Celebrating Banality: Why Those Daily Routines Have So Much Power

Published March 24, 2017 in Warp & Woof

Celebrating Banality: Why Those Daily Routines Have So Much Power

William Sundwick

Excitement vs. Routine

We all love exciting new experiences. The faster heart beat of the unexpected thrill, or the shot of feel-good dopamine or serotonin neurotransmitters into the brain, are what many of us associate with a life lived “on the edge.” Much popular literature, art, and music consider the excitement of danger and unanticipated adventure to be a great virtue.The appeal of newness can reasonably be associated with feelings of optimism, hopefulness. Novelty is undeniably an attractive prospect for many.
But, what about routine? We all engage in daily rituals, or some banal activities, to which we pay little heed, in our imaginations. Why do we continue to practice such ordinary, repetitive, processes in our lives? Indeed, we often conclude that life may amount to nothing more than replacing one pattern of banal activity with another, on and on, throughout our short time on this planet.
The facts are that daily routines contribute much to our psychological, and physical, well-being. They generate comfort and security, predictability — necessary prerequisites to develop skills, mastery, in life. Just as a corporation seeks predictability in the economy, to enable growth, so, too, do we individuals need that security for us to grow. Routines reinforce our “being present” in reality, as opposed to anxiously contemplating the future, or drowning in regrets about the past. Meditation is often reduced to the most fundamental routine: breathing in, breathing out. Continued practice of routines is what enables mastery of any skill, hence from childhood on, we need routines in order to keep our world functioning. Schools and workplaces emphasize routine for exactly that reason — mastery.
There exists an interesting circular interaction between “exciting” experiences and banal routines, throughout our lives. On the one hand, moments of excitement can create energy needed later for stamina in maintaining daily routines: those neurotransmitters, and the psychological lift they produce. But, simultaneously, the very repetitiveness of the daily routines frees up creative energy, which can be used to induce further excitement. Not much energy is expended by the banal, unless you let your mind wander to an uncertain future, or become paralyzed by regrets for past mistakes. Hence, a reservoir can be built up, ready for release when the opportunity arises.


In addition to the binary system of “excitement” vs. “routine,” we also possess a mechanism for controlling the pace and scheduling of routines. Complex lives, those which need variegated scheduling, depending on lots of contingencies, will require another behavioral tool … “patterns.”
Patterns of behavior are really layers of routines. Depending on their sophistication, they may mitigate uncontrolled variability (“uncertainty”) with varying effectiveness. While daily routines are governed by clocks … actual clocks ticking off hours, minutes, seconds; or, lifetime clocks related to aging and stages of life; or, quotidian biological clocks with alarms signaling hunger, tension, lethargy, sleep deprivation, etc. Behavior patterns will trigger the routine when certain combinations of circumstances occur, perhaps not following a predictable clock; but, instead, following the completion of a previous routine, as a precondition. Some of these patterns have no apparent cause, but are totally arbitrary: e.g., I raise the venetian blinds on the clear story windows in my family room on alternating days of the week, depending on when my cleaning ladies are scheduled to come, so that on the day they clean, the blinds are lowered with only slats open. This routine has no purpose other than an alternating diurnal pattern, I could just as easily make sure that the blinds were lowered just before the cleaning crew arrives, and not worry about the other times! Perhaps the behavior pattern helps me remember which week they are due to clean (alternating weeks), but surely I could come up with a less bizarre reminder!

When multiple routines compete for the same space, other contingencies must determine which routine will be followed. I take late evening showers, if I intend to go outside afterwards (usually to unplug my Chevy Volt from the outlet in the driveway, so that my wife doesn’t have to do it before she goes to work next morning), I will get dressed, else I will get in my pajamas after my shower! The operative contingency here is whether I plugged the car into the electrical outlet early enough in the evening so that it will be fully charged by the time I finish my shower; which, in turn, may depend on how much battery range was left on the car when my wife or I last returned it to our driveway that day. One can imagine far more complex combinations for many of the decisions they make regarding which routine to activate, and when. Since the logical flow chart for all these behavior patterns could become very elaborate, most of us rely on our own internal circuitry, and memory, to pull up the correct behavior for the contingency at hand. As long as the patterns and routines further our progress toward a goal, we should be okay. But, what about that goal? Where does it come from? … Whose goal is it, anyway?


