. Way easier than our ancestors had it, cooking over a hearth where they had to bring wood and sweep out the ashes every day. Their tasks rarely changed, though, so they didn’t have the stress of keeping up with to-do lists.

Our world has left behind the familiar customs and simple chores that once allowed people to go through their days without much need for conscious decision-making. We have many more choices now, and that means we need to manage and upgrade our choices proactively, so they don’t overwhelm us. It’s not just about getting used to new gadgets, either; the culture is changing rapidly around us, which means our assumptions are constantly being challenged. Sometimes everything feels like a leap into the unknown.

I am optimistic that as time passes, our society will develop more effective ways to help people navigate its complexity. The concept of supported decision-making refers to informal arrangements that assist people with disabilities in making choices. As I see it, people in general could benefit from having more structure and support in their lives. It’s not that modern humans are any less competent than our ancestors; we just live in a much busier world.

Every Thanksgiving when I was a kid, my father made fruit salad. The ingredients were McIntosh apples cut with the peel still on, big red grapes neatly halved, mini marshmallows, and a half-pint of whipped cream. I thought it was great and always scarfed down lots of it.

After I grew up and moved away, I made the same fruit salad because I associated it so strongly with the holiday. There was a problem, though. My husband didn’t care for it, and neither did our children. We had Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house every year, and I would always bring a big bowl of fruit salad, which only a few people would eat.

This year I didn’t make it because my husband said he’d like to bring sugar cookies instead. He went to the supermarket and picked out a bag of easy sugar cookie mix that needed only an egg and a stick of margarine. The cookies got baked very quickly on Thanksgiving afternoon, I didn’t have to do anything, we brought them to dinner on a festive red plastic plate, and everybody ate them happily.
 

Sugar cookie mix, eggs, and a stick of margarine. 

I hadn’t realized until now that when I always made the fruit salad as part of my holiday routine, even though my husband and kids were not interested in it, I was depriving them of the opportunity to create different family traditions they’d enjoy more. If they had baked sugar cookies every year, then we would all have pleasant memories of our sugar cookie tradition.

Routines can be helpful when they genuinely serve our needs, but they only get in the way when we let many years pass without reflecting on whether they fit our current circumstances. Rather than putting things in the category of cherished traditions just because we haven’t changed them, we should take time to consider whether we really cherish them or whether we’re only doing them by rote.

We should also keep in mind that even if we like them, we’re not obligated to do them exactly the same way. If I want to eat fruit salad during the holiday season, I can make it for myself one December weekend. I might find that I enjoy it more, giving myself a bit of comforting holiday cheer to brighten up a dark evening in between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. It’s all about being flexible in how we look at things!

Motivational authors often advise against using weak words like “should” and “someday” that amount to nothing but idle fantasies, lacking any definite commitment. Such words can lull us into believing that we are taking constructive action when in fact we haven’t done anything. We may think we’re making progress along the road to someday; but really we’re just frozen in place, not moving in any direction.
 

Three-way intersection with light snow. 

While I agree with being careful not to confuse fantasies with action, it’s also important not to jump into action without forethought or to get overly stressed working on plans for everything we might possibly want. “Should” and “someday” can be useful in their proper place, as preliminary steps toward action. Before committing ourselves to act, we first need to reflect on whether the action would be a good thing to do—whether we should do it. If the answer is yes, then we move on to considering the logistics. Although some plans can be made right away, it’s not practical to immediately set an action date for every idea that comes to mind.

That’s where putting “someday” items at the far end of the to-do list comes in. For example, someday I would like to travel to Australia, but right now there are plenty of other things that have higher priorities in my life. So, for now, it’s just a fantasy, and it doesn’t need to be anything else. If I considered it to be more important, I would research the details and put together an action plan, complete with specific dates. But until then, it’s just one of my somedays, and that’s okay.

