I stood paralyzed; spinach in one hand, almond milk in the other, a steam engine stalled at a bend in the track. The cups for my Ninja blender, the device I use every single morning to whip up a little smoothie action, were all suds-deep in the still-running dishwasher. A problem that should be a dot on the radar of my day was, in that moment, a hurricane coming ashore. Everyone kept moving with the momentum of the morning, while I stood still, unable to unravel the riddle of my shattered routine.
Have you heard of the OODA loop? The phrase refers to the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act, developed by military strategist USAF Colonel John Boyd. Basically, it’s our reaction time, or the time that elapses between the onset of a stimulus and the onset of a response to that stimulus. We go through the process thousands of times a day. And I think my OODA loop is broken … or at least, on autopilot.
A routine is a necessary evil, isn’t it? Each one of my weekdays is, give or take a tantrum, basically a revolving door of tasks, routes and actions. I can guess, within a few minutes, what I’ll be doing on any given hour Monday-Friday. I worked hard to make it that way. It was an intentional process. It feels vital to my sanity. But the predictability is so engrained in my nature, so damaging to the health of my OODA loop, that one obstacle sends me into a complete downward spiral, with smoke and flames and a sticky parachute. I mean, I can always rally. I can pull myself out of my assembly line mentality long enough to put out the fire in front of me, but then it’s right back to putting all the parts in place before the next task comes along.
Our security officer at work encouraged us to change our routine to throw off anyone dangerous who might be watching. A researcher presenting at a seminar on brain health recently told us you should vary your route to work, hobbies and schedule to strengthen the neural pathways in your brain. It seems everywhere I go, someone is saying, “Snap out of it, sister! Mix it up!” But the truth is, when I go rogue and burn the agenda defiantly, the whole day goes to pot. The wheels fall off the wagon. Shit gets crazy. I get crazy.
But the simple fact that on that particular morning with the cups I didn’t just stay in stride, grab my big blender and continue concocting my green juice, got me thinking about my sad, humdrum OODA loop. Most days, the only challenge might be the addition of a class at the gym, or an appointment after work. And in those cases the exorbitant amount of energy I put into reframing my cookie cutter schedule is so absurd my OODA loop turns frenzied and exhausts itself. There is no healthy happy-medium. No delight in the detours. And what kind of way is that to live life?
My world is full of well-worn trails and thin-soled shoes. And while I’ve come to rely on and relish the rhythm of my days, I know it isn’t always healthy. I know a last-minute request shouldn’t be cause for complete emotional upheaval, but I don’t know how to break free from my deep-rooted habits and be carefree about the curveballs. Did you know that the neural pathways in our brains that are tied to the habits we repeat over and over – the ones you can do without ever really arousing your OODA loop – are the widest of all the neural pathways? It’s like a path through the woods. The more people walk down it, the wider and more prominent it becomes, making it the natural place for our feet to follow as we trek along. The road that the signals for stimulus and response travel in our minds are the same. The more we light them up, the bigger they get. So every time I pick out my clothes the night before work, the wider that neural pathway gets. Each morning I drive to work, always the exact same route, that pathway expands and strengthens. And the widest neural pathways are the ones we start to take involuntarily. You can start new ones. And you can change the ones you have. There’s nothing but opportunity there.
I went to a presenter today who spoke about mindfulness, and he talked a lot about being on autopilot. “I’d be in the shower and I’d start thinking about something else, and there are times I’m sure I got out of that shower with wet hair, but I never washed it,” he said. “I think you’ve done that, too.” He encouraged us to crack the window, breathe into our bodies and shut off the autopilot whenever possible.
So, I’m waging war against myself in the name of my bored, predictable, even lackadaisical OODA loop. I’m fighting to snap out of my snap reactions and judgements. To do things differently every now and then for the sake of feeling awake. To widen new pathways in my mind and to keep growing, learning and taking pauses drenched in wonder.
How’s your OODA loop?