I read a lovely newsletter (essay? post?) by Ava Huang about five weeks ago, titled Routines, Rituals, and Meaning, and was convinced enough to give it a go. I started performing a coffee ritual every morning before work.
Yes, I know how crazy that sounds.
The ritual would go something like this: I would aeropress 250ml of black, hot gold into my favourite mug, and then I would meditate for five minutes on the balcony, staring out at the morning, steaming mug at my side. After the five minutes, I would sip said coffee, thinking about nothing in particular, with the tacit understanding that when the mug was empty I had to get up, and go indoors, and fire up my computer and get to work.
One minor caveat, discovered after about a week: I was not allowed to take the phone out to the balcony with me. And so long as I’ve kept to that, the ritual has worked like a charm.
It’s been four weeks since I started doing my coffee ritual. I’ve got good enough results from the practice that I’m comfortable recommending ritual-making to anyone who finds themselves doing self-directed work. I’m not entirely sure why it works. All I know is that it does.
My one line summary: a routine becomes a ritual when you imbue it with meaning. It’s weird; I recommend not thinking too hard about it. The goal is to keep the ritual sacred — whatever sacred means to you. But, holy hell, do rituals work.
Ava opens her piece with the observation that writers and artists and other creative folk often have weird practices around their work. Murakami, for instance:
“I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”
And artist Arlene Shechet:
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what is your work schedule?
I like to get eight hours of sleep. I’m too cranky if I get less than seven. And I am incredibly disciplined with my work schedule. I start in the morning, and I end at night. I’m very good at just committing to the day.
My schedule — it’s anything I have to do to make the work. And I don’t work for a show; I’m making stuff all of the time. I don’t like being too goal oriented, and I don’t believe in having a “body of work,” either. I just believe in art, in showing a generous offering from the studio.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
It’s all the time. It doesn’t start and stop. It’s a river or a lake, and I swim in it.
And Ava herself:
As I was writing this S. pointed out that routines tend to be most powerful for creative work, because in other jobs some kind of structure tends to be forced on you (i.e. if you work at a tech company). However, he said that even within those settings, he finds that the people who most good at what they do tend to have specific and weird routines: they’re obsessive about working out at a certain time of day for instance, or drink a disturbing amount of coffee and don’t eat until 8 PM. This isn’t surprising to me: people who are good at creating systems tend to be good at reaching goals.
My own day: I never start with the main thing I’m working on. Instead I go for a walk and get coffee in the morning, or pick up mail. Then I work on something for Substack. Around PM, I start to actually work, and I keep doing that until I feel like I’m running out of steam. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up in the middle of night to continue working for an hour or two. Then I pass out and do it again. It’s not a super organized process, but hey, it works for me, and as long as something is working well I try not to question it too much.
But the main thing about rituals is the following paragraph, and it hit me like a sack of books thrown off a balcony:
So, what’s the difference between a routine and a ritual? I define routines as casual habitual actions that you repeat day to day. They become rituals when you imbue them with meaning (emphasis added). For example, something like a five mile run every morning can either be something you do quite thoughtlessly to keep yourself in good health, or it can be something sacred that helps you hypnotize yourself into doing the work you need to do.
I’m not entirely sure what goes through my head when I do my coffee ritual, but I take care to never do it when I think that I can’t start my work immediately after the ritual (perhaps because I have to rush out for an appointment, or hop onto a Zoom, or whatever). When I need caffeine but I’m in a rush, I make tea, or I aeropress my coffee the night before and store it in the fridge and drink it cold.
My coffee ritual is for when I really want to work. Not doing it when I can’t do the work is how I keep it sacred.
If you find yourself doing creative, self-directed projects, I’d recommend giving this a try. Just don’t think too hard about why it does or doesn’t work; shut down the rational bits of your mind. The point is to be ridiculous. You’ll want to imbue your ritual with the meaning necessary to ‘make an offering to the studio’ or ‘appease the muse’ or whatever silly thing you need to do to convince yourself that what you’re doing gives you permission to do the work.
And then, of course, hopefully, you go and do it.