Variety Versus Routine

Snowflake, originally uploaded to Flickr by JJSchad.I recently read an article about how “boring is productive” — and they cited numerous CEO-types, including Barack Obama, about how when you take certain choices out of your life, you free your brain to think about other things.  Obama was quoted as saying: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” (Pictured.)

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about people automating their day — many fashion designers wear nothing but all-black, every day; Anna Wintour reportedly eats a bunless hamburger for lunch every day, and in Tim Ferriss’s book, The Four Hour Body, he talks about how you should eat the same few meals over and over again.  Still, I think it can be taken to extremes — a good friend of mine once described how he ate the exact same dinner every night, and knew it was time to eat something else when he started to gag on the first bite.  Um, wah?  Don’t get me wrong, I can see the benefits of routines — less to think about, yay! — but for me it’s always been more complicated.  I could never wear just one outfit, or eat one breakfast, for an extended period of time.  But I do have parameters that I work within — 95% of the time I’m eating one of three breakfast options, or for dinner I’m prepping one of ten dinners that we rotate.  But I think variety is the spice of life.  I used to have weekends where I would “play clothes” and take everything out of my closet, try it on in different combinations, and inevitably find two or three new outfits that were unexpected — color combos that worked, or interesting ways to layer things. While my everyday makeup is the same (and has been for like 15 years), I constantly experiment with new “going out” makeup for weekends and dinner parties.

I don’t know.  I’m just curious, ladies — to what point do you strive to routinize your life?  Do you think it’s an effective way to be more productive — or do you take greater joy from using the full variety of choices available to you, so that each day is unique?


  1. I don’t automate my life much. It leads to more interesting decisions, albeit sometimes worse decisions, but it’s infinitely more interesting than automation in my mind. I don’t think deciding what to wear or what to eat really drains my brain power so much that I can’t make other intelligent, important decisions.

  2. I utilize routines more when I am going through busy/stressful periods. For example, I ate more or less the same thing for lunch when I was studying for the bar exam. It was just more productive to not think about that in the middle of the day.
    Likewise, now when I am busy at work and know that I’ll be working late, I tend to do the same dinners from Trader Joe’s, just because it’s easy.
    I also have clothes that are my go-tos on certain occasions.

    I do wonder with clothes/makeup/hair, if at some point having a routine becomes a dated “don’t” …

    • I’ve thought about this from the makeup/hair perspective a lot, because I’ve kept the same bob (it sometimes gets shorter/longer, but the same shape) and basically the same makeup routine since college. But, both of them are relatively classic and flattering on me (I hope!) such that I don’t feel like I look like I belong in 2001.

      Clothes are trickier – I realize it most when I find something at the bottom of a drawer that used to be a favorite, but didn’t get worn for a few years. I pulled out a turtleneck from ~2004 and was very surprised at how boxy and short it looked in comparison to later styles, something I might not have noticed had it stayed in regular rotation.

      • I’ve had the same daytime makeup routine for years. It’s incredibly basic (foundation, eyeliner on the top lid, mascara). I can’t imagine something so simple being too “trendy”. I do try to update products (ie. heavier foundation to BB cream) to keep it fresh, but I’m so used to seeing myself made up one way I’m probably not an objective judge :)

    • I do this with food as well. I’m a terrible grocery shopper so I eat one of two breaksfasts (eggs + pepper or all bran) and I’ve given myself permission to eat a set salad during the week for lunch. It’s the same price as cooking, healthy, and I stop at M&S after my internship on Monday, buy salads, peppers, and carrots, and eat them all week. It is just one less thing I have to deal with. I tend to visit the same restaurants and eat the same things.

      I also have filters set up on my emails so only really important things get in my inbox (no prioritizing decisions and distractions) and have a nightly routine in which I handwash tights / anything delicate every evening (put it in to soak while I’m showering, rinse and hang while I’m in my towel).

      I get overwhelmed by choice in grocery stores and prefer to wear the same styling of clothing because I can’t grapple with the degree of options. The interesting thing is that I’m quite a snappy decisionmaker when it comes to life decisions. I don’t tend to agonize over decisions and things work quite well.

