We humans are creatures of habit.
Literally. There is much we can do without conscious thought. We can do mundane tasks like making tea, opening doors, brushing our teeth, switching on lights on autopilot. We can even do quite complex tasks like driving a car or playing a musical instrument without needing to think through every part of it, as we did when we were learning that skill.
Our brains are constantly filtering out small choices, to leave room for bigger decisions. We only have a certain amount of decision-making power in a day. And only so much willpower. So it’s good to save that bandwidth for what’s important.
But when our usual routines are interrupted, it can be hard to get back into flow, that state of mind when we’re at our most productive and creative.
If you’re about to start a new creative project, or if you’re adjusting to a completely new way of working during the current crisis, it’s worth looking at the role ritual can play in giving you structure, and finding flow.
If until recently you went to work every day, you had rituals around this, even if you weren’t aware of them.
You’d get up, and probably had some sort of routine to get yourself and your family out of the door on time. You had the journey to work. And perhaps this also involved little rituals like picking up a coffee, lunch or a newspaper from the same shop.
Once at work, you might have had set breaks, or rituals like making tea, or going to the water cooler to move you from one task to the next. You almost certainly had a lunchtime routine, of some sort.
At the end of the day you’d have the journey home to decompress, and shift gears. And perhaps a little ritual of hanging your coat of and kicking off your shoes at the front door, to help you switch from your work self back to parent, partner, friend or flat-mate.
Ritual in a time of quarantine
Now, if you’re working from home for the first time, those familiar routines have gone. It’s easy for the days to blur into one. A simple thing like lunch involves new decisions, and so takes up more bandwidth. When you’re working from home, there’s no fixed end point, so you never really stop, and relax.
This is where ritual comes in. Habits and routines tend to get ingrained without too much deliberate thought. Rituals have a bit of magic about them. They can be things we consciously invent.
It’s important to think about them, as we all settle into a new normal right now. Or whenever we start any new job or creative project.
Rituals for beginning the day
You might want to reproduce your old morning routine as much as possible. Get up at the time you always have. Get dressed, even if no one can see you. You could even continue to make a packed lunch in the morning, to avoid having to think about it later. Instead of the commute, you could take a turn around the garden if you’re lucky enough to have one. Or take a brisk walk round the block to prepare your mind and body to get down to work.
If there are things you always longed to do as part of your morning routine, you now have time to try them. Perhaps it’s 10 minutes of meditation or reading before work. A few yoga stretches. Or a daily dance around the kitchen with your kids. Whatever feels energising, fun, and gets you into the mood.
Then create rituals around actually starting work.
For me, this means putting on the same playlist while I tidy up my study. I take a few minutes to check my calendar, and decide the three tasks I want to prioritise and get done that day. Then I have a quick stretch. I turn my computer on and my email off. Finally I set my phone to silent, and take five long deep breaths before I begin.
A shutdown ritual when work is done
This is even more important. It’s easy for the day to linger on into evening, while you try and do just one more thing. And then perhaps another. With a bit of scrolling social media in between, or watching clips on YouTube. You’re not really working – but you’re definitely not relaxing, either. It’s not fair on you, your family or your friends. And it’s also not very productive.
Instead, choose what time you are going to finish work, and stick to that as much as possible. When you’re done, have a simple shut-down routine.
I have an upbeat playlist I put on loud while I clear my desk. That’s a signal to my family that it’s OK to come in now, if they need me. Then I do some quick stretches, and perhaps have a dance round my study to shake off the day. I shut down my computer, to make it slightly harder to pop back in later and do one quick thing that turns into a couple of hours more.
If I can, I’ll often go for a quick walk to clear my head, before joining my family. Sometimes we’ll go together, to catch up on our day.
Afterwards, I’ll only take calls or deal with work issues in an emergency.
Rituals for creative projects
As a coach, I often help clients to create rituals to support them through a new project. This could be a book, an album, a tour, play or some other kind of live performance, an art show or a film.
Performers often have rituals before they go onstage, from vocal/physical warmups to mantras and prayers. Yet they can forget to create rituals for afterwards, when the applause has died down and they’re alone.
Alcohol, drugs, and casual sex can recreate the buzz of being onstage, in front of an appreciative audience. Clearly, that can be fun for a while. But it’s not healthy or sustainable, long-term.