Some goals are low risk projects. We have ready access to the routines, and patterns, that we know can let us reach those goals easily. Little energy is invested in achieving those simple goals. If we have food in the house, and minimal food preparation skills, we will eat. If we find we are dozing off on the sofa, and the clock shows an appropriate hour, we go to bed. If we have an established home exercise routine, and the time and tools to execute it, we will do so. Other goals, however, are more difficult to achieve. Sometimes, it’s because the goal is unclear … why do I have a pattern for opening those venetian blinds, anyway? Sometimes, the skill set needed to achieve the goal is not yet mastered, we may have to learn new routines, or maybe we have lost the skills needed, during the course of our life. We may have simply forgotten the routine  …  where are light bulbs in this store, again?

Even a routine as silly as opening and lowering those blinds on alternating days, when you break it down to its origins, has the goal of reminding me when the cleaning ladies are coming … and, keeping track of which day of the week I’m in, as bonus! Some goals are related to maintaining good health, like meals, sleep and exercise. Some goals are selected to foster creativity, like frequency of posts to Warp & Woof blog. And, some patterns of daily routines are invented for the purpose of building structure in life. In these cases, the routines came first, the goals that the routines facilitate only take shape after the routine is established — does this explain the venetian blinds?

When goals are selected by others for you, your behavior patterns may be ad hoc. Deadlines and priorities may be imposed which determine how the patterns are structured. Which should I do first today, if I know I have to be at a meeting in Alexandria by 7:00? Should I go to the gym, shower, then take a walk? Or, should I start writing my blog post first, then go to gym, and leave the walk optional, as time permits?  Any combination of routines may be possible, inclusion or not, based on priorities or deadlines. Constraints imposed by others tend to govern some people’s behavior more than others … and, at some stages of life more than others (not so much in retirement!).


There is an annoying lack of authority on the subject of the banality of daily routines. Most everybody agrees that daily routines are good for you. They seem to be responsible for all the positive direction in our lives. The disagreement arises in assigning relative value to different routines. It seems everybody has an agenda, something to sell. Which routines are labeled “good” versus “bad” depends on that agenda. I am left with the conclusion that it is the very banality of the routine which generates its value. Banality has multiple definitions, too. One definition focuses on the “ordinariness” of the banal, Another definition, based on its Old French origins, is “common to all.”

If we focus on the banal as being the “ordinary” or “unexceptional”, we are confronted by the fact that what’s ordinary to one person may be very extraordinary to another. Think about routines for somebody with a disability, versus the able. Perhaps the routines that seem most ordinary are precisely those which we should be most thankful we can call banal! On the other hand, if we accept the definition “common to all,” we are now entering the realm of lowest common denominators. Is it fair to say that these routines are at the heart of what makes us human? None of us can survive without them, much like the case of meditation exercises.

Banality, as ordinary, obvious, or uneventful, is often associated with “boring.”  Yet, our shared experience in life supports the concept that very interesting, and creative, people can lead lives filled with banal routines. It may even be the banality that spurs their creativity. Conversely, how many boring people seemingly have “exciting” lives, free from such banality? Of course, the dark side of banality is seen in the excessively compulsive person, who can’t seem to control the banality of their daily life (like people who have patterns of raising and lowering venetian blinds, which seemingly cannot be altered!).

Yet, there is a school of art, music, and literature which celebrates the banality of daily life. Andy Warhol comes to mind, and more recently, Jeff Koons. Pop culture, in general, is often thought to be a celebration of the banal, and Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature last year seems to confirm this view.  Last year’s indie film “Paterson” has been billed as a celebration of the banal, whose main character is a New Jersey bus driver with no formal education, who becomes a poet. Some even place pornography in the category of banal art. Clearly, then, the banal has its place in the arts. Consequently, it should not be denigrated in our personal lives, and it certainly does not have to be seen as “boring!”

