Break Routines. Learn

If you want to keep on growing, you need to keep on learning. Break your routines. (Notion sheet/workbook available)

Break Routines. Learn
Photo by Jose Aragones / Unsplash

Hello from Las Palmas. School starts this week. That defines this weeks emotions and activities. Do you know what I’ll do on Thursday while the kids are in school? Absolutely nothing!


Contrary to popular belief, a great deal of learning occurs outside the formal education setting. Once leaving formal education, it is essential to keep on discovering new work methods, increase your professional knowledge, or gain new insights. But how to do that?

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Key ideas

1. You need to learn daily.

2. Too much reliance on routines reduces your chance to learn.

3. Self-reflection and tracking problems are helpful tools to keep on learning.


  • Arrested development: Your (professional) growth or development stops, when you stop learning. As a result of this, your performance will stop improving.
  • Routines: Routines are any steps or processes or actions you are doing without mental effort.
  • Creative learning: When you don’t know your task, which method to use, and how the end result will look like, you have to be creative (the term creative learning is used differently in different disciplines)

Why routines can be bad for learning

According to professor Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and renowned expert on expertise research, arrested development is when you stop learning. Your performance reaches a peak, stabilizes, or maybe even decreases as a result. The only way to avoid this arrested development is to be aware of your routines and break them when necessary.

I'm using the word routine here to mean any processes or steps you are doing without conscious effort. They have become automated processes. It could be part of muscle memory, a habit, or a standard work process. For example, routines are:

  • Switching gears when driving
  • Pedaling on a bike
  • Open up Microsoft Word when you have to write something
  • Drinking coffee first thing in the morning
  • Using Stackoverflow to solve math problems

Routines are often celebrated. They fit neatly into our picture of optimizing ourselves for productivity: Achieving more with less.

But this over-emphasis of routines has a short-term focus. Routines help you get your current work done. But they also trick you into thinking that you don't need to change anything. Even if you are happy with your recent performance, learning demands that something changes in your environment. That means disrupting your routines.

For example, you would think that people who commute to work with public transport have figured out the best connections and routes to go from A to B? They have developed a routine to go to work. However, according to a study that observed commuter behavior after a partial shut down of public transportation in London, some commuters never returned to their old commute way. In this case, the external disruption (partial shutdown of the Tube network) disrupted people's commute. This forced them to find new ways to go to work. This new way was faster than their old routine. These commuters learned about a better way to go to work precisely because they disrupted their routine.

But when not faced with an external event like a strike, learning something new may have uncertain future benefits, with certain current losses. The certainty of the benefits of routines compared to the uncertainty of breaking routines makes it hard to step away from them.

  • Learning a new skill requires time. This means spending less time completing your current work. Your productivity goes down.
  • If you want to create a new product or service, you can't spend as much time maintaining and selling your old product. Your revenue goes down.
  • If you want your kids to be independent and do dishes in the future, you need to teach them now. Your energy goes down.

Of course, there is a place for routines. I'm glad that I don't need to think about where the 4th gear is or where the indicator is when I'm driving. Also, looking into my mirrors is routine behavior. That frees up my mental energy to pay attention to the cars around me or deal with the kids. It is good to do some things unconsciously. This frees up mental power to do other things. If you can do certain things unconsciously, you have free mental strength to diagnose problems and solve problems when they arise.

To continue the example of driving, thanks to routines, I can change gears and indicate without any effort. I know where to put my feed and how to use the gear stick. I also know where the indicator is. Doing these steps has become an automated process, and I don't need to be consciously doing them. Thanks to these automated processes, I can use my energy to scan my surrounding, notice a person, decide that they will cross the street, and break to let them pass.

While routines are beneficial, they can also harm you in the long run. Routines are harmful precisely because they reduce uncertainty and friction. But if you want to learn and grow, you need a certain level of uncertainty and friction.

