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stuck in unproductive routines is not that they haven’t tried to expand their comfort zones, but that routines can get outdated quickly without it being noticeable.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.

We’re always busy doing something, or at least it seems that way. When we’re not at work, we’re running errands or doing household chores. On top of that, many of us regularly work out at the gym, watch our kids’ soccer games, attend religious services, volunteer with a charity, or fill our schedules with other obligations. Even the things people do to relax—such as watching TV, going to the movies or a sporting event, and playing video games—often take up distinct chunks of time too.

Because most of us have so little unscheduled, free-flowing time in our lives, we feel like we’re always being interrupted. We let the phone go to voicemail because we’re in the middle of something, no matter when we get a call. We feel annoyed when a coworker asks a question because it breaks our train of thought. When a family member wants help around the house, it’s a nuisance because we have to put aside whatever we were doing. Even if it’s nothing but Facebook or a mindless video game, we’re still getting interrupted, and we don’t like it.

In today’s society, interruptions often are described as wasting time, which in turn causes us to resent people who interrupt us. A common cultural script goes like this: “How inconsiderate they’re being! Don’t they know our time is valuable? We’ll never get anything done if they keep bothering us!”

When I’ve had a day with a lot of interruptions and start feeling annoyed, I find it helpful to remind myself that it’s not really a natural instinct to react this way, even though that’s what it may seem like. Getting angry when we’re interrupted is a culturally conditioned response—or, in other words, a collective bad habit. We can change how we react to interruptions by reframing them in our minds. When our coworkers or family members ask us something, it’s probably not because they want to waste our time. On the contrary, if they didn’t value our input, they wouldn’t be asking for it.

Living in such a busy world gives us both opportunities and challenges. Every year we have more choices about how to spend our time, and we can put together a schedule better suited to our needs and interests. We have far more opportunities than at any time in the past. But the more choices we have, the more mental energy it takes to navigate them effectively. We don’t have much left over for dealing with unexpected changes. Without predictable routines, we’re likely to get overwhelmed by stress. So when someone interrupts us, we may perceive it as a threat to our fragile coping ability. As such, it triggers the fight-or-flight response. We may snap at the person or storm off in a huff before we even stop to think about it.

Because so much of how we respond to interruptions takes place on a subconscious level, if we want to respond differently, we have to change our subconscious perceptions of what an interruption is. Put another way, we have to tell ourselves different stories. Humans are by nature storytelling creatures, and we filter all of our experiences through the narratives we use to explain them. Therefore, if we don’t want to get stressed out by interruptions, we have to convince ourselves that the interruptions are not really a problem.

Parents do this as a routine matter when teaching children good time management habits. We might, for instance, tell our kids that it’s time to do their homework now, and they can just pause the cartoon or the video game—it’ll still be there afterward. But often we don’t think about applying this simple lesson to our own busy schedules. When we get interrupted at work or while we’re doing something around the house, we’re likely to react without thinking and get annoyed about it. We’d do better to remind ourselves that the task isn’t urgent (which it usually isn’t) and can get done later.

As with many of the things we do, taking control of the interruptions in our lives is chiefly about developing better habits.

Researchers have found that people who often complain about being old or fat have more health problems than others of the same age or weight. And when older people leave their usual environment and go somewhere that they associate with youth and physical activity, their health improves. For example, blood pressure might be significantly lower after spending a few weeks at a hotel in the mountains, surrounded by hiking trails and furnished with dated décor reminiscent of one’s younger years.

When articles describing these studies appear on news websites, readers often post skeptical comments downplaying the effects of attitude. People complain more because they’re in worse health, not the other way around, the commenters suggest. And they argue that when someone’s health improves during a vacation, it has nothing to do with feeling younger—it’s simply because of a better diet and more exercise.

Some readers gripe that the scientists are being unethical by conducting studies that have the effect of encouraging people to lie to themselves. After all, if someone is old or fat, that’s the truth. It’s nonsensical to pretend otherwise, they say; and it gives people false hope that magical thinking will cure serious medical problems.

My take on it is that categories like “old” and “fat” are chiefly matters of opinion. Their boundaries can and do change as our cultural expectations shift over time. A century ago, when the average lifespan was much shorter than it is today, people thought of themselves as growing old earlier in their lives. And before the modern era, when food was much harder to get, a substantial waistline often was thought desirable—both because it was a sign of prosperity and because it improved survival odds in times of famine.

We also differ in how we sort ourselves into categories based on our life experiences. For instance, I would call myself middle-aged because both of my children are grown and are close to getting their university degrees. To my mind, it wouldn’t make any sense to describe myself as a young adult when my kids are now young adults. But nowadays, because of second marriages and fertility treatments, there are plenty of people my age who started their families just recently. They are likely to spend much of their time associating with young parents of toddlers and, as a result, to think of themselves as being nowhere near middle age.

Another factor in how we classify ourselves, which is even more individual, has to do with the connotations that we attach to the words. One person might despair upon approaching middle age, believing that it means the best part of life is over. A more optimistic person might view it as having many more years of a long and happy life remaining. Although they’re both using the same term to describe themselves, what they mean by it is totally different.

As to the health effects of what we say about ourselves, I believe the skeptics have a valid point that there’s more to it than positive or negative thinking. When someone is in better health after a vacation, it probably has to do with being more active than usual. The person isn’t just sitting around the whole time repeating affirmations, visualizing a younger and healthier self, and so forth.

