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Habits and Routines—Making Room for Thinking

Mark Thompson-Kolar
University of Michigan School of Information

The terms "habit" and "routine" often are used to indicate repetitive or tedious behaviors. One frequently hears comments such as "I just did that out of habit" or "that's just part of my routine." These negative meanings often are appropriate, particularly when applied to situations in which people are allowed too few options when doing intentional and/or creative thought-work. However, in a world in which information overload threatens to overwhelm individuals and inhibit their ability to make creative or timely decisions, habit and routine can be enormously valuable. They provide a helpful means for people and organizations to avoid information overload and allow creative thinking and efficient decision-making. An examination of these concepts through a pair of examples—production of a daily newspaper, and Christian worship in a liturgical setting—illustrates ways habit and routine can sift out unneeded data to enhance thought and real-world performance.

It is helpful to define our terms. "Information overload," for the purposes of this essay, is "the feeling of stress when the information load goes beyond the processing capacity" (Mulder, 2006, p. 245). This definition is particularly useful because it explicitly includes both "processing capacity" and "feeling of stress" in the person facing too much information. "Habits" are "automated response dispositions that are cued by aspects of the performance context … learned through a process in which repetition incrementally tunes cognitive processors in procedural memory" (Neal, Wood, & Quinn, 2006, p. 198). They also involve "the making of numerous 'choices'—but to a considerable extent the options are selected automatically and without awareness that a choice is being made" (Nelson & Winter, 1982, p. 73). "Routines" refer to a "repetitive pattern of activity in an entire organization … (or) to the smooth, uneventful effectiveness of such an organizational performance" (Nelson & Winter, 1982, p. 97). Routines can be thought of as habits exhibited at an organizational level, as individuals go about normal tasks in a largely automatic way. Through the following examples, the roles of routine and habit in shielding individuals from information overload will be clearly evident.

The newsroom employees of a media company swim in a surging ocean of information, which if unfiltered would easily exceed workers' processing capacity. In this analysis, we will examine a typical copy-editing department populated by "page editors." At the employee level, there are hundreds of tasks that need to be accomplished to produce a day's edition. Many of them involve conscious journalistic decisions, such as which topics from the wire services to use, which version to use, which photos best exemplify the story, whether an infographic exists (and if one does, whether to use it), how to design the page to put appropriate emphasis on the topics, and so on. Certain tasks require intentional interaction with other newsroom employees, such as reporters, executive editor, production manager and other page editors. Still others involve the technical or procedural tasks that require conscious thought to control the technology—computer, layout software, and online resource sites—necessary to create the digital pages. The entire list of tasks that require cognitive attention during a work shift is enormous.

In addition, there are countless habitual tasks that are done effectively as automated responses by the page editor. A few include listening to the radio on the drive to work to get a preliminary understanding of what's happening in the world; noting the amount of news hole, which is the amount of editorial space available in his or her section; turning on the computer while skimming competitors' web sites and print editions; scanning the story list during the morning news meeting to look for particularly important informational elements such as potential lead story, stories that might be late-developing, stories that might require illustration, and whether the story lengths and number of photos will exceed available space; and conversing with editors to hear their concerns as they work. "Although journalists, much like other professionals in the media industries, like to think of themselves as autonomous and creative individuals, in fact most of the work at news outlets is based on a set of routine, standardized activities" (Deuze, 2008, p. 14).

The novice page editor must learn these tasks in the first year on the job, but eventually they become habits with no intentional cognition required. This is crucial because the poor page editor who consciously has to think about each of these steps is doomed to succumb to information overload; he or she at best will pay insufficient attention to the journalistic thought-work tasks of the job and at worst frequently miss production deadlines. It is the habituation of many "programmable" tasks that allows focused attention on the plethora of editorial tasks that require cognition for high-quality results.

