Retiring Well: Overcome the Force of Habit that Locks You into Routine

In my previous article on retiring well, I discussed a few key insights into creating a great lifestyle. Having a splendid vision for your life is a step in the right direction. How do you make sure that you can actually follow through with it?

I believe it is essential to understand the fundamental reason underlying our ability (or rather lack thereof) to handle change: our brain is built in such a way that strongly predisposes us to favor routine. We are the proverbial creatures of habit. Let me provide some basic facts from brain research.

When we encounter something new, our working memory compares it to existing knowledge, and activates the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is energy-intensive. Acquiring new information, getting an insight into your behavior or learning a new habit takes a lot of energy. And it is exceedingly difficult to do if you have a low energy level in general, are distracted by multitasking or overloaded with information. It is also extremely easy to get involved in your own, or other people’s drama, reliving the same event or emotion for years. You need a high energy level and a clear head to create some space for change. Otherwise, you are stuck in a vicious circle because you do not have the reserves to break out of your routine and create new, beneficial habits. This could mean retiring to a lifestyle that is less than you deserve. For example, if you were too busy to spend time preparing healthy meals when you were working, you still wouldn't change your habits, although retiring would open up the time for you to do it. 

Routine activity, on the other hand, is handled by the basal ganglia near the core part of the brain. It requires significantly less energy. While working memory fatigues easily, the basal ganglia handles routine activity using little energy and without any conscious thought. This is actually a great system, because our brain can push down habitual activity into the basal ganglia and free up its resources in the prefrontal cortex to deal with anything new. But the system backfires when our routine needs to be changed. It is too energy consuming, and it wears you out. It is uncomfortable enough that most people simply back off. And so many put up with retiring to a life of drudgery.

To complicate matters even further, the part of the brain called the orbital frontal cortex is responsible for comparing expectations to actuality, and sending out strong signals (which literally show as bursts of light on imaging technology) when the two differ. The implication is that changing your routine sends out a signal that something is wrong. As a result, not only will you experience some discomfort, but the strength of the signal actually diverts attention from areas of the brain responsible for rational thought. So, you will have to struggle with the discomfort while trying to rationally assess the situation - not something that can be easily handled.

Understanding these mechanisms is extremely important because it prepares you to brace yourself for your reactions. Instead of abandoning any plans for change, you will expect that retiring will initially create some discomfort, but it will also provide you with an opportunity to create new, beneficial habits.

Here are a few simple, yet effective strategies that will clear some mental and emotional space for change:

1. Automate routine activities

Lack of organization prevents us from leveraging our proclivity for routine. Make sure you set up a good system for handling any repetitive activities, for example, bill payments. Establish a good filing and payment routine. Spend some time to come up with a good system and then have it run itself, without taking up much of your attention.

2. Avoid being unnecessarily interrupted

E-mail or similar activities that interrupt your day should also be organized around your time preferences. I have a personal e-mail account for important personal mail, and another general account for newsletters, sales promotions and alumni announcements. I review the general account once a week all at once, and it frees up my time because I receive few e-mails during the day. Separate urgent from important, and you will feel more relaxed as you become more productive.

3. Handle less than you can – it is wise to have some reserves

The best way to create more energy, and more mental and emotional space is to have fewer things on your plate than you can actually handle. Do not overstretch yourself, build in some reserves. I understand that it is difficult to do, but it is absolutely possible. Keeping in mind the 20/80 rule, I would not be surprised if 20 percent of people generated 80 percent of drama in your life. Minimize contact with them, and you will feel your lungs fill with air. Ahhhh …  On a more serious note, I found that if I am respectful and let people know, via a text message or an e-mail, that I couldn’t get back to them immediately, they get it. “I got your message,” I write, “I’m working on a few important things and I will call you back in three days.” I turns out that, unless something really urgent is going on, people would rather get my undivided attention in a few days than have me rushed and stressed out when I call them back in ten minutes. Learn to under schedule and under promise. Clear up the space you need to actually improve your life and create more ways to be joyful. This is what retiring is all about!

Before we get to brain researcher’s prescriptions for handling change, there is one more thing you need to know about the brain – the fact that it’s a quantum environment, subject to the laws of quantum physics. More information on this fascinating topic in the next article. Continued here

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