Darwin, Stephen King and the Power of Ritual

As the sole provider for our family of 5, I know my father worried a lot about money. Where he found comfort in the face of his fears was often in church. Every day he kept a ritual of attending early morning mass before work, which helped to relax him and set the tone for the rest of his day. But it doesn’t have to be religious practice. Anything we do on a regular basis has the power to enrich and transform our lives. A positive ritual is a behavior that becomes automatic over time—fueled by some deeply held value. In contrast to willpower and discipline, which require pushing yourself to a particular behavior, a ritual pulls at you. A glimpse into the working lives of others reveals some interesting ritualistic behavior.

In his middle and later years, Charles Darwin stuck to a very rigid schedule that started at 7:00am with a short walk, then breakfast. He would then work throughout the morning. Lunch, at 12:45, was his biggest meal of the day. His afternoon was also scheduled and consisted of two walks, reading, and backgammon. Darwin could not tolerate much socializing, and kept it to a maximum of 30 minutes at a time. Prolific writer Stephen King keeps to a strict routine each day, starting the morning off with a cup of tea or water and his vitamin. King sits down to work between 8:00 and 8:30AM in the same seat with his papers arranged on his desk in the same way. He claims that starting off with such consistency provides a signal to his mind in preparation for his work. When he has written his mandatory 1000 words, he knocks off and goes about the rest of his day. He returns in the evening for revisions of the days’ work. Keep in mind that rituals do not need to be drastic or elaborate. You probably already perform dozens of small rituals every day, whether you realize it or not. For example, you may follow the same pattern when you make a cup of coffee or read the newspaper on the train every morning. When you think about it, you’ll notice a ritual, however simple, creates a border around an activity the way a frame does around a picture. It sets this activity apart from regular life. Perhaps you can bring some of this ritual behavior to your work? Perhaps before beginning each day, or booting up your computer, you can take a few quiet minutes to collect your thoughts. Maybe perform some deep breathing exercises. By bringing awareness to what you are about to do, you show respect for yourself and the work you do. One of my goals for 2011 is to incorporate a better balance between physical stress and recovery. To step back from my tasks more often and take regular breaks. As a marathoner, my mode throughout the years has often been to operate flat out and I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t support my peak performance over time. So I am planning to schedule more regular breaks. Whether you need inspiration to manage a team or are working on a future best-selling novel, think about exploring a daily practice that can support that. Look at what time of day you are most productive and what type of surrounding is most conducive to your work to help form rituals that will promote creativity. I often tell my clients that it takes time, attention and repetition to create new hard wiring. Share your new plan with two people and ask them to hold you accountable to implementing it. As you strike out on your endeavor, let them know that a bit of positive feedback goes a long way too.