On a personal level, it is impossible to ignore the banal nature of my daily life. It has become even more apparent over the last two years, since I retired from a 42-year career in an office environment at the Library of Congress. Although, clearly, that long career was, itself, a monument to banality. I contend that this mass accumulation of banal activity consuming my entire adult life has been the raw material for sparks of creative energy. And, these sparks have been igniting on a regular basis, all through my life, without my noticing! I haven’t noticed mostly because I’ve been so conditioned to demean the role of the banal.

My Banal Life

These days, routine definitely trumps adventure. Virtually every weekday, I get out of bed, get dressed, unplug my Volt from the outdoor electrical source, retrieve the newspaper from the front yard, kiss my wife goodbye as she leaves for work on Capitol Hill, eat a breakfast consisting of some bakery bread, banana, coffee, and orange juice with my prescription drugs, vitamins, baby aspirin.

This routine only varies by the occasional substitution of Post Great Grains cereal for the bread, and possible elimination of the outdoor unplugging of the car (if I had already done it the night before). The entire routine lasts from about 7:30 – 8:00 until around 9:00. I eat slowly while checking email, recording estimated calories in my Fitbit app (both for breakfast and previous evening’s snack), and maybe begin the secondary routine of following my Facebook news feeds and friends’ posts.

After making the bed — and, on Monday or Tuesday, starting my laundry — the Facebook routine typically fills my morning until it’s time for a “second breakfast” sometime after 10:00. This morning snack will consist of Yoplait yogurt (various flavors) and either cereal or bread, with more coffee.

There could be interruptions caused by a need to respond to an email, but this is often the time when I plan the rest of my day … which routines, and in what order? Wild variations sometimes follow these activities: today I drove to Alexandria, to reconfigure the prison videoconferencing equipment at my church, some days I go to Planet Fitness next, for my standard 40-minute cardio-heavy workout routine, other days, if the weather is nice, I use this block of time for a walk around the neighborhood, and listen to one of several podcasts to which I subscribe.

Whenever I choose to walk around the neighborhood, I will follow one of eight possible routes, some of them can be varied by incorporating portions of another route. On bad weather days, I have been known to get my required steps (Fitbit tells me I should get 10,000 per day) by going to the gym and simply walking on a treadmill while reading a book. Some days, like today, interruptions to my usual routines cause me to jettison the steps … an example of ad hoc variance of routines.

Lunch consists of a sandwich with cold cuts and one slice of cheese, pickles or cantaloupe, and iced tea or non-alcoholic beer. Every weekday, afternoons will consist of either the gym workout plus shower, the walk, or both. Lunchtime is always between 1:00 and 2:00. Recently, a new routine has been added two days a week, before dinner. At 5:00, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I am now expected to pick up my toddler grandson at his family day care provider and play with him at his house until one of his parents returns from work. This is fun, and reminds me of how important routines are — little Owen gets a written report from his day care center each day which looks EXACTLY LIKE MY DAY! Except, he fills time in the afternoon with a nap … I don’t.

When wife returns from work, around 6:00 or 6:30, sudden retooling for excitement and unpredictability takes over! No telling what may happen next! Dinner typically is not planned until this point, beyond some speculation which may have occurred the previous evening. Now is her time to do all those wonderful routines that I had the whole day to do. I will either spend time with dinner prep during the next two hours, or not, in which case, my creative impulses can either start, or continue where I left off earlier in the day. This very moment is such a time during just such an evening.

