When I was in college, I took a required class called Sensation and Perception. It was composed of half psych majors (me) and half neuroscience majors (not me but wished it was me). I loved my major. I was fully interested in just about everything about it, and this class was one of my favorites. I loved watching the way the neuroscience students understood/processed compared to us psych majors. The class discussed the way we view the world from a neuropsychological viewpoint and I was like, “yes, please.” I’ve carried this interest throughout my life. So when I come across something that uses science or at least an analytical approach to explain human phenomena (if that makes sense), I am fully interested. I found this article in my fave publication, Psychology Today and drew hearts all around it. I also thought it very fitting for the season.
As you read, you may consider how you can apply it to the hustle and bustle of Christmas. You might ask yourself, are these traditions worth carrying on? Do I feel burnt out at the end of Christmas? Why? Here’s to a more selective Christmas season--celebrating a little more intentionally and a lot more simply. Remember: it’s just simple math.
Renewal By Subtraction
By Carin Eriksson Lindvall, Ph.D.
It is an indelible fact of human life that we prefer to add rather than subtract. Change isn’t easy. Human instinct is to solve problems by adding to what already exists, making things more complicated. In our personal lives, work lives, and organizations, we introduce new routines and policies on top of existing ones, until we are bound in a web of complexity.
Inertia inclines us to continue doing things we’ve done before; so does having invested money, time, or effort in them. On top of that, we squeeze in meetings and other commitments even though we have neither the time nor the desire to do them. What is true of individuals is true of organizations. As organizational research shows, upper-level managers, on assuming a new role, introduce programs of change by adding solutions, routines, and policies to the formal organizational structure. A proposal to eliminate a practice or task could even have negative consequences if it is seen as not creative, positive, forthcoming, or appreciative of coworkers. We may also believe that existing routines are there for a reason.
By definition, routines are solutions to yesterday’s problems, and they are freeing. They relieve us of having to think through every step we take. The brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic procedure, and the more internalized it is, the less brain power is needed. We rely on good regimens so that we can use our brains for better or more demanding things. And therein lies the problem. When we are doing them, we leave our routines unquestioned.
Once the pandemic hit, however, many existing practices had little relevance to new problems. Commuting did not stop viral spread. People were forced to subtract old procedures, meetings , and all kinds of social events from their calendars and to-do lists. After the shock of disruption, many found it rewarding to have done so.
People discovered not only that change by subtraction was possible but that deletion and simplification can make life more fulfilling. Subtraction leaves room for renewals. It’s also in keeping with much ancient wisdom. Aristotle’s observation that we become what we repeatedly do advises us to be selective about the habits and routines we adopt. The Stoics found virtue in simplification.
We now have an unprecedented opportunity to choose how to resume our lives. The world is too complex to be navigated just with routines, but without them we become lost and inefficient. We need to return only to the ones that match current problems and make life more rewarding.