What is the first thing you do in the morning? The last thing you do at night? Your first action when taking on a new project? Your impulse when receiving good (or bad) news?
If you asked those questions to many highly productive people, they’ll have immediate answers. Not because they are micro-obsessive about their schedules, but because over time they’ve developed predictable rituals around key areas of their life and work. Over time, they’ve learned that the messiness of creative work requires a supportive structure, lest everything devolve into chaos.
According to Orson Welles, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Rituals provide necessary limitation on your focus, time, and energy so that you can delve deeply into the disorder of creative problem solving.
Rituals are important for several reasons. First, they provide solid ground when facing the uncertainty of your daily work. A ritual is like a bucket you can fill over and over again rather than trying to decide which bucket you should use. A good, solid set of rituals provide context for your work so that you can spend the majority of your energy focusing on the problems you’re trying to solve.
Second, rituals help you forge healthy habits. When you return to the same ritual over and over, you are reinforcing the kinds of behavior you want to see manifested in your life and work, which creates a kind of infrastructure or supporting scaffolding for your creative process. Be mindless about the non-essentials so you can be mindful about the essentials.
Finally, ritual helps you achieve flow in your work. Just like your body adapts to a regular bedtime and a predictable sleep ritual, your mind will also learn to settle into regular rhythms and rituals related to your work. If you always focus on specific activities at certain times of the day, or if you dedicate blocks of time and energy for your ritual, you are far more likely to settle into a state of immersion in your work.
You make your rituals, then your rituals make you.
Here are a few rituals that have served me well over time:
– The first thing I do when I wake in the morning is prep my coffee and breakfast – the same thing every day, by the way – and spend an hour reading, thinking, and writing. It’s become such a ritual that it’s now a habit. Most of my best ideas for my work come out of this time. I couldn’t function without it.
So, how do you begin your day? Maybe your ritual includes immediately putting on your running shoes and getting in a workout. Maybe it’s sitting in your favorite chair and meditating with a cup of coffee. Maybe it’s hitting the floor and doing ten pushups before you leave your bedroom. Having some structure to the start of your day immediately sends a signal to your mind that it’s time to get moving. It helps demarcate your time, especially when so many of us are living and working in the same space.
– I listen to the same music over and over when I’m writing. In fact, I’ve written all of my books while listening to Ambient Music Therapy’s Deep Meditation Experience. When that album kicks on, my brain knows it’s time to start writing. I also light a candle when I write and only when I write. Again, it’s a small ritual that signals that this is deep, important work and that this moment is important.
What small things can you ritualize to infuse meaning into the mundane tasks you engage in every day? It could be sitting in a certain chair when you do a specific kind of work, or using a certain pen only when you are brainstorming. It’s up to you. The value of a ritual is the meaning that it creates in your life and workflow, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks you’re crazy for it.
– When I’ve signed all of my book deals (including the most recent one, which releases in October) I eat a packet of Ramen noodles for lunch. Why? Because I remember a time in my early adult life – now more than 25 years ago – when having $100 in my bank account at the end of the month meant I felt flush with cash. I always want to remind myself to stay lean, focused, and hungry, and this ritual roots me in a place thankfulness and gratitude. (Then… I go celebrate the book deal with my family!) It’s a small act that re-roots me in my mission, in where I came from, and in what really matters. I’m grateful to do the work that I love, and I want to stay humble and grounded in both good times and bad.
What small ritual of meaning can you build into your life right now to remind you of what matters most? So many things are being stripped from us as we endure this pandemic, and simply grounding yourself in small acts of ritual and rootedness can remind you of what you’re really trying to do.
These are just a few of the sorts of rituals I’ve found helpful in my life and work. They ground me in what’s important, ensure that I have time and energy for what I care about, and help me create space in the margins of my (very) busy life.
Ritual roots us in what really matters. Spend some time this week thinking about a few rituals and practices that you can engrain in your days to help provide structure, meaning, and purpose.