We dread predictability

Human beings are uncomfortable with anything which is repetitive. People dread doing jobs that need repetition. In the film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin parodied the mind-numbing work that assembly line workers had to do. 

Fast food, assembly lines, shipping and receiving are some of the industries that have set routines for most jobs. Employees use standard operating procedures. 

Most of us slip on the same shoe first every day. People wear dark blue or black suits to reduce decision-making during rush hour. Our daily routine comforts us. 

Change is stressful

Changing jobs is stressful because the people, the company and the role are all different. A new CEO brings in members from the past organisations to create a moat of certainty in the new environment. 

While travelling to a foreign country if no one speaks your language, it is stressful. Expatriate assignments are stressful because they need the entire family to adapt to the new environment. People who are quick to adapt and open to new ideas find such an environment stimulating. 

Predictability is comforting

We dislike predictability. The mind figures out patterns. We love surprises because they break patterns. As long as we can predict what the next step is, the brain moves to auto-pilot mode. When someone describes his or her job as “dull” or “having no challenge”, you can bet there is nothing new.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to this as System 1 thinking. System 1 thinking is fast, instinctive and emotional. In System 2 thinking the decision is slow, effortful and logical. It accounts for only 2% of our thinking.

When we learn to drive a car, we are using System 2. It is stressful and exhausting. The brain forms new connections between neurons. Learning anything new is slow and painful. 

Uncertain times

Dealing with complexity or uncertainty, makes our brain use System 2 thinking. People describe the current scenario as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). VUCA describes all the stress inducing conditions. The brain is on high-alert trying to survive. 

The pandemic has threatened our survival. Our daily routines have changed. The news reports deaths and the lack of helplessness of experts. There is talk of job loss and businesses shutting down. People are working from home with the children and the elderly. 

For daily wage earners, every day of quarantine is a loss of earning. People’s savings are running low. Experts cannot predict the return to “normalcy”. Social distancing is causing us to feel isolated and lonely. When we see someone, we secretly wonder if that person is carrying the deadly virus. Nations are blaming one another for starting the chaos. Everyone is in System 2 thinking round the clock. 

Uncertain times and routines

Comfort-food is a stress reliever. We throw caution to the winds and indulge in a routine that brings back memories of happy times and nostalgia. Friends and loved ones renew our faith. For some turning to religion is reassuring. Routines build a sequence that we know and have done before. Routines are necessary for mental health during times of stress and uncertainty.

  1. Wake up and sleep at fixed times: These act like bookends of our day. Recreating as much of the pre-quarantine routines can tell your brain that things are under control. In regular times, predictability causes boredom. In uncertain times, predictability heals.
  2. Limit news consumption: Avoid news that makes you pessimistic. Stop constantly checking for virus “updates” and survival tips. We have survived several wars, pandemics and devastation in the past. This too shall pass. Look instead for movies and shows that make you laugh.
  3. Dress up for work: If you are working from home, shower and dress up the way you did every day before the quarantine. A couple celebrated their anniversary at home last week. Both dressed up as if they were going to dine out at an upmarket restaurant.
  4. Social distancing, not isolation: Call a few friends every day, make video calls to people who are optimistic and make you laugh. Loneliness damages your health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  5. Revive a hobby: Hobbies bring back memories of happy times. There are apps that teach you everything from yoga and meditation to new languages. Spend some time every day to indulge yourself.

Routines and rituals have a soothing effect. These are times when predictability is what you need to create.