In the early weeks of the pandemic, Samantha Heintzelman, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University-Newark, noticed that people were more interested in her research than usual. It made sense: Heintzelman studies routines, which were disappearing faster than Clorox wipes. “A mass disruption,” Heintzelman calls it, one that had people walking around the block as a fake commute or filling their schedules with Duolingo lessons and home improvement projects.
I fell into a cadence that was much quieter than my pre-COVID life: Work, family dog walk, cook, read or Netflix, repeat. I knew I was fortunate to be able to stay home, but the solitude felt uncomfortable, like shoes that pinched. As we watched our way through “Gilmore Girls,” my partner and I spoke often of everything we would embrace when (if) there was a vaccine: dinner out, dance parties with friends, anything and everything that didn’t involve our couch.
Yet now, vaccine complete, I’m strangely protective of my boring little routine. A friend texted. She was in the neighborhood, and did I want to get a drink? I didn’t. I wanted to pour a glass of wine and read my book and see her in a few days, with ample time to prepare.
Heintzelman’s research — which involves, among other things, asking subjects to rate themselves using a metric called the Disliking Disruption scale — helps explain my reaction. We use routines, Heintzelman says, “to make sense of the world and our place in it.” And when our lives make sense to us, we are able to see the meaning in them.
It’s only natural that as we emerge from our COVID-era cocoons, then, we might cling to the routines — however mundane — we established in a bid to give our lives structure and, thus, meaning. But the idea isn’t that we all should be living out some version of “Groundhog Day.” “We need to have some flexibility around our routines,” Heintzelman says. “We need novelty to learn and to grow.” Being married to a routine leaves us feeling stuck, stifled, and distressed. If you’ve ever called someone “set in their ways,” you probably didn’t mean it as a compliment.
For me, this means that after a year that rewarded boundaries and fostered routine, I need to retrain my brain to embrace social calls and spontaneity.
Of course, if brain training were easy, we would keep every New Year’s resolution. But we have less control over our behavior than we think, says Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. Wood studies routine’s cousin, the habit.
“Context is really important,” she says. Our surroundings “encourage us to repeat certain behaviors. That’s one reason why people who live near parks get more exercise. It’s not that they have more willpower than everybody else or they’re more health conscious. It’s that they just have more opportunities.”
Over the last year, “we have all formed habits to work at home, eat at home, entertain ourselves at home,” she says. “You have a habit to stay home and you’re having to override it, because everything that activated that habit is still there. Your kitchen is still there. Your Netflix is still there.” When my context starts to change — when I go back to interviewing story subjects in person, when I return to the gym instead of wedging a yoga mat between the couch and TV — my social routine may naturally morph back to what it was before the pandemic.
Habits and routines often encompass a series of choices we don’t realize we’re making. Seasoned runners no longer think about what time to wake up, what to wear, or what route to take; they just do it, to coin a phrase. In contrast, someone trying to add a morning jog to their routine feels the weight of all of those decisions. Wood writes about this in her 2019 book, “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick.” Until you’ve done something enough that you’re operating on autopilot, each step is a potential exit point.
The jogging analogue for me is all of the small, trivial steps between an impromptu invitation to meet a friend and actually meeting the friend. Choices such as where to meet, how to get there, and whether I need to change out of my stretchy pants are minor but cumulative, weighing on me because they’re not automatic.
There’s also the concept of identity consistency, Heintzelman says. The longer someone follows a routine, the more it becomes part of their sense of self: I am a person who does this. Part of my resistance to an unplanned outing may be less about disliking disruption and more about wearing an identity many of us have taken on: that of a person who keeps myself and others safe by mostly staying home and always planning ahead. “It’s hard to change those thought patterns,” Heintzelman says.
This may be especially true considering the anxiety, uncertainty, and loss of control that has flattened us these last 15 months. You don’t just pop up after you’ve been hit by a steamroller.
“This was over a year of severe fear,” says Karol Darsa, a psychologist who founded and runs Reconnect, a trauma treatment center in Los Angeles. “The more unpredictable outside life is, the more predictability and control we need.” A routine can help us feel like we have control, and it’s OK if we’re not ready to give that up. “We were facing death of ourselves or of our loved ones. It’s not possible to act like nothing happened,” she says. “If we accept that, we might have an easier time with it.”
Darsa suggests starting with “planned spontaneity”: picking a night in advance to break from my routine but not choosing the activity until that night. “So there’s a little bit of control,” she says. “You can build on that.”
As we all navigate this transition period, it’s important to be open with friends and family about our feelings, Darsa says. “Maybe just say to someone, ‘You know, I’m really trying to be more spontaneous, but I’m noticing some resistance to it,’” she says. “When you are honest and vulnerable in that way, it allows other people to be honest as well.’”
Marissa Conrad is a freelance journalist based in New York.