What’s not okay—and all too easy to do, unfortunately—is to get stuck in a deep rut, avoiding even the smallest changes to our routines because of fear or laziness, while telling ourselves that we should do better and someday we’re going to work on it. In that context, “should” and “someday” are nothing more than excuses for hanging onto bad habits in the here and now. And as excuses go, they’re pretty worthless ones. Although change may seem scary or difficult, often all that’s needed is simply to take a small action each day, building better and healthier habits as time goes by.

Setting aside time for reflection, with the aim of discovering one’s authentic self, is common advice in inspirational books and articles. The modern world’s distractions and responsibilities often lead to the feeling that somewhere along the way, we have gotten much too busy and lost a clear sense of who we really are. Meditation, long walks in the forest, and spiritual retreats are seen as ways of reconnecting.
 

Path in autumn forest with fallen leaves.

(photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net)
 

When I started clearing clutter out of my house earlier this year, I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of improving my sense of self; I just wanted to tidy things up and feel more comfortable at home. I’m starting to feel that it’s all part of the same process, though. Letting go of physical clutter brings up thoughts and emotions having to do with each item’s source and what function it once served in my life. This in turn causes me to reflect on where I am now and what has changed since then. So I’m not just taking old stuff to the thrift store, but also clearing out my old emotions and routine behaviors associated with the stuff. I am making space for creative energy, positive thought patterns, and feeling more present in the here and now!

The subconscious mind is full of associations relating to the stuff in our environment. Even when something gets to be so much a part of everyday life that it doesn’t get noticed consciously, it still triggers emotions and habitual responses just by being there. So I would say that discovering one’s authentic self is not just about remembering the past; it’s also about clearing away whatever doesn’t feel right in the present.

We’re often told that we must be willing to go beyond our comfort zones if we want to accomplish anything significant and that otherwise, we’re doomed to stagnate. But not everyone agrees with that view. I recently came across a blog post entitled Comfort Zone Malarkey, in which the author pointed out that when we are more comfortable, we are also more productive. Why shouldn’t we want to arrange our lives in comfortable patterns that reduce our stress and make us more productive in our everyday tasks?

I’d say that as with many things, it is chiefly a matter of self-awareness and finding the right balance. Some of us naturally have wide comfort zones and are always eager to try new activities. Others get anxious about small changes in routine. Because the modern world is so full of change and disruption, those who get anxious more easily are often advised to work on expanding their comfort zones.

When a disruptive situation can’t reasonably be avoided, getting used to it is probably good advice. For instance, advances in technology may seem intimidating, but we’re much better off to get comfortable with new products as they come into use, rather than keeping obsolete stuff. Considering how quickly things are changing in our society, though, I don’t see a need to randomly jump into all sorts of activities with the aim of expanding our comfort zones. Just keeping up with today’s new technologies and cultural changes ought to give us plenty of practice in that!

As I see it, the main reason why people get stuck in unproductive routines is not that they haven’t tried to expand their comfort zones, but that routines can get outdated quickly without it being noticeable. We’ve all had to adjust our comfort zones hugely in recent years, just to deal with the massive changes taking place all around us. Even when a change is good, we still need some amount of time and mental energy to get used to it. And when we get stressed trying to keep up with everything that’s going on, we fall back on familiar routines to calm ourselves.

Having comfortable routines is not a problem in itself. We all need them! But if we don’t take enough time to reflect on whether our routines suit our current circumstances, we can end up mindlessly stuck in habits that don’t work well at all. Especially as we get older, it’s all too easy to keep on doing something a certain way because that’s how we have done it for the past 30 years, whether or not it makes sense anymore. That lack of reflection is what causes people to stagnate, much more than being afraid to leave a comfort zone. After all, if it hasn’t even crossed our minds that doing something different might be possible, then we never reach the point of considering whether we might want to do it—and our comfort zone slowly shrinks.

When that happens, it’s not because we lack the intelligence or imagination to notice that our circumstances have changed. Rather, it’s because the complexity of the modern world forces us to adjust our routines much more than our ancestors ever had to do. Keeping up with everything that has changed around us is a lot of work—it’s no wonder some things get overlooked! So, when dealing with people whose routines seem overly rigid, kindness and understanding are needed. After all, we may have our own stagnant habits that we haven’t noticed yet!