      • Senior Attorney :

        Yes, I automate my food. I eat the same breakfast every day (steel cut oatmeal, 1/2 oz chopped macadamia nuts, 1/2 a banana) and I love it. I cook the oatmeal ahead for the week so it’s ready to go. I also eat mostly the same dinners when I’m cooking for myself because Mr. Sr Atty is out of town, which is often. And I have a standard order at each of the various lunch places my colleagues and I visit during the week.

  3. I don’t consciously do it – but I observed recently that the majority of my wardrobe is really similar – dark/black long-sleeved tees, and jeans/linen trousers. It just makes it easier in the mornings. I’ve also got some skirts in heavy material, which work with the aforementioned tops… but why make it harder.

    Also, since I’ve started having the exact same thing for breakfast every day, I’ve actually lost weight. I can’t think about food early in the morning, and knowing what I have, and how much, really helps to start the day on the right food.

    • Anonymous Poser :

      +1 re: breakfast!
      Me, too, as far as having an “automated” breakfast making sure I start the day out on the right foot.

  4. Migraine Sufferer :

    I tend towards chaos and away from routine. I try routine on for size every once in a while and it works for a while but entropy is strong and eventually I expand into chaos again.

    Right now I’m on WW and I do eat the same 3-5 things because it works and otherwise I am to undisciplined to track things (I also have tremendous trouble tracking billable hours, so tend to charge flat rates and project rates). As for my wardrobe, I can’t wait until I meet my WW goal so I go to Nordstroms and use their personal shopper and not have to even think about that.

    My schedule is a little more routinized but thats more outside forces and its not very strict. It really just something that tends to fall in place and that to is highly subject to entrophy.

  5. I am totally routine-driven, precisely for the reasons Obama articulates. It makes my life easier. I get up at the same time every day, follow the same morning routine, and leave the house precisely at the same time. I have 2 or 3 hairstyles that I rotate for work and do the same makeup every morning, which takes me 10 minutes (hair and makeup). I don’t really have a clothing “uniform”, but I have everything in my closet very organized so it is easy to find. I go through long stretches of having the same thing for breakfast every morning, and I rotate among about 4 lunch options. All of that makes my work day flow so much more easily. My evenings are less scripted but they all end with a bedtime routine that has not varied in years. It just helps me function so much more effectively and concentrate on the important stuff.

  6. Interesting question. One area where I think routine is key: exercise. My rule is that every single weekday I get up, eat (the exact same) breakfast, and work out. I’m not in a position to think about anything at 6 am, and if I do put it off, or consider it negotiable, it may not happen.

    Not sure about makeup. Lately I’ve pared down my eye makeup but expanded to a huge lipstick collection. This means I have one makeup decision per day only.

    I don’t like thinking much about my hair. Usually the style is dictated by when it was last washed and what the forecast is for the day.

    With clothes, I feel like if you love everything you own (a long, hard and expensive journey, I know!) your decisions every morning are much easier. I’ve also started hanging things in unexpected order–like, the opposite of organization–because it gives me ideas for pairings that I wouldn’t get otherwise.

  7. Meg Murry :

    I’ve posted this before, but I have ADHD, a complete in-ability to get my laundry done and put away regularly and often have to get dress in semi-darkness to avoid waking up my husband or kids. After coming to work wearing one black sock and one brown sock one too many times I gave up. My workweek and weekend neutrals are black and gray – period. All colored clothes must go with black or gray, and my shoes are black, gray or an obvious bright color that is NOT black or gray. No brown, no navy – the only exception being special occasion dresses, like ones I wear to a wedding – and that is only because I was in a wedding that required me to buy brown shoes and a brown clutch. I buy bags of socks that are all the same – 10 pairs of black socks, 10 pairs of white for working out, etc so I don’t have to waste time finding matching socks. I do the same thing with my kids socks – I love the gold toe kids socks because they have gold stripes on them to indicate the size, so I can separate my socks from my kids (My son wears the smalls, I wear boys large for my casual socks).
    I also make steel cut oatmeal in a big batch on the weekend and then dish it out into indivdual pyrex containers for 3-4 days worth of breakfast. Sometimes that gets dull, but its better than being hungry or eating breakfast from the drive thru or vending machine.

