Sitting on a wooden bench, looking down at your feet. People are moving around, talking, some are shouting. But that doesn’t matter to you, it’s in the distance. You can hear the air coming through into your lungs and filling them up. Concentration.
Put the shoes on and tape the velcro straps. You know those straps very well and you tape them in the exact same way you did last time. The shoes fit you perfectly.
Standing in front of a wall. Arms beside your body, relaxed. You look up and scan through the sequence repeating each move in your mind. The hands go through the chalk bag and you blow the excess of powder. Now it’s complete, it’s just you against yourself and gravity.
The tunnel across the mountain
Rituals are important, because they are sequences of events that we execute to bring us to the point where we are mentally in the best place we can be to achieve something.
Every time we set out to do something new, it is as if we are standing in front of a mountain. It is this massive thing we do not know how to approach. We don’t know the steps of a dance, we don’t recognise the rhythm of the music, or we haven’t played a sport that we are about to try. Why is it so difficult? Because it’s unfamiliar.
Once we do an activity a few times and we break through this unfamiliarity, repetitive actions start to build up. These repetitive actions are the tunnel across the mountain. They are the rituals that we do to help us get through the hard part of starting to do whatever we need to do.
Appetite comes with eating
How often do you wake up in the morning and you just don’t want to get out of bed and do the things you need to do? It is happening to me a lot lately.
Rituals help us get through such blocks. When I get up, there are a set of things that I always do – drink water, sit for 5 mins and think, read a few pages from the book next to me and by the time I go through all of them I am ready to get up.
Small actions such as these can trigger greater sequences and make it easier to complete those more difficult actions.
Imagine for example running in the morning. Cold, painful, stiff opposed to warm, cozy, restful. These are the things that we say to ourselves as soon as it’s time to go out. However, putting on the running clothes, the shoes, tying the laces, pouring water in the bottle and suddenly the coziness of the bed seems much further away than the running route ahead.
Appetite comes with eating as they say, and even if you are not motivated to do something before you begin, motivation will often come as you start doing it. This is why rituals are important, they get us through the land of struggling to begin.
A ritual is like a magnifying glass is to sunlight. It is a tool we use to focus our attention and energy in the “right” direction (i.e. the one we have chosen).
By going through the set of actions we not only manage to overcome the block of starting, but also we come out of the sequence focused and in the best possible mindset we can have to do what we need to do.
In University a close friend of mine smoked and I didn’t. We used to work on projects together a lot. Whenever he felt that he doesn’t know what to do next, or the work is not going well he would just stop and “go out for a fag”. Almost like clock work, every time he would come back excited, jumping around with energy because an idea came to mind. A lot of these ideas were really good.
For him, stopping the work and going for a cigarette was a ritual. It helped him clear his mind and focus his thoughts on the problem instead of procrastinating with little things that won’t bring him closer to a solution. As soon as he focused on the problem, ideas started to flow. *
Rituals are important because the repetition of enacting each ritual provides a focal point from distraction.
– William Stillman
I started this post describing the ritual I go through when climbing. The way I put my shoes on, the way I add chalk on my hands, it all helps me concentrate and get my mind clear. I literally feel handicapped without a chalk bag on my waist, not because I need chalk necessarily, but because it’s part of the ritual I have that helps me get my mind in the right place.
Each of us has their own rituals. It is even more important to recognise that we do have them. We can use that knowledge to build new sequences of actions to help us get through challenging moments.
Finally, rituals help us focus, overcome blocks and they also reinforce behaviours by shacking off distractions (like the people shouting and talking around me in the example at the beginning).
What are the rituals you recognise in your daily activities that get you through the hardest parts of the day?
* I am not promoting smoking. Also my friend doesn’t smoke anymore and he has found other ways of focusing his attention.
P.S.: Thanks to James Clear for his article on Twyla Tharp. It was the inspiration for writing this article.