The Problem With Sticking To Routines Too Much, According To Research

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Image by chuttersnap / Unsplash

When it comes to making choices, what's your preference: going with the tried-and-true option that you know works or opting to try something new to see what happens?

Listen, as far as I'm concerned, most logical people would and should go for the former. I'm a routine, routine, routine type of person. Seeking and maintaining stability guides all my decisions. But a curious new study suggests people like me might be sabotaging ourselves in the long run.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, was about fishing boats. Yes, fishing boats. Researchers wanted to understand whether it's more beneficial to stick to familiar patterns or to try new things when possible. To do this, they tracked over 500,000 logbook records on over 100 fishing boats, tracking whether they tended to stay in the same areas to fish or tended to explore more and test out different fishing spots regularly. 

You may think the boats who found great fishing spots and stuck to them would tend to catch more fish and make more money than the boats that took the risk of moving around all the time to try out lots of different spots, which might mean they'd sometimes land on a spot that doesn't yield much of anything. But the researchers found that in times of stability, the more exploratory boats actually had comparable success to the boats that stayed in familiar zones.

But here's the thing: In times of disruption—for example, when an entire bay gets shut down for some political or weather-related reason—the more exploratory boats were significantly less affected by the disruption. While the boats that had their one great spot closed down suffered greatly in terms of how much they could catch, those explorative boats were able to manage the sudden change in environment with much more ease, and their output suffered much less because of it. 

If you're thinking this sounds much more like an old proverb than a scientific study, we're on the same page here. 

But the take-away is clear: Routines and rituals are incredibly comforting and soothing, but if you're not also practicing how to stay on your toes and put yourself into new environments, you're going to be in for a rough time the next time life throws you off your carousel by force. These results suggest it's a good idea to always be expanding and exploring outside your comfort zone, even in times of calmness and stability. That way, you're ready for the next time the storm hits.

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