How uncertainty helps you learn

Uncertainty happens when you are not sure how to do something or even what to do. This means there is no routine or step-by-step plan you can follow. As a consequence of this, you have to learn. This learning might not be groundbreaking (e.g., learning to become a graphic designer), but more of the everyday type of learning (e.g., learning which tool is best to draw a sketch).

Based on the idea of uncertainty and ambiguity, Per-Erik Ellström, professor in workplace learning, developed different types of learning. Each type of learning has value. What differentiates them is how much space there is for learning.

When most of your work is controlled or decided by others, there isn't much space for gaining new knowledge or learning a new skill. You are adapting to the situation: You will tweak something here and there, but your knowledge and skills will not change much. They will improve. Specifically, if what you have to do (task) and how you have to do it (method) are decided beforehand, your learning is adaptive.

Adaptive learning is more like fine-tuning what you already know.

For example, suppose I have to produce content on the science of friendship. In that case, the task is known (create content on the science of friendship). The method is clear (do research, write a draft, get feedback, rewrite, publish). Still, I don't know how the final content will look: pictures, audio, or video? On the other hand, if the format of the article is decided beforehand (e.g., 1000 words, 3 subheadings, 2 graphics), I have no space for experimenting with how to best tell readers about the science of friendship.

On the other end of the spectrum are situations when nothing is given beforehand: The task isn't clearly defined, the methods aren't known, and you don't know the end result. Of course, you could say that on an abstract level, the task is known. It could be:

  • Improve the situation.
  • Something is broken. Fix it.
  • Something has to change.

But these task descriptions are too abstract and high level. According to Ellström's framework, this type of situation pushes you towards creative learning. You can't simply adapt but have to create something entirely new. Good examples of creative learning are:

The essential feature of creative learning is that you don't know the task, what methods you will use, and how the end result will look. You know nothing.

With creative learning, the only thing you have is a vague direction.

I was fortunate to experience creative learning early on in my career as an academic. The board of deans told us to "innovate the way learning is done." This was more or less all the information we had. We were not explained in detail what it means to innovate learning, what tools we should be using to achieve this, or even how it would look like if the university would innovate learning.

We defined our task more concretely as bridging the divide between working and learning for students and for professionals. We did several pilot programs to find solutions (method). Our results included several failed experiments, some success, and a fantastic paper on managing bottom-up innovations in higher education.

Tools to help you learn with intent

The tricky part of stepping away from routines is that they are ingrained in your day-to-day activities. External events are great at creating disruptions, but relying on them to find learning opportunities is not a good strategy. Learning with intent is about purposefully seeking out uncertainty and documenting challenges.


A safe way to find out if there are too many routines in your life is to take a step back and reflect on how you are going about your day-to-day activities. What are your routines? What processes do you use for work? Self-reflection is a powerful tool to have. Self-reflection is a form of journaling. It is about describing events and explaining behaviors and emotions. Through self-reflection, people gain new insights about who they are (You can learn more about how to become better at journaling here).

Get access to the full article + workbook to start breaking way from routines

And now

The aim of this article is to point out why routines can be harmful. Of course, they have a purpose, but too much of something - even something healthy - is not good like everything in life. Too many routines, and you'll not advance but stagnate. The trick is to be aware of how much uncertainty (i.e., lack of routines) is in your day-to-day life. Keep on learning.

Background reading

  • Ellström, P. (2001). Integrating learning and work: Problems and prospects. _Human Resource Development Quarterly_, _12_(4), 421.
  • Paletz, S. B. F., Kim, K. H., Schunn, C. D., Tollinger, I., & Vera, A. (2013). Reuse and Recycle: The Development of Adaptive Expertise, Routine Expertise, and Novelty in a Large Research Team. _Applied Cognitive Psychology_, _27_(4), 415–428.

Thank you to my Fosters to improve this article (Dani Trusca, Russel Smith, Alfonso Guerrero-Villa, Rika Goldberg, Jordan Jones)

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