When Greg Bruce realised he was living a schedule of daily routines, he sought the opinions of experts.

Each week day, my alarm goes off at 5.50am and I walk to the kitchen, where I make a breakfast of one heaped cup of muesli, a sliced banana and milk. At 6.30am, I wake my wife. At 7.10am, I start the process of leaving the house. Between 7.15am and 7.25am, depending on the multifarious demands of my three tiny children, I depart, driving to the train station and parking my car in the same side street. At 7.37am, I embark the train and at 8am I arrive at work, although my work hours are flexible.

On arrival at the office, I turn on my computer, get a glass of water and work steadily for the first 90 minutes of my day. I take my morning coffee at 9.30am. I make it last until lunchtime, a skill I developed while working as a freelancer, when I made barely enough money to afford even the single coffee I needed to justify the hours I would spend writing in the leading cafes of Mt Eden.

I attend pump class at 12.10pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I use locker 266. If it's occupied I use 312.

If there are leftovers from the previous night's dinner, I'll have those for lunch but most days I have the same sandwich I've eaten for lunch for the last two-and-a-half years: salami and spinach on Molenberg sandwich loaf, accompanied by pesto spread and hot sauce. If I have sandwiches two days in a row, I may swap the salami for ham — but I definitely prefer the salami.


At 3pm, I repair to the office kitchen with a package of Harraways or Uncle Toby's oat singles (generally whichever has been on special at New World Metro), pour the contents into a bowl, add a half-cup of milk and microwave for 60 seconds.

My work hours, as I said, are flexible but I leave work every day at 4.30pm and catch the train back to the station, walk to my car, and arrive home between 5.05pm and 5.10pm, depending largely on the efficiency of Auckland's train network.

Once home, I surrender to the needs of my children, who have not yet learned the importance and value of routine, no matter how hard I try to impose it on them. As I lay them down in their beds each night, I always say the same thing: "I love you so much. Have a good sleep and I'll see you in the morning. Sleepytime, sleepytime."

My wife and I clean up for an hour or two, share cute stories about things our children have done that day, bicker over minutiae, sit down on the couch, bicker over what we're going to watch, then watch it until one or both of us fall asleep somewhere between 15 minutes and 45 minutes later.

It's possible this routine could be disturbed by marital intimacy or even sex but there are so many factors arrayed against it that it feels about as likely as an air disaster.

Greg's favourite sandwich: salami and spinach on Molenberg bread with pesto and hot sauce. Photo / Dean Purcell
Greg's favourite sandwich: salami and spinach on Molenberg bread with pesto and hot sauce. Photo / Dean Purcell

My editor said to me recently, "You really are a creature of habit, aren't you?" I was just lifting a spoonful of 3pm porridge to my mouth but, because we are minimally transparent to ourselves, my immediate reaction was resistance.

"Do you really think so?" I asked. She looked at me, bewildered, for a good while, then listed several strong pieces of evidence, some of which I have included in the list above.

Once she'd started, I added a few more, which provoked her to add even more and, fairly soon it became obvious that this thing about myself I had never before noticed was arguably my defining feature.


I had always assumed the reason Groundhog Day was among my three favourite films was because it's an entertaining and original story that addresses big and terrifying existential questions relating to early middle-aged manhood while never losing its comedic and emotional heart. Now I wonder if something else has been going on there for me.

My other favourite films are Rushmore and Lost in Translation, which are respectively about the chaotic rage of teenage boyhood and the ennui of late middle-aged manhood. All three movies star Bill Murray.

What is it about routine and repetition that I find so comforting? This rigorous structural overlay on the chaos of life is not something I have imposed consciously. I guess subconsciously I must have assumed it to have some benefit, but does it? Is there any evidence for that?

"People say, 'Oh, I'm a creature of habit' but there's something faintly derogatory about that, says Ananish Chaudhuri, a professor of experimental economics and the head of the economics department at the University of Auckland.

"That's not the right way to think about it," he says. "The idea is, that to solve self-control problems we need to make commitments and essentially these are commitments that I'm making, that the current me is making to a future me, that I'm committing you to this course of action."

Chaudhuri, who I had rung for advice and possibly support, and who likes a good analogy, compared my commitment to routine to Ulysses getting his people to tie him to the mast to avoid being tempted by the song of the sirens.

Chaudhuri says we are always going to be tempted to behave in ways that aren't great for us, that lashing ourselves to the mast of routine is an act of resistance.

"We know that if we didn't do that," he says, "the future me would skip the gym lesson, or future me would sneak in that extra drink or the cigarette. So that's what we're doing in our dual selves, we're essentially committing our future self, tying their hands by saying, 'Well, you can listen to the song of the sirens but I'm going to tie you to the mast.'"