  8. AngelaEsq :

    I will eat the same breakfast, lunch and dinner for weeks or months on end. I go through phases where I wear the same type of outfits for months. Suits, then dresses, the pants. It’s not conscious, I’m just crazy. I never realized that it does free me for the rest of my crazy life: international in house attorney, professor, mother and cancer suvivor.

    • I’m the same when it comes to food. Currently breakfast is a fried egg on English muffin, I would guess I’ll switch to baked oatmeal sometime in November and switch up my fruit mix-ins until it gets warm again and I’ll switch to Greek yogurt and fruit. Lunch is a side salad and leftovers or microwave meal. Dinner is whatever I feel like cooking. My weekends tend to be a little bit looser because I have more time to cook or social things to do.

      I’ve been sorting my closet and I have 4 pairs of grey pants and 4black pairs along with 2 pairs of navy pants so it’s hard to find a ton of variety with that base wardrobe but I have some go-to color combos or shirt/cardigan combos that are interchangeable. I had no idea I was doing this until I started typing.

  9. I automate huge chunks of my life: exercise, make-up, food. There’s variation in my night-time activities, but that’s it. The rest of my day is highly routinized. I wear a lot of different outfits, but I lay them out at night (when I am in non-routine mode), so that I don’t have to make decisions in the morning.

  10. I absolutely do this for things I’m not good at. I schedule bill pay as much as possible, auto-transfer from checking to savings/investment accounts, cleaning lady every 2 weeks, coordinated wardrobe so everything goes together, etc. I especially do it with food, although I eventually get tired of having the same thing every day for breakfast and mix it up. I also ‘schedule’ exercise (in the form of group classes). Otherwise, I won’t do it.

  11. Can someone please explain the Tim Ferris thing to me? He strikes me as a big fraud, and annoying to boot, but people seem to buy into his four hour philosophies. Any insight would be appreciated.

    • Susan (edna_mode_nyc) :

      Can’t explain him to you, as he comes across to me as yet another one of those people who’ve managed to figure out their niche, is selling it as if there’s no tomorrow, and is overly hyper to perhaps hide the lack of real substance behind the cliches. I really can’t stand “personalities” like his.

    • What is the basis for his statement that you can sleep 2 hours a night and be as productive as on 8 hours of sleep? How does that work? Do I have to sleep at a certain time or in a certain way? I would kill to need only 2 hours of sleep but I have real trouble imagaining how this would work out. It sounds way to good to be true. Has anyone read what he says on this topic?

    • eastbaybanker :

      I skimmed his 4-hour work week book and he makes a case for outsourcing everything. He had a personal assistant hired cheaply in India who managed all of his email, and even handled apologies to his wife. I think there’s value in thinking about simplification, like automating bill payments, but he takes it to an extreme. If I’m not confusing books, he also advocates for looking at money in terms of cash flow instead of wealth. I could be “rich” and drive some ridiculous luxury car if I paid the minimum on my student loans and spent all the money I made. That also seems absurd to me. Overall a novel idea but not a lot of substance.

  12. I found routine helped a LOT when I was traveling. I traveled to the same client every week for 10-12 week periods, so I would try to get the same hotel room, keep my travel things in the same place (hotel key in the same pocket in my laptop bag, unpack in the hotel room in the same way, etc), packed for my trips in the same way; basically create as much of a short term routine for myself as possible. It kept me sane :)

    In my “real” life, though, I get bored quickly with routine – I keep staples around so that I can get creative for meals, and love “shopping” in my closet, like you mentioned.

    • I have huge travel routines. I always park in the same area at the airport, put the parking ticket in the same spot in the car, the shuttle pickup ticket in the same spot in my purse, etc. It all means that when I get home tired and brain dead I don’t have to think about any of that.