You probably have trigger points in your day, too. A glass of wine to unwind at the end of the day that often turns into a second and third. A biscuit or four with your afternoon drink when a nap or a few minutes outside might energise you more. Slumping down in front of the TV or spending hours playing a computer game when a walk, a bath, or a call to connect with someone you love might serve you better.
Once you’ve identified these, replace them with a new ritual that gives you what you really need. It’ll feel awkward at first, contrived. But after a while it will feel natural and effortless, and instead of reaching for the chocolate. the wine, or the remote control, you’ll automatically perform your new ritual and put on a playlist, your running shoes, hug your dog or your partner.
At the start of a new project, these are the kind of questions to consider:
- What hours will you work?
- Where will you work? How will you get there? If you’re at home, how will you mark work/creative time from the rest of your home life?
- Do you need a warm-up, or other rituals to get you in flow?
- How will you get your basic needs met during this time? How much sleep/rest do you need? What exercise will keep you at your best? How will you get the right food and make sure you’re drinking enough water?
- What else do you need? Things like massage; therapy; time alone/with family and friends; breaks to do something completely different?
- Inspiration: what will you see/hear/watch/listen to? Who might you want to connect with/collaborate with, to keep you inspired?
- Think about your support team during the project. Who will you work with? Who will you call when you’re stuck/lonely/need a hug – or a good laugh?
- What do you need to keep the rest of your life on track while you concentrate on this?
- Last time you did this, what went wrong? And what really worked? What do you want to keep, and what do you want to change?
Once you’ve answered these, you can start to weave routines and rituals to carry you through it more easily.
As examples of how ritual can get you into flow, let’s consider two successful artists I’ve interviewed, in recent years.
Florence + The Machine
For two of Florence Welch’s four albums as Florence + The Machine, I’ve written the artist biography that goes out to the press. As she’s usually just finished the album at that point, we tend to talk a lot about her process.
For her last album, High As Hope, many of the songs were started in New York, at the end of a long tour. They were eventually finished in Los Angeles, where most of the session musicians were added and the final mixes completed. In between, Welch went home to Camberwell, in South London.
After a long period on the road, she says structure and routine were important while she worked on the new songs. Cycling the same route between her home and the studio, keeping the same work hours, and sticking to a set routine at home, too.
“I went into a small room every day, on my own with just a very patient engineer. And I spent six months banging on a piano, hitting on the walls. I found the joy in it again, the joy of just making a sound – even if it’s just one note. And the excitement of that.
“I rode my bike to the studio. I work in fast bursts, so I’d work from 2-6pm, with no break. Then I’d have to get out of there. So I’d cycle home, where I had a really structured life. It was all about the pleasure I was getting from making stuff, working on my own and being able to totally consolidate a vision.”
Her cycle route to and from the studio took her past the hospital where she was born. The student pub where all the parties happened at her art school. The museum where she and her friends once climbed onto the roof. And other landmarks she’d known her whole life.
Unsurprisingly, songs she’d begun in New York evolved to be more about this part of London, about re-examining her teenage years, seeing the mistakes but also the joys. So the routines and rituals she created to support her also shaped the music she made.
Bat For Lashes
Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, prefers to break recording into intense chunks. For each new album, she tends to create a world around herself and her collaborators.
“It’s a gradual layering process. So over a year, you might have four or five different recording sessions and it builds up,” she told me in an interview for The Gentlewoman in 2016. “That feels manageable. Trying to do it all in six weeks would overwhelm me.”
She recorded the central part of her 2016 album The Bride in Woodstock, in upstate New York. She and her co-producer Simon Felice found an isolated house in the woods, where Felice created a makeshift studio. “It was perfect,” Khan says of the setting, “with Twin Peaks windy roads and pine forests, fog and the blue Catskill mountains. And old wooden houses with porches and swing chairs.
“We had a big roaring fire with all the beautiful wood we collected that smelt like pine resin. There were deer in the woodland around the house. And people just came up the mountain and performed.
“We created this sacred-feeling space, and we were living and eating and breathing it. We’d have dinner together, we’d make music and talk, and do yoga in the morning. It was a bit of an idyllic existence.”
Over the phone later, Felice told me how inspiring he found it to work this way. “Natasha would stand by her sacred pine tree, walk in the woods and listen to the whispers of Mother Nature, and the muses.