Weekends have different routines, since they generally involve my wife as well. Breakfasts for me are the same as during the week, and I have to try harder to squeeze in those health/fitness routines, since it is over the weekend that we go places and do things! Errands must be run, occasionally we must go out to eat, or a movie, or even something more exciting, like theater. Sundays typically include some portion of the day at church, and these days, some Saturdays also include church activities (like this week). Generally, weekends are a struggle to preserve my precious routines of the weekdays, they contain more unpredictable activity, more people interrupting the automatic repetition of my solitary behavior patterns of the week. For this reason, I find creative production more difficult on weekends.

Evenings, both weekday and weekend, have one very dear routine … interrupted only when there are extreme late nights out, such that we just collapse when getting home. My wife and I always indulge ourselves in watching recorded, or streaming, television in the late evening hours. This ritual never begins prior to 11:30, often not until after midnight. It consists of me closing my browser on my office computer, thus shutting down Facebook for the night, making a snack … which includes an alcoholic nightcap (beer, wine, or a mixed drink from my Calabrese bartenders’ guide), getting into my pajamas, and selecting which of our favorite series to watch tonight! There is a long list of possiblities … the two of us watch lots of TV, just not when it’s broadcast.

It’s clear that I am pursuing goals with my banal routines, but many of those goals are never quite realized. It seems that the behavior continues until I feel the goal has been reached, then I may change the routine. Some goals, of course, by their nature, are lifelong motivations: good health, wisdom, and the like. But, others could be achievable, if only we had enough time! Alas, things always seem to interfere with our spending sufficient time “practicing” our routines. And, we are told we are all mortal, anyway.

Hence, we may have to abandon some goals as impractical. This is the sort of thing that causes deep sadness at times, indulging that phenomenon of spending much time reminiscing (regretting) the past, with no payoff except depression. In my life, four lost goals stand out, two due to impracticality, and two because they were successfully achieved, but the associated routines are equally missed for all four: 1) piano, not practical at my age and state of mind, or small muscle coordination; 2) child rearing — grandchild rearing is not the same, since I won’t see the actual results; 3) meetings, that’s right, I miss the balm of listening and reporting group endeavors, but I’ll call this one successful achievement of the goal, as I may rediscover the goal, social in nature, who knows?; 4) projects, those big, long-term, endeavors which I was responsible for executing, whether alone, or with help from others — the skills exercised, when successfully applied, always made me feel good. Note that all four of these missed routines, and associated behavior patterns, characterized earlier stages of my life (except piano, which I now concede, I began too late in life).

For the future, it appears that it’s necessary to plan our banality.  My future plans include a basement remodeling project, transitioning off the Board of Deacons at my church, perhaps some level of political activism, and grandchild rearing (whatever that entails). All will likely involve new routines, which will need to be practiced, and the complexity of my life won’t diminish so much as to obviate patterns of behavior, which will still be needed to facilitate the practicing. Inasmuch as some existing routines will have to be replaced, I will have to prioritize the new over the old, if my new goals are to be achieved … in my lifetime. I can’t contemplate just yet the costs of leaving unfinished goals behind, perhaps it’s inevitable that there will be some. I was compelled to leave a record of ongoing activities and projects when I retired from the Library of Congress (it was 2015, after passage of the Federal Records Act). This blog post doesn’t count as such a record of my life goals!

Your Banal Life

If my reader is burdened by too many goals being imposed on you by others, try some engineering design of your daily routines. Invent new patterns of behavior, tweak the existing patterns. Don’t be afraid to let the banality of tasks release some pent-up creative energy which can be directed elsewhere. If you feel imprisoned by your compulsiveness, try a rational evaluation of how effective your familiar routines really are. Are they the best possible vehicles for achieving your stated goals? Sometimes, you may have to forcibly break a routine (a “bad habit”), even if you remain fuzzy about what its replacement routine looks like. If you are “self-actualized” already in your banality, then congratulations! That means your routines and patterns of behavior are well-suited to meeting your life needs. Keep it up!

But, whatever adjustments you make to your daily routines, remember not to pass up opportunities for excitement, even if the end result might only contribute to your life’s banality. That banality enables future excitement!

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