      I also have a nighttime routine I’m working on. Actually it’s more like a nighttime check list of things I need to get done at night. It’s important for me to get certain things accomplished in the evenings because I’m pretty useless in the morning….

  13. Anon in NYC :

    I tend towards more of a routine. I almost exclusively wear dresses with a cardigan or blazer, or skirts with a variety of tops/sweaters. I try to make sure that each item I buy can work with a few other options so I don’t wind up exclusively with “outfits” and I don’t have to think at all about what I’m wearing because I know that that top will work with at least 3 skirts. I think that as I get older/busier/have kids, I’ll probably simplify my wardrobe even more than I do now and buy more dresses because it’s one fewer item of clothing to think about.

    I wear the same minimal makeup every day, and only have one hairstyle (out of necessity – I don’t know how to do anything with my hair!). I lean towards eating the same thing every morning (oats).

    I *need* to get into a routine with morning exercise. My evenings are too busy for me to guarantee a workout, so I need to get better at hauling myself out of bed.

  14. There are a lot of studies that show that humans have limited capacity for decision making. Many have looked at this in the context of poverty or weight. When you spend your whole day making decisions about whether to pay the phone bill or the gas bill, or whether to buy your kids two pairs of jeans or a pair of jeans and sneakers, it becomes harder to make good decisions about other aspects of life because your brain is mentally exhausted from making budget calculations 24/7. Similarly, when your whole day is reduced to hundreds of little decisions about the amount of calories to eat now versus later, it becomes extremely difficult to keep it up, and why many dieters burn out and binge later. It’s why diets that limit food available are often extremely successful in the short term – they take the decision making out of the equation.

    Basically, the human brain can only make so many decisions in any given day. If you max out early on tiny things, you have no energy left to make good decisions where it really matters.

    I have not ever thought about this theory in the context of work. But it makes a lot of sense. I may try to think about ways in which I can remove stupid decisions from my day to focus on the big thing.

    • S; thank you! That makes sense. I’ve been treating each morning like an endless bunch of decisions- make coffee first? read the paper? shower? Starting tomorrow I’ll make my mornings routine.

  15. I have to have a morning routine or it would take me forever to get ready. I get up at the same time, do the same things to get ready (shower, hair, makeup), eat the same breakfast, leave at the same time. Clothing varies but I try to think about it in advance or I will dither over something and be late. I used to eat the same lunch every day but I got really bored with it and have started to vary that. I’ve also gone through periods of eating the same thing for dinner every night (salad with chicken, strawberries and feta) but that changed when I started cooking for my SO and myself more. My workouts are completely routine-driven and have to be. Weights three nights a week, right after work, treadmill six nights a week, Wednesday off.

  16. The kind of research cited in the first article linked is right in my wheelhouse, so I’m probably being too picky, but I think this post misses the point a little. The idea is that the ability to choose, to fundamentally make decisions, is in many ways a limited psychological resource. Many studies have demonstrated that people who are asked to make lots of decisions can start to suffer from a real degradation of their decision quality. For example, one study followed the decisions made by an Israeli parole board. Over the course of hundreds of cases, researchers found that prisoners who appeared at the beginning of the day and right after meals/snacks were significantly more likely to be paroled than prisoners appearing at the end of the day or before meals, when resources were running low. The researchers theorized that, in the face of the decision fatigue, the parole board members were much more attracted to the status quo– i.e., not making a “real” decision, and sending the prisoners back to prison. Marketing researchers have done a lot of work on this as well, and it’s the real science behind things like impulse-buy aisles. There’s a reason that, at the end of a long shopping trip, you’re more likely to grab that candy bar or copy of “The Enquirer” in the checkout line!

