Does Routine Kill Innovation?

12 08 2011

If we really boil it down, there are basically three ways you can spend your day:

  1. Doing nothing in particular. Waking up late, lounging around, wasting time here and there.
  2. Following a routine. Wake up, eat, work, train, eat, sleep…etc.
  3. Spontaneous living. Trying new things. Doing whatever comes to mind – things you don’t usually do.

Now, my question is: what kind of day is the best for innovation? And which is the worse?

The last few days have been pretty quiet for me in terms of innovation (hence the lack of posts). I haven’t had many ‘ding!’ moments, nor any sudden ‘a-ha!’s. No insights, no urge to create, record, or express. I would walk around with my camera hoping to capture something dramatic, but everything would look bland and mundane.Why?

I think routine is to blame. How might routine kill innovation?

  • You start living in a bubble. You wake up with your mind already set on the first thing on your to do list. After you finish that, you go straight on to the next item with no stops in between and so on. Your mind is closed to everything that isn’t on your to do list – how are you supposed to find innovation like that?
  • Innovations are (positive) Black Swans. Routines aren’t. I’m reading Nassim Nichoals Taleb’s wonderful book The Black Swan at the moment.  Black Swans are basically things  you can’t predict, yet can have a huge impact. They can be positive or negative – in this case, an innovation will be a positive black swan. Since they’re so unpredictable, it’s hard to come across them when doing something as predictable as a routine.
  • Mental stimulation is zero. We become robots if all we do is follow a routine! We might as well be programmed to run as a simple line of code if we’re going to be boring, monotonous and routine. Routine = doing things without really thinking = lack of mental stimulation = no innovation.

What do you think? Does routine kill innovation? And if so, what kind of day is best for it – spontaneous living or doing nothing in particular (like staring at clouds)?




2 responses

19 08 2011
Damond Lam

Routine has its use in our lives. It makes us more efficient in dealing with the everyday necessities. We can deal with the nuisances of going through each day (like work, training, and study) with min effort without having much thoughts or feelings. Routine works very well with our own habit to make most of the things in life subconscious, so that we free our consciousness in other things and to the new things. This ‘feature’ will allow us, and free us from the daily routine, so that we can librate ourselves, occasionally, to look for meanings in life, or innovation.

19 08 2011

Hi Damond,
I agree – routine does have its use in our lives. I suppose the million dollar question is, how do you balance between routine and spontaneity? Although routine leads to efficiency, the danger is that we might get so caught up with the small things that we lose focus of the big picture. It’s a little like economies of scale, I guess. Larger firms develop a routine of doing things, and enjoy economies of scale and thus are more efficient/profitable etc. On the other hand, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that bigger firms are more vulnerable to random shocks than smaller, less efficient firms.

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