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The comfort of routine or the challenge of change? Sometimes you can have both

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: November 9, 2019
  • Published November 9, 2019

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between security and novelty.

I’ve been making big life changes, in my personal and professional life. So I find myself feeling curious about the balance between feeling a sense of safety and care, versus pushing into the unknown.

Currently there is a lot of TED Talk-esque encouragement out there about how growth takes place outside our comfort zone. This is a polite way of saying growth doesn’t always feel good, at least not in the moments that push us to become better.

On the flip side of that same coin, there are endless diatribes available about self-care. This catch-all term means something to everyone, but typically invokes a mental image of a person in a bathtub maybe with their nose poking out of the water or using a meditation app in a darkened room. Self-care seems to emphasize cultivating an exquisite understanding of yourself and your needs in order to create room in your life to connect with what makes you most fulfilled.

That includes, but is not limited to, the bathtub.

But if growth is about pushing into discomfort in order to learn and expand as humans, and self-care is about connecting with those things in life that inherently sustain us, what is the relationship between the two? How do you know when it’s time to work versus when it’s time to rest? Do you really get to make that decision, or is it just about fielding what life throws at you?

Not surprisingly, I had some aha moments recently while I was Outside.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to train for a marathon as a way of making some time for what is basically an active meditation. When my life gets particularly hectic, having a training schedule is incredibly helpful for me because it locks into place a series of routine times that I must simply buckle down and run. Running itself is a series of hours when, unless I’m with a friend, it’s just me in my head focusing on achieving my mileage goal for the day and letting the events of the week settle in with every footfall until a narrative is formed. Many times, my best solutions for life’s problems are determined during runs.

I’m not necessarily actively focusing on problem-solving while I’m running. But having hours to let my mind ruminate combined with the novelty of different conditions and scenery gives my brain space to play. This is how creative approaches or solutions can seemingly magically appear — because of that newness, combined with the rote activity of running.

All that sounds nice, right? Last week I was planning on my normal Saturday long run, getting those hours settling into my own brain, when I got a text from a friend I don’t see nearly often enough. She asked me if I had a long run planned.

I was torn: On the one hand, I wanted to see her. On the other, I had planned my run partially so I would have baked-in time during my week to mull over things.

Running with my friend would mean choosing a place to go together, talking a whole lot to catch up on life, and the subtle negotiation of pacing. If I ran by myself, I’d get what I was banking on: quiet time in my head.

I chose running with her. We set a time and a place.

I got in my car on Saturday morning as the fog started to break in Palmer. As I drove toward Eagle River, our meeting spot, the fog got so thick I could barely see ahead of me on the Glenn Highway. I gave myself a small pep talk: There are many beautiful, clear days in Palmer, you’re doing this so you can get some miles in and catch up with your friend. It’ll be OK even if it’s foggy.

Still, my heart was sinking. I wondered if I should have just stuck around the Valley.

By the time I arrived at the trailhead, I was above the fog. It was clear and colder than it had been in Palmer — a refreshing, more “normal” for this time of year type of cold. Fresh snow lined the mountaintops and the rising sun sparkled through the low underbrush lining the trail.

We ran one mile, three miles, and four before I knew it. We turned around, talking the entire time.

After the run, I felt grateful and energized.

Maybe I would have felt the same if I’d stuck to my original plan. In future weeks, I will need that time in my head, alone. But this time, making the decision that was outside of my routine was absolutely the right choice. Yes, talking during an entire run is more difficult, and the trail we chose was harder than what I needed for this particular race, but in the end it was more fulfilling than my set-and-forget scheduled long run.

In the end, I find that having a habit of getting outside supports the comfort of routine while also providing inherent challenges — through weather conditions, going outside with new people, or pushing a little outside of a set routine. For me, this combination of self-care and growth helps me understand what the relationship is between the two. It’s a constant back-and-forth that, like life, doesn’t fall into discrete, pre-scheduled blocks of time and isn’t meted out in careful doses. It’s always changing. It’s up to me to make decisions that alternate in pushing and sustaining me.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.