Rituals are shortcuts to moods and mindsets.
Suddenly the throbbing in my head faded. The wall that I was pushing up against had fallen, too.
I was getting excited, you could even say inspired – I wanted to get to work. I actually becoming desperate to do so. It no longer felt like a chore, it no longer felt like an impossible task, it no longer felt like something that I was faking. It was something I was desperate for.
I’d been trying to write.
I’d missed a self-imposed deadline (again) and was out of my usual element. I wanted to write but I was at the wrong computer, at the wrong desk, wearing the wrong clothes, with the wrong amount of noise, the wrong type of noise, too much noise.
But it was getting easier. Without realising it I’d followed through on a small ritual, something I’ve been slowly teaching myself for years, something that use to give me an urge to write after hours. Except now it happened in minutes.
It’s just a small routine, but it’s been one I’ve built up slowly, accidentally.
What if I’d tried to do it deliberately? What if you could perform a little action that gets you into the mood to write, to design, to exercise?
Comedian who squeezes his thumb
I can’t remember his name. I can’t even remember if he was funny. But I remember his story about ritual.
Anytime he was in front of an audience and it was going well, even if it was the one laugh he’d get that night when he was starting his career, he’d squeeze his thumb.
He’d feel the energy of the crowed lift him up and he’d squeeze his thumb.
It didn’t take long for his thumb to ache to be squeezed when the audience roared. Then when he needed a rush of confidence to pull him out of a hole filled with silence, he’d squeeze his thumb.
The audience in the room was quiet, but he felt like there was an incredible surge of energy in himself.
He could deliver his next joke with confidence, a much surer way to find another laugh.
Sportsman who taps his forehead
During the last Winter Olympics my wife and I would enjoying trying to spot the athletes’ rituals.
Some would tap their shoulders with their fingers, others would clap and scream loudly, others would wriggle their head.
But each of them found something in these little movements.
It was how they turned the key on decades of practice. It was the initial spark that created a fire that brought about moments of precision. It got them in the zone.
That Lovely Brain of Ours
The best way to learn is to tie new knowledge to old knowledge.
Then as we learn more, we keep tying ideas together.
This is what happens in our brains – a network is created, with each new piece of information adding a node. The more important and repeated a piece of information, the bigger the node.
It’s why we might spend hours trying to remember the tune of one song we use to love and get no where.
But, eventually, when it finally comes to us, it brings with it a soup of memories.
We hear the tune in our head, we remember where we were the first time we heard it, what friends we were with, what we were eating. We’ll remember the smell of the place, the sound of it, the weather out the window.
It happens with these little rituals, too.
If we have a small ritual we go through whenever we start, or when things are going well, our brains will connect the node that represents the ritual to the network that represents the work we’re doing.
Then once any of those nodes in the network is touched upon, every other one will light up.
Sometimes we can’t access that network – we want to do a certain kind of work that we’ve done a thousand times before, but it feels impossible to do so, as we can’t get any of those nodes to light up, no matter how hard we try.
A ritual is a kind of way to brute-force ourselves onto the network. We light up the ritual node, all the others come online with it.
And because we’ve practiced our ritual node every time we’ve started, it’s not only the easiest one to light up, but perhaps the one that’ll send off the most powerful spark throughout the network.
Reading about writing makes me want to write
We are making rituals we don’t even know are there.
The one of mine that I was hinting at earlier was to do with writing.
When I’ve had a good week of writing, I find I end up reading about the writing process, how to be a better writer, how good writers worked, and so on. I swim in the topic.
I was feeling deflated while trying to write. So I booted up Instapaper. At the top of the list was an article on writing. I wasn’t sure I wanted to focus on a topic I was struggling with (I was looking for distraction), but I found myself clicking on it anyway.
It only took a paragraph of reading for my brain to start getting itchy. A kind of itchy that’s only scratched when keys are tapped.
In less than a minute I went from being so stuck I was getting a headache, to being so eager that I couldn’t type fast enough.
But rituals aren’t habits.
Habits are things we tie to events – either a time or a routine. Brush teeth at 7am; clean desk after lunch.
A ritual is a little magic key you keep in your pocket. One you run your fingers over or palm from time to time. Then pull out when your engines aren’t running.
We mostly make our rituals without realising it and yet they can still be powerful. I once had a hiphop album on repeat while doing a couple weeks of web development work. Now when I hear the same artist, I start thinking about CSS. Stupid, but it’s there, a routine stuck in my head.
But when we make deliberately create them, they can change our lives.
We can be more productive at a moments notice, we can feel creative under pressure, or we can gain confidence during discomfort.
It Doesn’t Matter What Your Ritual Is.
It’s yours. If I squeezed my thumb, I’m not going to suddenly become funny.
Don’t ever be embarrassed by your ritual, and don’t bother stealing someone else’s. They only gain value and power when we use them continuously.
What’s your ritual? By talking and thinking about mine, I’m starting to use them more. They’re nice little shortcuts. Look at that, a ritual for rituals.
So tell me about yours. Tell me about yours so that you have to put it into words, so that it becomes more real to you.