Our levels of self-control are most likely more of a genetic feature than an environmental feature, Chaudhuri says. That is, if you're going to be a creature of habit, chances are it's because you were born that way. But that doesn't mean you can't change.

He mentions the New York Times' bestselling book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, with which, coincidentally, I had briefly become obsessed last year.

The essence of Duhigg's book is that all habits are triggered by something: an event, an action, an emotional state, an ad on television or whatever. The trigger leads to the performance of the habit and the performance of the habit leads to a reward.

Duhigg outlines how he used the technique to beat his own daily cookie-eating habit, which had caused him to gain unwanted weight.

First, he identified the trigger, which was time — the urge would always hit about 3pm. He experimented with different ways of changing the habit: going for a walk around the block at 3pm, buying an alternative foodstuff and so forth. What he eventually discovered was that the reward he was seeking was nothing to do with the cookie but the social interaction that went with it.

Greg Bruce. Photo / Dean Purcell
Greg Bruce. Photo / Dean Purcell

So now, at 3pm he stands up from his desk, finds a friend, talks for 10 minutes and returns to his desk. He no longer has the urge for a cookie and he's lost all that weight and more.

It's a technique that seems to offer potential for respite from so many of our vices: sugar and fat-eating, boozing, binge-watching, empty social media-scrolling. But a cookie-eating habit is quite a different thing from, say, relentlessly using the same gym locker, which doesn't seem to provide any particular reward, nor to help in resisting temptation. So why do I do it? Is there something wrong with me?

It turns out that Chaudhuri has a similarly peculiar habit: "I'm in the Owen G. Glenn building," he says, "and usually in our building, if you come in earlier in the day you can park higher up. The later you come in, the further and further down you have to go into the parking lot. But every single day I come in and I don't even look at anything. I go and park at the same spot at level 3."

He has thought this through — he a professor of experimental economics — and the reason for it is twofold, he says. One, it saves him time looking for his car at the end of a long day, and two, it frees his brain up to focus on more important things.

"Our cognitive abilities are a scarce resource," he says. "As economists say, there is an opportunity cost to making our brain do something when it could be doing something else, just as spending money on the vacation means less left over for the mortgage.

"So you choose the same gym locker every day and I choose the same parking spot every day, because otherwise we know that at the end of the gym session or at the time of going home we are going to be spending scarce cognitive resources trying to remember where I left my clothes or my car. My cognitive abilities are better reserved for other more weighty matters than trying to locate my car in a huge parking lot."

Chaudhuri cites another story from Duhigg's book. It's about Paul O'Neill, the former head of giant American corporation Alcoa. When faced with the thousands of issues that confront CEOs, O'Neill decided to focus on workplace accidents, something Chaudhuri says CEOs almost never worry about. But by zeroing in on this one measure, O'Neill captured much else that was going wrong throughout the organisation. Fixing it led not just to fewer hurt workers but to better company performance, more revenue and greater profits.

Chaudhuri says, "Your answer in many cases may be different but that was his answer to figuring out what was the minimal way, because again, speaking of the gym locker, one thing you're trying to avoid is an overload of information. So, with multiple different balls in the air, the question becomes, 'What's maybe the one thing or two or three things I can do to exert the maximum influence on my surroundings?'"

Ultimately, we're looking for a sweet spot; a point where our lives contain exactly the right amount of routine for exerting the maximum influence on our surroundings but not so much that it limits our potential.

As Chaudhuri says: "If your habit has got to a point that you are shying away from new challenges, if you are such a creature of habit that you will not look at any new opportunities, then, of course, your habit has become a handicap at some level."

As to whether I had reached that point, he didn't say. To be honest, I didn't want to ask.

How do you know when your habits have gone too far?

University of Auckland senior lecturer in psychology Dr Sarah Cowie says: "Mostly routines are adaptive — we keep doing them because they work and they're easy. I would have said going too far is when routines stop being successful — that is, they don't allow you to attain things you want with relative ease."

Ananish Chaudhuri says a good way to tell good habits from bad is to ask whether they're creating friction with people around you or preventing you from seeking out new opportunities.

Once you've identified the bad ones, he suggests following author Daniel Goleman's five-step process for dealing with them:

1 Familiarise yourself with the self-defeating habit. Get so you can recognise the routine as it starts, or begins to take over. This might be by noticing its typical thoughts or feelings, or how you start to act.

2 Be mindful. Monitor your behaviour — thoughts, feelings, actions — from a neutral, "witness" awareness.

3 Remember the alternatives — think of a better way to handle the situation.

4 Choose something better — e.g. what you say or do that would be helpful instead of self-defeating.

5 Do this at every naturally occurring opportunity.