Now we will take the analysis to the department level of the organization. The copy-editing department performs many tasks that are handled by routines, patterns of activity that shield the organization from information overload. For example, the staff of page editors all must complete their pages and transmit their PDF files to a production department, they must check each others' work, and collectively ensure that all local stories on the story list were included in the edition. Cognitive work by individuals is involved in these tasks, but at the departmental level, scores of routines enable the workers together to handle the tasks without consciously thinking about when and how they are accomplished, or with whom it is necessary to interact. The tasks progress with little explicit monitoring. The thought work at the department level largely is reserved for dealing with production anomalies. Nelson and Winter remark, "What is required for the organization to continue in routine operation is that all members continue to 'know their jobs' as those jobs are defined by the routine" (1982, p. 100), and "The idea that organizations 'remember' a routine largely by exercising it is much like the idea that an individual remembers skills (e.g. habits) by exercising them" (1982, p. 99). The result is that the routines and habits allow the typical copy-desk department on any typical day to stride through a hailstorm of news stories and internal production information to produce a generally high-quality product on tight deadlines.

A second example, that of liturgical Christian worship, helps further show how habit and routine help to restrain information overload. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is a typical liturgical denomination. Its congregations follow a standard church liturgical calendar with church year seasons and various dates noted for specific purposes, such as Lent and Easter Sunday. These seasons determine vestment colors, certain prayers said or avoided, and scores of other worship-related specifics. An official lectionary determines a prayer for the day, Psalm reading, and other Bible readings. The denomination also publishes an official hymnal, the Book of Worship, which orders its more than 900 worship songs by type and season; that book contains an authorized order of service with wording for the confession, creeds, readings, prayers, communion and conclusion that constitute a full Lutheran service. Additionally, each congregation has a board of elders and a cadre of ushers who know and practice their roles for preparing the sanctuary for worship, greeting visitors, collecting the offering and dismissing rows for communion.

All of these pre-defined elements and actions at the denominational and congregational levels establish organization-wide routines and habits that allow for Sunday worship to proceed smoothly without an overload of information for worship leaders and congregants. Instead of the pastor having to decide from among the 31,173 Bible verses on which to preach (Bible Statistics, 2000), he by habit refers to the lectionary for the list of the day's readings. The choir leader each week by habit consults the appropriate hymnal section to select three hymns from the few dozen for the day or season. In preparing the church, the elders rely on habit to select the proper vestments and altar cloths for the season; for example, blue for Advent (Escue, 1994). During worship, the pastor, choir, ushers and congregants rely on habits as they undertake their roles in worship: standing, sitting, praying, singing responses or hymns, dismissing to approach the altar for communion, and other activities. The organization works through routine as the ushers, choir and congregants achieve their goals of worship; they are able to concentrate their attention on participating cognitively while hundreds of decisions and processes are handled at a practically automatic level. "Routines are very efficient mechanisms for storing and maintaining knowledge" (Argote, 1999, p. 91). The more routine and habitual the programmatic steps before and during the service, the higher the resulting cognitive quality of worship.

It is worthwhile to consider briefly what the prior examples would look like without the information-sorting ability afforded through habit and routine. Do habit and routine put the participants "in a rut" and stifle creativity? For certain, if individuals' choices in cognitive tasks were too limited, then a boring "rut" could be a concern in newsrooms and churches; however, as we employ the terms, habit and routine refer to the automated processes being used, so boredom is not a factor. When habit and routine address programmatic procedural steps, the cognitive attention can focus on creative or otherwise intentional tasks that allow for rewarding thought-work.

Information overload is a constant wolf at the door in our society. Habit and routine help individuals and organizations handle information and make automated decisions rapidly and seemingly effortlessly. This helps focus limited cognitive resources on the tasks that require attention to ensure sufficient quality. Individuals feel less stress from the demands they face than they otherwise would, with information overload held at bay.


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Bible Statistics. (2000). In Bible Desk. Retrieved from http://www.bibledesk.com/ Documents/Bible_Desk/bible_statistics.htm#8-BIBLE%20STATISTICS

Deuze, M. (2008). Understanding journalism as newswork: How it changes, and how it remains the same. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 5(2), 1-23. Retrieved from http://www.westminster.ac.uk/ _data/assets/pdf_file/0006/ 20022/WPCC-Vol5-No2-Mark_Deuze.pdf

Escue, D. K. (1994). The colors of the liturgical seasons. Retrieved from http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=714

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Neal, D. T., Wood, & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A repeat performance. Current Direction in Psychological Science 15(4), 198-202.

Nelson, R. R., & Winter, S. G. (1982). Chapter 4: Skills and Chapter 5: Organizational capabilities and behavior. In An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change

(pp. 72-136). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

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