I live in a city that had ox-cart drivers as its original city planners.
Winnipeg’s main routes emanate out from the centre where the two rivers meet in a pattern that roughly resembles spokes of a wheel. Most of these routes were established along the original ox-cart trails that brought traders from throughout the centre of the continent to the Red River Settlement where the Red and Assiniboine rivers converge. The ox-carts are long gone, but the map of Winnipeg has been forever shaped by the paths they etched into the prairie. Consequently, you will find all manner of odd street configurations here. It is possible for two streets to run roughly parallel for miles, and then mysteriously intersect. You can have a street that cuts a diagonal across a neighbourhood that is otherwise laid out in a fairly standard rectangular grid. There is even a major intersection that has been lovingly nicknamed “Confusion Corner.”
All the ritual “back to school” activities of the last few weeks have me thinking about ruts and routines. My youngest commented a few days ago that she was looking forward to getting back into a routine with school starting. As much as I love the lazy open-endedness of summer, I must admit I like the routine of the school year too. At the same time, I am a lover of change. I hate the feeling of being in a rut– of treading the same path over and over until I have worn it into a major thoroughfare– even if it is no longer the best route to where I want to be.
So what is the difference between a rut and a routine? Etymologically, they are both connected to “route”– to the idea of travelling along a path. But the way we typically use these words suggests very different connotations.
Ruts happen when you follow the same path without deviation so many times that you essentially get stuck following the same path. You can get out of a rut, but the more well-worn it is, the more supreme the effort will be to do so. In fact, it’s often so much of an effort that it just seems easier to stay in the rut. Staying, of course, digs the rut deeper and makes it even harder to extract yourself. When Albert Einstein remarked that the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” he was talking about ruts in our behaviour. We even get ruts in our thinking– finding it easier to follow old and worn out logic rather than to think about our world in a fresh way.
I’ve never heard anyone say they were “in a rut” who meant it was a thing to be desired.
Routines provide form and structure to our lives, but without entrapping us they way ruts do. The word “routine” brings to mind the notion of a “dance routine.” Dancers assemble a routine through disciplined repetition of a pattern of movements. Often the process of learning the routine involves breaking those movements down into small segments and focusing on those segments until they can be performed without much thought. And that’s when the magic kicks in. The dancer is able to focus on style and expression because the technical steps of the routine have become routine.
Ruts and routines originate the same way: behaviors are repeated and reinforced until those behaviours are second nature. The difference lies in the effect they have on us. Ruts trap us into patterns that we keep repeating long after they have ceased to serve us. Ruts hold us to a narrow path, guarding us from surprises, protecting us from change. Routines, on the other hand, are a place of safety from which we can venture forth into exploration and expression. Routines are the scaffold on which creative people of all stripes stand to exercise their creativity.