Is there a difference between having a routine and being stuck in a rut?

“Routine” and “rut” derive from the same root word as “road.” The actions people take when following a routine or the daily grind of a rut are like being on the road in a self-driving car. We sometimes say, “the car goes on autopilot” to a habitual destination such as a workplace. In a few years that saying will be true for many more of us.

Routines and ruts aren’t just about getting around. The daily coffee stop at the same cafe, the habit of scanning a newspaper in exactly the same pattern, and one’s ritual of how to shave, put on makeup or otherwise prepare one’s self to meet the outer world — these are time savers that kick in when your brain shifts into autopilot. 

Dogs are great lovers of routines: getting up at the same time, going on a familiar walk, sitting in their own special spot when the TV is on. Our dog, Opal, a rescue pup who’s been with us for more than a year, quickly adapted to our TV rituals. But she added her own after seeing her first episode of “Pit Bulls and Parolees,” a show that gives second chances to its kind of hard-luck stars, as Opal was, being born in the wild.  

We’ll be watching something that is as riveting to a dog as C-SPAN is to a toddler when Opal will decide it’s “Pits” time, which precedes bedtime. She likes to watch before bed, intently staring at the screen and sometimes sniffing it. She has reduced us from our alpha roles to become her opposable-thumbed remote-control button-pushers. One mammal’s routine is another’s rut.

I’ve read that habitual thoughts, repeated often enough, rewire our brains to make those thoughts our default settings, so to speak. They’re like rainfall, following the path of least resistance downhill. They can be positive or negative: “I’m glad to see most people every day” or “People suck.” Our attitudes become self-fulfilling prophecies. And they grow stronger over time: A shallow neural watercourse can easily be diverted, but climbing out of the Grand Canyon is another story.

The distinction between a rut and a routine may be the seemingly slight shift from “I have to” to “I get to.”

Having worked in downtown San Francisco for 39 years — all within three blocks of where I work now — it has been easy to fall into routines. There are some places I like to go for lunch, when I don’t eat in. I look forward to them because they’re familiar and I like what they serve. I try new places, too, as you have to in a city with San Francisco’s restaurant turnover rate. Sam’s, Tadich, Henry’s Hunan, the Hang Ah Tea Room, and only a few others that were there in 1980 are still open. I still “get to” go to them.

“Something” is telling me it’s time for “Pit Bulls.” is a creature of habit.

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