We all have different perspectives on managing our money. One common approach to curbing wasteful spending is to think about each purchase in relation to the work done to earn it. Before buying an expensive new gadget or a trendy pair of shoes, a person first stops to reflect on how many hours of work were needed to earn that much money.

While this may be an effective way to break a bad habit of impulse buying, I believe it creates more problems in the long term by conditioning the subconscious mind both to see work in a negative light and to see scarcity rather than abundance. When we measure everything in small increments of time and money, weighing one against the other, we’re left feeling as if we never have enough of either.

Psychologists doing research in this area have found that when people look upon their work in terms of how much they’re paid by the hour, they are more likely to feel that they don’t have time to get everything done in their personal lives. Business owners and salaried professionals actually spend more time at work than hourly employees, on average; but they often feel that they have more free time.

Some of that is because they have enough money to buy their way out of time-consuming chores, such as by hiring a maid instead of having to clean the house themselves. However, I’m inclined to think that much of it really is just a matter of belief. Because business owners look upon their work in terms of challenges and accomplishments, rather than hours, their work doesn’t feel like it deprives them of personal time.

In contrast, when people avoid making impulsive purchases by reminding themselves how many hours of work they did to earn the money, this necessarily implies their job took time away from other things they would rather have been doing. Too much of that attitude builds a wage-slave mentality in which work is seen as a misery to be endured for the required number of hours, all for the sake of buying one’s carefully rationed rewards when each paycheck arrives.

One of the reasons wealthy people don’t think like that is because wages are not their only source of income. Maybe they’re working 60 or 70 hours a week to build up the business, but they have investment accounts earning a good return. They probably also have a substantial amount of equity in real estate and other assets. So when they go out and buy things, the cost is only a small percentage of their total wealth. They don’t see it as chunks of time sucked out of their lives in exchange for wages.

Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to make withdrawals from investment accounts and go on shopping sprees whenever we feel like it. We need to put reasonable constraints on our buying habits, while going about it in a way that won’t leave us feeling deprived of time, money, material goods, or some combination thereof.

I believe the key word in that last sentence is “habits.” We live in a very complicated society, and we navigate its complexities every day by relying on whatever routines we’ve developed. When these routines become unproductive or harmful, then they need to be modified by substituting another habit that works better.

We’re all familiar with the need to change our routines in the context of managing our weight. Those of us who have full-time sedentary jobs can’t eat as much as when we were teenagers, unless we want to spend large amounts of time at the gym. Many people avoid eating too much by reminding themselves of how many hours they’ll have to run on the treadmill to make up for all the calories in that fried chicken and biscuits. This is exactly the same trade-off that is often used to curb impulse buying—time vs. overeating, time vs. overspending, measured in calories and cash respectively.

I’ve found that a more effective way to avoid gluttony (of both the food variety and the consumer goods variety) has been to replace an overindulgent habit with a moderate one. It’s basically an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. I don’t often think about eating fried chicken and biscuits since I started regularly buying baked chicken and salad instead. If a particular store or website seems like it’s getting too much of my money, I change my routine so that I’m not visiting it.

And on the time side of the equation, I don’t force myself to do workouts that I dislike. There are plenty of ways to get exercise that are more fun and are just as effective. If a workout routine is so unpleasant that the thought of doing more of it stops a person from overeating, then the person isn’t likely to be motivated to do enough to get results. Same goes for jobs. Anyone who feels stuck 40 hours a week doing a crummy job probably isn’t performing well enough to earn much money there. It makes more sense to change jobs. Granted, the economy isn’t at its best right now; but as time passes, more opportunities come along.

Although it may sometimes feel like a struggle to control time, spending, and food, this doesn’t mean we should obsess about rationing them. Looking at it from another perspective, we have an unlimited supply of time because there is always more of it as long as we’re alive. As time goes by, there are plenty of things we can do with it. What’s needed is to choose wisely from among the vast possibilities available in today’s world, picking those that are well suited to form enjoyable, lasting habits.