“For me it was just a joy to be there together, up in the woods. All the elements: from waking up as the sun came up to yoga and meditation, then a walk along the creek; to the evening, drinking a little tequila and listening to Peter Gabriel. It all led up to this intense two or three hours of recording.
“Natasha burns really brightly, and strongly. A lot of artists want to work say from noon to nine in the evening. But with her it was more about all the rituals that she would do to lead up to these really powerful, special moments of incandescent brightness and creativity. That was really special.”
These are examples, from two successful and talented artists who chose to do their creative work in their own way, respecting their own rhythms. And they had the resources to make it so. But there’s a lot we can learn from it.
Routine and ritual help get us into flow.
Flow is that state where time flies, because we’re utterly absorbed in our work and at our most productive. If we can get into flow regularly, we often find we get more done, more enjoyably, in less time.
This doesn’t have to mean sacred trees and walks in the woods, or even a long cycle ride to work. Some rituals can be short, practical. Putting on a specific playlist. Lighting a candle. Wearing headphones so your house-mates know you’re now ‘at work’. Moving to the other side of the kitchen table from where you eat, to tell your brain it’s now time to begin work.
I have one client – a painter – who chose to ‘commute’ to his art studio, which is in a shed, a few steps from his kitchen window. He walks slowly round his tiny back yard at least ten times in a clockwise direction at the start of the day. Then ten times anti-clockwise “to unwind” when work is done.
He says this simple routine helps him focus more intensely on his painting while he’s working. And then to let it go, and not have it on his mind during family time.
How this works for me
I choose to block my day into chunks, each with their own playlists, and very simple, short rituals to move me from one to another. Not every day will have all of these elements, but every week certainly will.
- Creative: When I’m writing, or creating coaching programmes. Ideally, I like uninterrupted blocks of at least 90-120 minutes for this.
- Coaching: Intense work, when I’m talking to clients and focussing deeply on their needs. 60-120 minutes, with at least a 15-minute break in between.
- Admin: Returning calls, doing paperwork, processing emails. I do this in 30-minute blocks at my desk, in between the activities above, or towards the end of the day when my energy is flagging. One 30-minute block a day helps me deal with what is urgent. Some days I’ll do more, to clear less urgent items and get ahead on new projects.
- Promotion: connecting on social media, giving interviews, making ads. This tends to take 30-60 minutes. And I don’t enjoy it very much, so there’s always some sort of reward – like a replenishing activity – built in afterwards.
- Study: Reading non-fiction, listening to podcasts, doing courses or training. On a busy day, this can mean listening to an audiobook or podcast while I cook, walk or do chores. I love learning new things, so for me it can be relaxing to go back into my office for an hour in the evening, to read or listen to/watch something more closely, making notes. I just make sure the lighting is different and I’m not sitting at my desk, so I don’t get sucked back into other kinds of work.
- Replenishing: The crucial part, that makes all of the rest of it work. And while we’re all under extra stress right now, it’s even more important to have plenty of downtime. This time is for exercise. Self-care. Chores. Seeing friends. Getting outside. Or just relaxing. A 10-15 minute break between other blocks is enough to do a short meditation, go for a brisk walk round the block, or have a short nap. I also plan 1-2 hour blocks for this at least three times a week, when I might take an exercise class, a longer walk, or a play date.
Structuring my days in this way gives me focus, and saves me constantly wasting energy by switching from task to task. It’s not rigid, or restricting: if something comes up, it’s easy enough to move a block to another part of the week.
The little rituals for each one are key, getting me quickly into the mood to do whatever is needed. Lighting a candle. Cleaning my desk. Getting a glass of water as I switch from one block to another. Getting a coffee in the same blue cup I always use, while working. Playing banging techno (no idea why, but this makes filing and emails a joy for me).
My routines are well-established now, and I didn’t think I needed to change much, when the lockdown began. But I’m starting to realise that my working week was punctuated with rituals I no longer have: at least one morning a week working in a cafe; trips to the library; meeting friends for lunch; short trips to the shops, or to sit outside and read for a while.
Even after lockdown ends, I’m not sure when these will return, in the same form. Or even if my favourite cafes will have survived. But they were important, so I need to replace them.
Your rituals and routines will be different, of course. But that’s the magic. We all get to decide what works best for us, to do our best work.