‘I’ve read Jilly Cooper’s Riders 60 times’: The people who use repetition to enrich their lives

Fay Keenan
Fay Keenan

Every day, just past noon, Clare Gleave prepares an omelette. It is a simple task: whisking eggs, adding spinach and cheese, with a small salad on the side. An omelette maker ensures perfect delivery – the same lunch, day in, day out.

Gleave, 44, is not obsessive, or strange (‘Well, at least, I don’t think so’). In a complicated and busy life – she is a businesswoman and mother of three young boys – she simply wants some order. ‘It’s almost like a tick-box exercise. It’s something on my to-do list to just get done,’ she says. ‘There’s definitely an element of routine to it, and I eat at pretty much the same time every day even if I’m not hungry.’

In Gleave’s desire for an omelette exists an essential human truth: we are creatures of habit, falling back time and again on the familiar, the routine, the nostalgic.

She is in good company: Andy Warhol, who raised repetition into an art form in his prints of Campbell’s soup tins and his Marilyn Monroe portraits, said that he ate the same lunch for 20 years. In the White House, Barack Obama always wore the same grey or blue suits: ‘My wife makes fun of how routinised I’ve become,’ he told Vanity Fair in 2012. ‘You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinise yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.’

Mark Zuckerberg has attributed his success in part to a wardrobe of the same white and grey T-shirts, while Victoria Beckham ‘will very rarely deviate’ from meals of grilled fish and steamed vegetables, according to her husband.

CEO of Meta and founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg is known for his trademark plain t-shirts
CEO of Meta and founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg is known for his trademark plain t-shirts - Shutterstock

Patterns of repetition emerge in almost every domain of our lives. Nearly three-quarters of British holidaymakers return to the same holiday location year after year, according to one 2022 survey by Norwegian Cruise Line, with four the average number of return visits to the same place. In our dining habits, 60 per cent of Britons eat the same meals every day, research by McCain indicates.

The human instinct to repeat experiences has fascinated philosophers and psychologists for centuries. ‘Repetition is reality, and it is the seriousness of life. He who wills repetition is matured in seriousness,’ wrote Kierkegaard in his work Repetition in 1843.

Repeating activities allows individuals to access a greater range of emotional experiences, says Michael Norton, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, a process he describes as ‘emodiversity’ in his book The Ritual Effect. ‘We often think repeating things will be boring, but actually there is great value in revisiting particular activities or places,’ he says. ‘It allows you to access nostalgia, as well as repeating the past and those are wonderful emotions.

‘One of the things we build in with rituals and special repeated activities over time is the ability to access memories. Going back to the same vacation place with adult children enables you to remember when they were little, in the only place where you can access those memories.’

These findings ring true for Katie Leake, from Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, who has taken holidays in the same Scottish fishing village for the past 20 years, with her husband and daughters Natasha, 24, and Verity, 21. For two weeks every summer, they swim in Elie’s ‘crystal blue sea’, visit the sandy beach and go canoeing in the bay. They meet up with friends they see only once a year, and have dinner in their favourite pub, the Kinneuchar Inn. Due to the village’s popularity they do change accommodation each year (‘which is exciting’), although they did for one stretch manage to stay in the same cottage for eight years running.

Natasha and Verity Leake with friends in Elie over the years
Natasha and Verity Leake with friends in Elie over the years

‘There are so many rituals and places we love to return to every year,’ enthuses Leake. ‘There has never been a discussion that we would stop going, we simply haven’t considered changing. It’s the thing that we do every year and we look forward to it so much. If we’d only gone there once we wouldn’t feel about the place as we do now. It feels like going home, even though it is totally different to where we live in Buckinghamshire.’

Although they do find different activities to do each summer, eating at new cafés or going on day trips to new villages, they never tire of Elie. ‘Going to the same place every year is like creating a tapestry that you start with small stitches and as it grows you can see the beauty of it. It’s like a new experience each time, but it is also about all the memories. Returning to the same place reminds me of those times in [the girls’] childhoods. They are sure they will continue returning as adults.’

This ability to discover new traditions as well as to connect to past experience is a powerful benefit of repeated activities. In one study, led by Ed O’Brien, associate professor of behavioural science at Chicago Booth School of Business, researchers examined participants’ responses to repeat experiences, including rereading books, rewatching TV and films, and replaying video games. Across all stimuli, repeat viewings were more enjoyable than participants predicted.

