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Are You in a Rut?

Small changes can do wonders for your life.

I recently moved from California to Arizona. This latest relocation was an adventure for me—and for my cat family. Needless to say, our routines were thrown into disarray, and our lives experienced a major upheaval. During the transition I was struck by how our daily lives follow a fairly consistent pattern. This got me thinking about why we like routines so much, and how we can maintain stability without getting stuck in a rut.

You may be surprised to learn that animals are fairly predictable. Of course, if you own cats, you may not be amazed by this at all: Cats cling to their routines, preferring nothing to change in their environment (including furniture placement), and often need to be gradually introduced to new food or litter. This type of attachment to familiarity is pretty common across the animal kingdom. I first noticed this tendency while studying prairie dogs. I could predict the timing of the arrival of coyotes on my field sites down to approximately 15 minutes—most of the time. I figured if I could anticipate the arrival of the coyotes with a high degree of accuracy, so could the prairie dogs. Now, I experience a different routine by a different set of coyotes. They crisscross my back yard at predictable times and apparently the social group is enthusiastically reunited at approximately 3:30am. I am hoping they will soon change up their routine.

Why would an animal be so consistent ? Let's think about searching for food.

By Calyponte CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Imperial, or blue-eyed shag, a seabird belonging to the cormorant group, can provide some insight. In one Argentinian colony, researchers found that individuals looked for food in reliable locations, went predictable distances, and spent consistently similar amounts of time searching for food. It’s similar to knowing where all the good restaurants and supermarkets are near your house. The more dependable your food supply, the more efficient you can be when you are hungry. We spend money and gas to locate food, while animals spend energy. But all of us, humans and shags alike, prefer to reduce our time (and for some of us, money) looking for (and let's be honest, preparing) food. That is why we tend to frequent the same restaurants, bars, and supermarkets as well as 'fast food' restaurants.

By I, Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0

This example demonstrates how developing certain habits can lead to greater success. For example, planning out your day the night before, which is frequently recommended as a strategy designed to promote success in business. Squirrel monkeys naturally do this by being highly selective about where they sleep at night. They choose their sleeping sites based on where (and what) they want to have for breakfast. Consider how much planning goes into this decision: To be accurate, they have to keep track of what plants and trees are flowering or producing fruit where and when, as well as when they last ate there. Much like Benjamin Franklin, squirrel monkeys wake up with a plan. Setting aside the possible development of negative habits, routines can help us feel more secure, and even grounded. In humans, as in other species, too much unpredictability leads to unhealthy increases in cortisol. When levels of this stress hormone remain high for too long, our health, emotional well-being, and productivity are negatively impacted.

But can a routine become rut? Might you miss an opportunity to try something new because you’re always doing the same old thing? There can be a fine line between a routine and a rut. When we examine how humans search for food more closely, we discover that some people are more adventurous in trying new things, looking for new restaurants, and expanding their culinary horizons. We also find that some people are shyer than others, which can influence your circle of friends and how comfortable you are trying new things, especially when you're alone. In animal behavior, when we explore the choices individuals make as they search for and consume food, there is a small variable called “missed opportunity costs,” or MOC. These can be missed chances for food or social interactions. Animals are constantly assessing and balancing their choices to minimize risk while simultaneously reducing their MOCs.

How do other animals do this? Let's take a peek at bison, the newly named national mammal of the United States. These enormous creatures face considerable risk feeding in areas where there is a high probability of encountering wolves. Unfortunately for bison, this is precisely where their highest quality food is located. This would be the equivalent of having to drive through an unsafe neighborhood to get to a five-star restaurant. Bison do take advantage of the good food, but avoid hanging out for too long in dangerous areas; they make their next best choice to maximize reward and minimized risk.

What's the take-home message for humans? Develop a strong sense of what constitutes real risk and choose accordingly. Sometimes our personality prevents us from trying new things or exploring new areas, making us stay in place doing the same old thing day after day, year after year. The same is true for Sleepy, or Shingleback, Lizards. These fairly slow-moving, monogamous lizards with a striking blue tongue make their home in Australia. Research reveals that bolder, more aggressive individuals tend to push their boundaries a bit further, ranging over larger areas, and dispersing farther. This gives these lizards a serious advantage when times are tough. This is because when you are apprehensive, your ability to cope with varying conditions can be compromised. Things are always in flux— stable one minute, changing the next. For shy Sleepy Lizards, it's a struggle to quickly adjust or adapt to difficult, changing circumstances.

At the end of the day, re-evaluate if your routine is creating success or holding you back. If it's holding you back it's time to take a risk, however small, and incorporate something new. Even the coyotes, howling and yipping outside of my window at 3 am will soon shift their pattern, moving to a new location, in search of new food, and excitedly reuniting at a different time of day and night. As much as I love having them as part of my day, I am looking forward to them changing it up, even if only by a few blissful hours.

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