    So when we’re talking about high-powered people who have to make a lot of decisions (I think we can agree that the President and CEOs often have to make more decisions than even the average professional), I think it is really very natural–and probably even desirable–that they feel the desire to eliminate “smaller” decisions. I imagine that, for those people, the physical, emotional, and psychological benefits of routine are much bigger than they would be for, say, me. Would I want to wear or eat the same thing every day? No. Definitely not. But if my mental resources were as highly taxed as these folks, I think I might feel differently. There are definitely nights when the last thing I want to do is make a decision about dinner — and those are the nights when I’m more likely to fall back on delicious, and very unhealthy things! :)

    • Thanks for this post. I got the general gist from above, but your explanation is much more thorough :)

    • TO Lawyer :

      Thanks for this. I agree with your last point – sometimes when I’m busy or stressed, I just don’t eat dinner or eat snacks instead of a real meal because the idea of making yet another decision of what to eat just seems completely overwhelming. I like that there’s a legitimate explanation for me not being able to make a tiny decision though!

    • Even though I don’t make as many decisions as the president, this is why I try routines. It still is making a decision. You just pre-load the decision to a time when you have resources. On shopping days I get to use my decisional resources to select work appropriate clothes that match, foods that are easy to prepare and eat, and makeup that looks good and is realtively healthy for my skin. Then on other days, I don’t have to make a ton of tiny decisions. I can save all my resources to make the important decisions.

      The same is true of scheduling. When I was in school, I made a schedule of study times for finals making sure each subject got what it needed. Then, when I was in the moment I didn’t have to decide what to study, I just follwed the chart.

      I also assume CEOs and Presidents off load decisions to other brains in addition to other times. I don’t think the president is shopping for his suits himself or picking out the dinner menu each night. I’m sure people with stay at home spouses also enjoy the benefits of non-decision making.

    • Yes JessBee, that’s exactly what I understood from those studies too, thanks for explaining it so well. I agree that most of us don’t have as decision-filled days as Presidents, even Presidents of small countries. And personally I enjoy variety a lot, so variety must be a constant in my life, if that makes sense :-). I get bored very easily, and generally prefer to avoid it. But it’s true that I also benefit from a bit of routine in specific cases. Breakfast, before I’m really at all functional. Stressful times, like around a move (I can have burritos for dinner for 2 weeks on end then). More stressful times at work (clothes drop to whatever is first in the clean laundry pile). In short, I believe the thing about potential decision burnout. I don’t consider what to wear as earth-shattering though, or usually worth more than 2 neuron’s activity, that may be where the difference lies.

  17. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately – not with clothing or food or anything, but I’ve been thinking about how much more productive I was (felt?) back when I was one of many in a big corporation, working from a worklist and doing the same stuff over and over again, as compared to now (small law firm, general practice, means that everything is different).

    I actually sort of miss the drone-ism. Weird, huh?

    • I don’t think that sounds weird at all. My job is like that, too, and sometimes I wonder why we have to reinvent the wheel EVERY time we start a project. Must we be insane all the time? :)

      My daily routines are pretty important to me. I could stand to pare down my routine even more for meals and clothing. I feel like I waste time and energy on both.

      • Regular Reader, Rare Commenter :

        “Must we be insane all the time?”

        HAHAHA. You hit the nail on the head. This is EXACTLY how I’m feeling right now!

    • Big_4_Escapee :

      Amen!!! I deeply miss the regimented routines of public accounting. We had established templates and procedures for everything, down to the proper naming of Word files. Now that I work in small biz, I feel like I’m re-inventing the wheel

  18. Not me. I get bored easily. I change up dinners, makeup, outfits. I do have lots of old standbys, but I like new things and new challenges. I have some routines, I think everyone has to when you have a job (and especially with kids), but I try to change things up a bit from time to time. The same clothes all the time – yikes. I’d go mad.

    • Same for me!! I get so bored easily. Are you a gemini?

      • Of Counsel :

        I’m a double Gemini. I don’t need constant challenges or variety in what I put on every day. If look good and feel comfortable, I’m more than happy. Now with work projects I DO like variety, but that’s a different issue.

        Trying to keep up with every little development, including in regard to things that should not be so important, like fashion, is exhausting.

