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Routines and Ruts

Originally published on May 25, 2017

Happy Thursday!

Last week I wrote about routines and how important they are. There’s something about figuring out the step-by-step protocols to accomplish something that makes the formerly haphazard approach (which is dependent on chance for success) into a seamless, well-oiled operation that makes my heart sing!

One of my all-time favorite experiences of this was breakfast at a school where I worked. The routine they had in place was that students arrived and sat wherever they wanted to. The adults were there but were not really interacting with the students. Since this was a time for students to be social, students loitered. When the time for students to leave approached, the adults got on the microphone and told the students that it was now silent breakfast. The students did not respond to this request most of the time so they would get in trouble. You could hear the adults from down the hall on the microphone saying, “THIS IS SILENT BREAKFAST THAT MEANS SILENCE.” It was such a horrible way to start the day! Can you imagine how these students felt about our school or the adults when rather than a warm welcome to start their day, they were yelled at and silenced?

I began to think about how we could still get the students fed and on to class but do so in a more respectful, structured, and organized manner. After a couple of different iterations, we resolved on numbering the tables and seating students as they came in—like at a restaurant. Music was playing on the speakers. Students were greeted with smiles and respect and, as a result, they returned the smiles and respect. Each table was given ten minutes to eat and their time was written on a board so they would be able to monitor the time themselves. As they ate, the adults walked around and chatted with the students and encouraged them to throw away whatever they didn’t need (wrappers, apple cores, etc.) because the adults were pushing the garbage cans around as they walked. The students were told at eight-minutes-in that there were two minutes left so they weren’t caught off-guard when their time was up. At the end of ten minutes, any student who was still at the table was told that time was up and the students finished, cleared their area, and left for class. It was a transformation and my favorite part of the day!

As great as routines are, I’ve found myself wondering about what the difference is between a routine and a rut. In a book I started listening to last week, Spark: How Creativity Works by Julie Burstein, in the forward, Kurt Andersen talks about an essay called "The Amateur Spirit" by Daniel Boorstin. “The main obstacle to progress is not ignorance, Boorstin wrote, but ‘pretensions to knowledge…The amateur is not afraid to do something for the first time…the rewards and refreshments of thought and the arts come from the courage to try something, all sorts of things, for the first time…An enamored amateur need not be a genius to stay out of the ruts he has never been trained in.’” The point being made here is that we struggle to be creative because we allow our preconceived notions of what is right to get in the way. While that didn’t at first sound like the rut I’ve been thinking about with regard to routines, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is absolutely what I’m talking about!

In our lives we do create structures and these are great when they’re working. However, structures can turn into ruts—that cause us to be “paralyzed by the fear of imperfection or even failure” (Andersen)—rather than to embrace the chance of moving forward. By definition, a rut is “a long deep track made by the repeated passage of the wheels of vehicles.” The metaphoric definition is, “a habit or pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change.” It is hard to change because it has been done time and again and when you think about how hard it is to get out of a literal rut, you can understand how it can be equally hard to get out of a metaphorical rut. This explains why when we are forced to make a change—either for a medical or personal or professional reason, it can be very difficult to do so. Even though we may understand cognitively that the change is needed, we are stuck. We put the “car” in reverse and hit the gas and wedge ourselves even further into the rut. We put the “car” in forward and rather than getting out of the rut, we continue to dig ourselves deeper.

Perhaps the easiest way to get out of a rut is never to get in one to begin with. Since this may likely be impossible for most of us—after all, there is often a fine line between creating a solid, predictable routine and a rigid, unproductive rut. So, I guess the more realistic approach for most of us is to try to remain open-minded. Rather than trying to avoid ruts, maybe we can increase our awareness of the possibilities for ruts. In so doing, we can (a) be able to establish creative possibilities that turn into structured predictability AND (b) we can be willing to consider that there may be an even better way to approach the work that we haven’t yet considered. In other words, the issue to be on the look-out for is NOT is a routine needed OR am I in a rut BUT have I shut out other possibilities for opportunities to see this situation differently?


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