‘There’s a general belief that if you want to seem like an interesting, cultured person, the best thing you can do is to showcase that you’re open to new experiences,’ explains O’Brien. ‘That may be true, but I think we take for granted the other value of really digging deep into one domain.’ In other words, he adds, ‘Exciting discoveries lie ahead if we return to where we have already been.’

By repeating activities, participants were able to pick out finer nuances or notice different aspects of their book, game or film, allowing them to uncover novelty.

For Fay Keenan, 46, rereading Jilly Cooper’s romance novels has allowed her to discover new elements in the works, which have shifted in their significance for her over the decades.

The English teacher from Winscombe, Somerset, first picked up Polo aged 13, and ever since has been reading the novels ‘almost constantly’. She has read Riders, her favourite, ‘at least 50 or 60 times’.

Fay Keenan, 46, says that Jilly Cooper's romance novels have shifted in significance for her over the decades
Fay Keenan, 46, says that Jilly Cooper's romance novels have shifted in significance for her over the decades

Familiarity draws her back to the books. ‘Once you have read a story there are no surprises. Rereading to me is about escaping into an inclusive creative world and losing myself through these encounters with the same surroundings and characters. It’s a real release in stressful times.’

But rereading has also allowed for new discoveries.

‘My interpretations and interests in the books have changed over the years. I look for different things now in my 40s, and I feel that I’ve grown with the stories. In my teens and 20s I followed the main romantic couple and the primary plot, but over the years my responses have evolved.

‘What you read in your teenage years and early adult life really stays with you. Her books have been with me my whole life, and I can imagine picking them up in my dotage. I’ll take Jilly Cooper to the grave.’

Now a mother of two daughters and a writer of romantic fiction herself, she says she has more understanding of the choices made by Cooper’s female characters. As a young woman the ‘brooding’ Declan O’Hara appealed, but now Keenan identifies with Riders’ middle-aged novelist character Lizzie Vereker. ‘Jilly Cooper was quite good at showing that the struggle to “have it all” wasn’t attainable, but that a lot of the mothers in the novel were trying their best under difficult circumstances. Lizzie Vereker, in particular, seemed to struggle with “the juggle”, and the message seemed to be that prioritising one area of your life wasn’t a bad thing, from time to time, and it was OK to make mistakes.’

Her words reflect findings made by researchers at American University, Washington, DC, who interviewed a range of people on their motivations to carry out repeat behaviours, including rereading books, rewatching films and revisiting locations. ‘Through repetition, the past becomes understood, and one can discover new meanings, especially when a new inquiry standpoint is adopted,’ the researchers concluded.

Although both Keenan and Leake’s repeated interests stem from positive experiences, times of difficulty can also drive an individual’s desire to seek familiarity.

‘Rituals don’t just spring up out of nowhere,’ explains Norton. ‘They often arise from times of stress or uncertainty. For example, in countries which experience unpredictable drought, communities are more likely to develop rituals such as rain dances, to cope with uncertainty. We saw that in the pandemic and lockdown, people seeking out repetition.’ Looking for a sense of routine is ‘not an unusual response’, he adds.

Robi Walters, 50, also raises this link. Walters, a successful artist based in London, and a self-described ‘fairly habitual person’, wears the same clothes every day, all in the same colour. Each year he buys a new set of items, from socks to jackets to underwear. This year, he is wearing purple.

Artist Robi Walters wears the same clothes every day, all in the same colour
Artist Robi Walters wears the same clothes every day, all in the same colour

Other parts of his life are also routinised: he takes a cold shower every morning, and has meditated daily for the past 25 years. ‘I went through a traumatic experience in my childhood, and I went through the care system, so I think I am partly institutionalised,’ he says. ‘I think if I did stop my practices, I would replace them with something else. I’m kind of in a bit of a loop.’

While Walters finds soothing repetition in his monochrome outfits, Camilla Fellas Arnold, 34, seeks reassurance in her love of Shetland sheepdogs, which she also traces to a challenging time.

Feeling lonely as an only child aged seven, following her parents’ separation, she asked her mother for a puppy to have as a ‘best friend’. On the advice of her grandad, she chose a Shetland sheepdog whom she named Lassie: ‘It was love at first sight.’

Caught by the ‘Sheltie bug’, Arnold has since owned five of them. ‘There is something so amazing about the breed. They are very intelligent and eager to please, and so friendly. They have enriched my life in some really dark moments. It has never been a question that we would have another dog breed.’