  19. Seventh Sister :

    Having a routine is helpful with kids, at least for me. With an office job, it’s hard for me to get out of the house in the morning if lunches are not packed and clothes not laid out the night before. Even on weekends, it seems best to have a game plan to get out of the house to avoid a mutiny by little people who are rendered irrational by too many episodes of “The Backyardigans.”

    It also seems to calm the kids down if they know that after breakfast comes toothbrushing, after stories comes bedtime, etc. I’m planner and my husband is not, but we do try to have routines, even fun ones like “Friday Night Pizza Movie Night.”

    I’m sure other people do more interesting and creative things with their kids (see: the mommy blogosphere), but I have little crafting guilt. I have much, much more absence of photo album guilt.

  20. You know, I have never ever thought about routine this way, and I find this post so interesting. I am certainly not in the same stress level as Obama, but for me, my stress level has skyrocketed in the past year. I think I might have to streamline something in my life. Maybe food is the way to go. I love to cook, but my job involves thinking about food all day, every day. So, it’s not like I don’t get variety at work, ha.

  21. I used to think I’d get bored with a routine for things – food, clothes, etc. But, I have found I really thrive in it; with the occassional “splurges.”

    My family rotates the same 3-4 dinners throughout the week. Every now and then we’ll have something different, just to shake things up, but it’s a weekend thing. I make one of two breakfasts during the week, but on weekends we have pancakes or waffles because we have more time.

    In terms of clothes, I like black so I wear a lot of that color with splashes of color. I should probably pick a wider variety of color combinations and am planning to start replacing my wardrobe after I give birth and lose the baby weight.

    My workouts, thankfully, do rotate per my trainer, but I’ll do the same one for 1-2 weeks which is almost comforting to me (or not depending on the workout!! ;) )

    I never thought I’d be a routine type of gal, but it definitely helps keep me sane!

  22. Mmm. I find it fascinating that this topic, in what is presumably a forum for women with busy lives filled with decision-making, is getting so little comment. I can see how comfortable shoes would totally rate high on the scale of things that allow you to do high-power work :-). Can’t think at all with pinched toes myself. But so few people want to even consider how interesting recent developments in neurology could help one lead a more efficient life, and how this might affect us??

  23. What a great discussion. In the aftermath of the storm, with no power and no school for 4 kids, I am craving to go back to my normal routine. Routine is very calming if you are prone to anxiety and stress!

  24. Of Counsel :

    I tend to like uniforms. It relaxes me to wear the same kind of flattering, comfortable outfits. The problem is that I often don’t have enough clothes that fit, flatter, are in good shape and are reasonably priced. All my shoes are black. Part of this has resulted from my having small feet and having grown tired of searching for the perfect shoe that doesn’t exist. Black goes with everything.

    Although I am not immune to fashion, all the fashion news is designed to make women crazy and make money for clothing companies and all the others who sell an image without which they claim women can’t be successful.

    I tend to go through periods in which I eat pretty much the same thing every day. If there’s a new local food place near work after a few experiments I usually order the same thing every time.

  25. I have a strong routine in my food – I eat 1 of 3 possible breakfasts every morning, and for lunch will either have leftovers or a sandwich.

    When I started keeping track of my food as part of a weight loss program, I realized my dinners had a theme every week – Mondays were usually some kind of stir fry, Tuesdays were some kind of soup, Wednesdays were a pasta dish, Thursdays were a salad, and Fridays were either eaten out or a more traditional “meat and potatoes” dish. There are variations in the specific choices, but almost every week, that’s how my menu looked. There’s enough variety that I don’t get bored, but it does make menu planning and grocery shopping easier.

    I also have a hair and makeup routine that’s been the same since college (I’m 28). It’s a fairly natural look, so I don’t think it’s getting too dated or looks too young.

    I agree with others above that at times of high stress, my routine gets much more predictable.

    • I’ll add to that last paragraph (hit send too soon)…

      During high stress, the place my routine gets the most obvious is in my wardrobe. I tend to grab the same things because I know they’re flattering and comfortable. I’m much more willing to take risks with my style when I’m feeling relaxed.

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