I started writing this article while taking an overnight train from Seattle to San Francisco and looking out the window as we passed through a gorgeous national forest. Now, I say “started” because about 10 minutes into the process I got so nauseous from staring at the screen on a moving train that I had to abandon that whole idea… but that’s beside the point. The train ride was pretty fantastic and it was part of a week-long trip that took me to a number of new towns (thousands of miles from home), with a number of old friends, and, most importantly, well outside of my normal daily routine.
It was the lack of a routine that got me thinking
Humans, like many animals (I assume…I’m not a scientist), are creatures of habit. Once we’ve done something a certain way more than a few times, our brain actually starts to rewire itself and create fairly automatic routines. The next time we encounter the same situation, our brain will run through that routine with much less thought or attention.
For example, I’ve gotten so used to my commute that I’ve found myself pulling into my driveway without really realizing I had taken all the necessary streets and turns to get there. My brain did much of it automatically while I was thinking about a podcast or dinner or God knows what else. Kind of a scary thought given the risks involved in driving…but it illustrates my point. Habits and routines are a fundamental part of how our brains navigate us (sometimes literally) through the world. There’s a great book called The Power of Habit that digs into the science a bit deeper, and I’d definitely recommend it.
When we’re young and in school, our circumstances change on a fairly regular basis. There may be some consistency- same house, same school- but at a minimum we’re thrown into a different situation every year. Then, there are big changes every few years:
- Start high school
- Start college
- Graduate and make your way out into the world
Each novel scenario is a big shock to our system of routines and habits and, at the most extreme, could be a chance to totally reinvent ourselves and our relationships with those around us. We’re often challenged and forced to learn, grow, and adapt.
But then, for many of us, things change. Or rather, they stop changing so much. We find our ways into stable careers, we meet that special someone and settle down, start nesting, maybe build a family. Sure, there are still major life events, but the general scenery of our day-to-day lives becomes pretty consistent. So, our brains do what they always do: they build habits, save on processing power, and we fall into routines.
Now, I’m not trying to say this is necessarily a bad thing, I happen to like my daily routine most of the time, and I’m pretty content in my life. Habits also free your brain up to think about whatever else is on your mind. However, the danger in the routine comes when we stop being open to, or even aware of, opportunities for change. It’s maddeningly easy to become accustomed to a situation that’s not really what we want, just because it’s familiar and routine.
Okay, let’s finally bring this back to where I started…
One of the true benefits of a vacation can come from the simple fact that you’re stepping out of your normal routine. The exposure to new settings and experiences is the perfect way to punch the “Reset” button on the routines you’ve fallen into and allows for real reflection on how you feel about the life you’re living each day. It might sound cliché, but there’s real value in taking some time to think about where you want to be in 5 or 10 years and what steps you need to take to get to that place. In the course of a regular week- going to work, coming home, eating, and watching Netflix- this sort of reflection just never really happens and the weeks and months can easily tick by without you even feeling it.
So, for me, while vacation is still excellent for a little bit of indulgence and a lotta bit of lazy relaxation, it’s also a time for this beneficial reflection. It’s a reminder that being around people you care about is one of the biggest influencers on your happiness and that the freedom to control how you spend your time is right up there too.
So, while I started writing this on one trip, I’m actually finishing it now after a different trip. I feel very fortunate to have had these two chances to step outside my daily routine and reset, especially because they both involved time among family and friends. My resets and reflections helped reiterate the following goals that I have for my life, long-term:
- I want to be financially independent. It’s not about being rich and buying everything I could possibly want, but about being free from the need to work for money so that I can spend my time on the people and activities that I most value. Maybe I’ll earn more money, maybe I won’t, but I don’t want it to have to matter.
- Furthermore, I don’t need stuff to be happy. I’m always likely to still find myself craving any number of things to purchase, but it really is true that “the best things in life are free”. I’m very happy living a simple, frugal life and I don’t need to aspire to more than that.
- I want to move away from the city where I currently live and work. I don’t expect to pull this trigger for at least a couple of years, but long-term I know my wife and I will be happier in a place with fewer people and more nature. Where and when we find ourselves there remains to be seen.
- Along with / in spite of that point- I can probably be pretty content anywhere as long as I have my wife and my dog. Financial independence and an ideal setting will likely just boost this contentment.
- I want to be close enough to friends and family to see them more than once a year. I’m lucky that many of our friends live nearby in our city, but there are also many people who live hundreds of miles away that I would love to see more frequently. There’s no one place that will put us near everyone we care about, but I at least don’t want to end up in a location that’s totally isolated from friends and family. Regularly being in the same place as someone is still a necessity for strong relationships, even in this internet age.
- I feel much better when I do some physical activity and when I get outside, at least once a day. Sounds simple when I write it down, but it’s easy to let this slide while working my office job every day. Keeping this in mind will help me stay consistent which will lead to greater happiness.
So, that’s it for me. A reset every once in a while to reassess goals and values is a fantastic practice, whether it’s through a vacation or not. I’d love to hear what experiences you’ve had with taking a reset and what insights it’s brought you.