Oliver Burkeman: This column will change your life

The definition of insanity, someone once said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It's not exactly clear who this someone was: pop-psychology authors, who love this quote, attribute it randomly to Einstein, Freud, Benjamin Franklin or, that safest bet of all, "an ancient Chinese saying". (Another ancient Chinese saying: he who wants to lend spurious credibility to his advice should claim it comes originally from an ancient Chinese saying.) But whoever said them first, there's wisdom in the words. We always say we want things to be different - in our relationships, work, health, whatever - but then we spend our lives locked in comfortable routines that ensure things stay the same.

"Break your routines" has long been a favourite maxim among overexcited motivational speakers and their ilk. Happily for sceptics like me, though, it's increasingly supported by neuroscience. Making even tiny, seemingly irrelevant changes to your daily patterns - taking a different route to work or rearranging furniture - can stimulate nerve cells and boost production of neurotrophins, which help brain cells thrive. There's some suggestion this might even slow the onset of Alzheimer's.

Routines help reinforce the illusion that we have a fairly large degree of control over our lives. This isn't true, but it's comforting - until something happens to shatter the illusion, jolting us back into confrontation with reality. Your routines will fail you in the end, so choosing to break everyday ones can act as a sort of limbering-up for inevitable crises. "The less routine, the more life," said Amos Bronson Alcott, the New England transcendentalist philosopher (and Louisa May's father). He also believed root vegetables were evil because they didn't point up towards heaven, but never mind about that for now.

Making subtle changes in your environment is a powerful tactic because they're often easier than mental or behavioural ones. You can't will yourself into being more creative, for example. But you can change rooms: according to a paper in this month's Journal Of Consumer Research, people brainstorm more freely, and are better at thinking abstractly, in high-ceilinged rooms. Low ceilings, by contrast, encourage better performance on technical, detailed tasks. Or take diet: as the blogger Steve Pavlina notes, it takes the willpower of a saint to give up unhealthy food and eat healthily. But it takes only a brief surge of enthusiasm - long enough for a trip to the supermarket - to switch the bad food in your fridge for better stuff. By the time the motivation wears off, you've tilted the playing field in favour of good health. (I'm working on this one. Please don't come and check my fridge just yet.)

Of course, the real point is to disrupt stale routines because they're stale, not to declare war on all routine. Many routines make perfect sense. As someone else once said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result isn't only the definition of insanity: it's also the definition of fishing.


Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.