By Angela Noel Lawson
April 5, 2019
I know I’m not alone in wanting to stay awake when it seems like the latest news about something less-than-awesome is trying to put me into a stupefied, fear-fueled funk.
My thoughts, constantly stream across the billboard of my mind, informing both my words and actions. They are the underlying code governing my emotional, physical, and social self. Because routines offer shortcuts to my heavily-taxed brain, I rely on these thought patterns to simplify my life. In short, I need some routines to keep myself sane. For example, if I don’t put my keys in the same place every day I frantically search pockets, countertops, and sometimes the cheese drawer to find them.
But, if I want to invite more joy, laughter, purpose, and meaning into my life I need to challenge these shortcuts and regular operating procedures. So here’s a few strategies I use to shake some life into my. . . you know, life.
1. See advocates, not adversaries
Each of us encounter tough situations, at work or at home. A call to the cable company, for instance, can be maddening. My brain is ready to do battle to get what I want. But, what if, instead of focusing on what I want to get, I focus on what I want to give? Thinking, “I want to be that customer service rep’s best call of the day,” can powerfully impact how I enter the conversation and what I invite as a result. With a difficult co-worker, I might shift from, “I have to deal with him today,” to, “how can I find a way be a good partner to him so we both get what we want?”
2. Exchange judgment for curiosity
The term Otherisation was coined by neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor. It’s the process by which we box people different from ourselves into classifications. This makes it easier for us to think of them as deficient. It happens to me in small ways, like when I assume the guy in the BMW is an arrogant jerk. Or the starlet that has a nose job is vain. But it also happens in much more serious contexts.
Becoming mindful when an assumption gets in the way of seeing the humanity of another person as equal in importance to my own begins with the effort to start with curiosity, not judgment. For example, maybe the pressure to be beautiful is so crushing (I’ve experienced it myself) the starlet felt she had to get plastic surgery just to keep her job? Or maybe the guy with the BMW worked his whole life to buy the car of his dreams, and now he’s got it. If either of these people were my friends, I’d know their stories. I’d empathize. I’d be a fan, not a critic. Just because I don’t know them personally (yet) doesn’t mean I should assume the worst.
3. Find a different question
I once heard Elizabeth Gilbert, author of several books including Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, share a secret about meeting new people. On a book tour she knew she’d encounter a number of strangers like taxi drivers or event coordinators assigned to help her get where she was going. She decided that instead of asking the regular questions like, “How are you?” or “What do you do?” She’d ask some version of, “What are you passionate about?” More often than not, this question invited better conversations. It didn’t focus on the ordinary. Instead, she disrupted the normal routine and found a new way to connect. I practiced that idea on a particularly memorable cab ride and on other occasions as well. It’s an excellent way to see the world–and other people–in new ways.
4. Challenge my senses
Psychology Today notes five senses meditation practice can be a powerful stress reliever. But even if I don’t have time or space for quiet meditation, I can still capture some of the benefits. For example, when I’m looking out a window at work, or grabbing a coffee at my favorite shop, I ask myself: What am I seeing? Hearing? Smelling? How does the wind taste? What’s the quality of the light? How does this first sip taste on my tongue? How would I describe the way the sun looks right now? These extra moments of reflection can lift me out of the daily grind.
5. See something, say something
This phrase is most often used in the context of seeing something suspicious and saying something to an authority of some kind. But it’s just as useful in reminding myself to see good things and say something about them.
For instance, ten years ago a stranger stopped me at a Target store to tell me she loved the way I was talking to my infant son. This woman saw something she thought was good, and took a moment to say something about it. Her words had several positive effects. At the very least she made a new parent feel just a bit more confident about her parenting. But she also left a lasting impression.
More recently, I bought cupcakes at a local bakery as a treat for my family. They loved the cupcakes so much I went back to the bakery, found the baker, and told her so. As I walked away, I heard her tell a co-worker, “Well, that just made my day.” Hearing the smile in her voice made my day.
6. Make eye contact and hold on a little longer
Consider Amanda Palmer, alt rock icon. She was a street performer for years. In her TED talk, viewed more than eight million times, she says,
“So I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks, and we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in a city street, and we would sort of fall in love a little bit. And my eyes would say – ‘Thank you. I see you.’ And their eyes would say – ‘Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.’”
We can all be a little kinder, a little bolder, a little more able to see the good, and to find a way to communicate it with a smile, a word, or even allowing our eyes to meet for an extra moment without looking away.
Not Just a Regular Life
A definition of routine offers an important clue about its nature and purpose in our lives: “Performed as part of a regular procedure, rather than for a special reason.” I don’t want to live a regular life, where one day I wake up and it’s all passed me by.
But I would like to find my keys.
Your turn: How do you break your routines? What helps you feel alive?