Despite their habits being born out of negative experiences, both Arnold and Walters strongly emphasise the upsides of repetition.

‘I think there’s a kind of comfort in knowing your own breed, and I feel confident with them. And they remind me of my grandparents’ dogs, and my childhood, in a positive way, even with the sad part of my parents splitting up,’ says Arnold. ‘They’re really special. Most of my life has had a Sheltie in it, and I don’t think I could imagine it any other way.’

Camilla and her dogs
'There's a kind of comfort in knowing your own breed': Camilla Fellas Arnold with her Shelties Teddy, Talia and Mia

Walters agrees. Moving on from his challenging early life, he has found great value in daily rituals and habits. ‘Wearing the same clothes reflects the way that I think about my art, and my life. With repetition, some may say that it’s an illness or there is something wrong. But I would also say that it can be very beneficial, if the activities you do are good for you. Limiting decisions is a real blessing. It saves me from thinking about what I’m going to wear every day. It cuts out an enormous amount of the decision-making process.’

His experience highlights a feature of human psychology: ‘decision fatigue’, the idea that willpower is exhausted in choosing between many different options. The average adult faces around 35,000 choices a day – with 226.7 relating to food alone, according to researchers at Cornell University. Each one depletes mental focus.

‘People constantly face the challenge of making decisions and of choosing between an ever-increasing number of options. This is very tiring and could lead some to make poorer choices over time,’ says Dr Eva Krockow, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester.

‘While there is some debate about the existence of decision fatigue, there is no question that decision-making presents a cognitive challenge. Taking in lots of different options and comparing them is time-consuming and tricky.

‘What might help is to personally limit the number of options available or the number of decisions to be made during a day. For example, following the same routine or schedule every day or having a go-to lunch option will save you time and preserve mental energy for other, more important decisions during the day.’

Robi Walters in another one of his monochrome outfits
'Limiting decisions is a real blessing': Robi Walters in another one of his monochrome outfits

Linked to this is the ‘paradox of choice’, the finding that people report greater satisfaction in making choices from a smaller range of options. In one study, researchers recorded the behaviour of shoppers at an ‘upscale grocery store’, who chose from a selection of either six or 24 jams. In the first group, 30 per cent then bought a jar, while only three per cent made a purchase from the larger range.

‘Even though consumers presumably shop at this particular store in part because of the large number of selections available, having “too much” choice seems nonetheless to have hampered their later motivation to buy,’ the researchers noted. Behind this sense of ‘choice overload’, they suggested, is the idea that there is a ‘wrong’ choice to make – and that making it could incur some kind of cost or consequence.

Buying a car is, for many, one of these agonising decisions, because of the expensive nature of the purchase and the bewildering range of options on offer. Colin Moore, 74, from Sidcup, Kent, has solved this particular paradox of choice: he simply rebuys a VW Golf every time there is a new model, and is now on his fifth in 20 years.

‘I wouldn’t want to change. They’re so reliable, they’re lovely to drive, very comfortable. I like that there are a few new features each time, like cruise control, but the essential design is the same every time. The only problem now is that they’re introducing the hybrid version. That will be a bit of a change. So I’m not sure.’

Whether buying the same car or wearing top-to-toe purple all year round, embracing repetition can help to avoid decision fatigue, says psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee. ‘By limiting the number of choices we have on any given day we can minimise the likelihood of experiencing it. Common areas to limit decisions are in what to wear, what to eat, and how to schedule one’s time.

‘If we have a few of our first daily decisions relatively dialled in, we conserve decision-making energy and are more likely to have what is needed for the choices we need to make in other parts of our lives.’ But she warns against becoming too focused on maintaining particular routines at the expense of new experiences.

‘For many people, jumping into the unknown or trying to do something in a new or different way requires emotional energy that feels costly. We revert to what we know and what we’ve habituated to simply because it’s a known commodity. We tend to forget that the process of appropriate risk-taking can give us energy, instead focusing on how much energy it would take to try something new and possibly not excel or succeed.’

Norton also highlights the importance of striking a balance. ‘It’s a trade-off. With all new things, you get to access different emotions, new experiences. They can all be good, psychologically. If you want complete discovery and excitement that’s great; if you want connection to the past then the same thing can be great, and in either case there is a sacrifice. No one is better than the other, so you should think about what you are looking for.’

Variety may be the spice of life. But repetition offers much to feast on – and sometimes a spinach and cheese omelette is all you need.