Modern life can be so hectic that people often get stuck in routines that have outgrown their usefulness, without even thinking about it. Routines have a calming effect because they reduce the number of decision-making points we encounter in an increasingly complex world. They’re essential to protect us from the paralyzing anxiety that would otherwise result from having too many choices to make. But if we’re not careful, we can miss out on a lot of things we would have enjoyed, just because we didn’t take the time to reflect on how our routines might be improved and updated.

Here’s a simple example of how that happens. I routinely buy the bagged salad mix at the supermarket because it saves the time and effort of assembling the individual items, while also ensuring that I won’t find myself short of any particular salad vegetable. For many years, I always topped the salads with shredded cheese and bacon bits, without any dressing, which is how my husband prefers them. That seemed fine, and I didn’t give it much thought. When we ate out, however, I enjoyed the house salad at a restaurant that prepares it with a vinegary dressing, dried cranberries, and walnuts.

It never occurred to me that I could do something similar at home until a recent grocery shopping trip. I was in the condiments aisle buying more bacon bits when I noticed a new salad topping on the shelf—a mix of dried cranberries and almonds. That was like a moment of revelation. I just wanted to shout “Yay!” and jump for joy right there in the supermarket aisle. Although I didn’t really do it because of our cultural expectations about proper behavior for middle-aged women (alas), I put the new topping in my cart and had a smile on my face for the rest of the day.

Of course, I could have bought dried cranberries and nuts separately even before the supermarket began selling the new salad topping mix; but the thought never crossed my mind. I had gotten so much in the habit of making my salads the same way as my husband’s that I just did it by rote.

By definition, routines are things that we do as a matter of course, without need to ponder the details. Our conscious minds pay very little attention to such familiar actions. So it takes a deliberate effort to consider what’s involved with a particular routine and how it might work better if done a different way. Improvements that other people may find obvious are likely to elude us, just because our habitual acts always seem normal and reasonable in our own minds. We also tend to exaggerate how hard it might be. It’s the big things that come to mind when we think about change, such as buying a new car or house, rather than little variations in our daily routines. Change seems difficult, expensive, and far away.

I believe it helps to set aside a few minutes every day to consider the question: What can I do differently, in the here and now, to make myself happier? Often the answer is something that can be done easily and for little or no cost. We can, for instance, tidy up those cluttered areas that give us the subconscious feeling our lives have gotten out of control. Last week I cleaned out my desk drawer, which (I am embarrassed to admit) had been accumulating junk for over a decade. Now every time I open the drawer, it feels peaceful and orderly, instead of the horror-movie adventure of the Junk Drawer from the Black Lagoon invading my workspace.

Although small changes like this may not seem to make much difference in themselves, the cumulative effects can be very powerful.

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