That said, however, it’s all interrelated. When we think of ourselves as healthy people in the prime of our lives, we’re likely to act accordingly, getting regular exercise and taking better care of ourselves. To a large extent, humans are creatures of habit. What we say about ourselves is a strong factor influencing what habits we form, which in turn goes a long way toward shaping our circumstances.

Most people don’t like to be told that we are stuck in old habits of thinking or that we are behind the times. We prefer to believe that we are sensible people who can adjust our thinking when the circumstances change. But in fact, we often have no idea how many outdated instructions we’re carrying around in our mental checklists.

Not long ago, my husband pointed out one of mine when he asked why I loaded the dishwasher a particular way. He had noticed that I didn’t put spoons next to other spoons in the basket. I explained that my mother had told me to do it like that, when loading the dishwasher was one of my chores as a child, because otherwise the spoons might nest together and not come clean. He replied that maybe this was a problem 40 years ago, but it wouldn’t happen with a good modern dishwasher.

After I thought about it for a moment, I realized he was correct. The spoons always came out just as clean when he was the one loading the dishwasher and put them next to each other. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that there might not be any real need to keep them separate.

I believe that most of our social prejudices have equally simple underpinnings. They’re based on things that were said long ago—that it was best to keep certain kinds of people separate, or to have different ways of treating them. Maybe some of those ideas made sense in their original context of a world with vastly different cultural expectations and more primitive technology. Maybe they never really made sense. But however it might have happened, they ended up as entries in society’s collective checklist of how things ought to be done.

Whether our antiquated notions have to do with the proper placement of the spoons in the dishwasher or of the people in our community, we feel uncomfortable when someone points out the flaws in our thinking. After all, we’ve always done things the same way without seeing any reason to change, so how can there be anything wrong? We’re reasonable people, and we certainly would have noticed if we had been doing something that made no sense—wouldn’t we?

Once we get past our initial feelings of denial and annoyance, though, we generally do acknowledge the facts in front of us. Although humans are creatures of habit on both a social and an individual level, we are capable of changing our ways, even if it might take a little while for new information to sink in.

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.

Humans are a storytelling species. Even when we are not sharing stories with others, we’re full of internal narratives or “self-talk” by which we make sense of what’s going on around us. Sometimes we may talk out loud to ourselves; but more often, although we are silent, a constant dialogue goes on in our thoughts, describing our perceptions and sorting our thoughts into recognizable categories. We draw these categories in large part from the narratives our culture has taught us, often on a subconscious level. They may not always be accurate or to our benefit.

As a result, we’re likely to stress ourselves out unnecessarily by framing our experiences in terms of the popular complaints of our society. One of the most common ways this happens is in what we tell ourselves about time. The modern world is busier and more complicated than ever before. We have vastly more choices in our daily lives. This gives rise to free-floating anxieties that we can’t easily describe, and we end up expressing them in terms of not having control over our time:

“I’m too busy. There is too much going on. I don’t have time to get anything done.”

Our friends and family members are likely to respond—again, in a socially scripted way—by suggesting that we have too many obligations on our busy calendars and need to simplify our lives. While that’s not bad advice in itself, what often happens when we allow ourselves a few quiet, unhurried moments is that another cultural script promptly kicks in:

“I’m bored. There is nothing going on. I need to find something to do with my time.”

And round and round we go.

Time is, of course, neutral; it passes at the same rate regardless of what we happen to be doing. Our perceptions of time, however, are constantly changing in relation to our environment. For most of our history, people’s lives consisted of simple but time-consuming tasks such as hunting, gathering, and domestic chores. It would never have occurred to anyone to complain of boredom because there was always more work to be done. And because the work had a regular and predictable structure, with little room for individual choice, there was no reason to feel anxious about how one’s schedule was managed.

Nowadays, with all the options created by modern technology and our interconnected world, we have a multitude of scenarios playing out in our minds at all times as part of our internal dialogue; and we haven’t yet learned how to deal with it. There are so many choices that it has become overwhelming.

Last week a bird flew into my garage and couldn’t understand how to get back outside again. Even with both of the garage doors open and sunlight streaming in through the doors, the bird was so confused by the unfamiliar environment that it just fluttered around aimlessly. My husband tried yelling at the bird and waving a broom at it to chase it away, but that didn’t help at all—the bird only got more anxious and befuddled, while still not finding its way out. At last my husband hit on the idea of closing one of the garage doors. With only one possible exit, the bird promptly oriented itself and flew out.

Although humans (usually) have more sense than birds, I believe that we have a similar need for clear landmarks to guide us when we navigate our surroundings. In the context of time management and choosing among multiple alternatives, humans create such landmarks by developing routines and rituals. Those of us with an introverted temperament put more effort into organizing our homes and work spaces in predictable ways. Extroverts focus instead on social rituals, such as sports, shopping, and Friday night at the club. But the underlying motivation is the same—finding something that makes sense in a chaotic environment.

We need a new set of stories to explain our relationship with time. What can we tell ourselves about our ability to control and manage the choices available to us? How can we feel comfortable without always having to be in constant motion from one activity to another? Where can we find examples of how to live productively while looking upon time as an abundant resource?