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The Importance of Having a Work Ritual and Learning to Cultivate Pleasure in Pain

If I asked you to draw the face of your watch, something that you probably wear and look at everyday, or to draw the dashboard of your car, many of us would get it terribly wrong. Why? Because we habituate to everything, meaning overtime we become less aware.

What this reveals is that we are creatures comprised of habits. And understanding our habits in work and day-to-day life ultimately helps us become conscious in how we carry out our tasks, and with this awareness, how we can do it better.

As Charles Duhigg says in his timelessly insightful book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Business and Life:

This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.

An immutable passage by Samuel Smiles said in 1859 in Self Help; with illustrations of Conduct and Perseverance focuses on why it’s not the external systems that matter but rather the one in between your ears that matters:

Laws, wisely administered, will secure men in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour, whether of mind or body, at a comparatively small personal sacrifice; but no laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober. Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy, and self-denial; by better habits, rather than by greater rights.

Obstinate Rigor

Show of hands…

When you don’t feel like working, do you give in? Or do you battle through the pressure, the mindless procrastination, self-doubt, and laziness? Fighting through the self-sabotaging entities ultimately shapes who you want to become; giving in and not doing the work obstructs you from attaining greatness.

To endure in creative endeavors—or any endeavor—we must be self-aware, self-motived, and self-displined. As Marcus Aurelius once said [emphasis by me], “Surrounded as we are by all of this, we need to practice acceptance. Without disdain. But remembering that our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.” Energy devoted to not doing the work is ultimately energy being used to build fruitless habits. You would think that, aware of our laziness and procrastination, that we would be compelled to tighten our laces, crack our knuckles and get to work.

Alas, the part of our brain that processes these emotions seem to regulate our behavior far greater than the newer parts of our brain, the part that rationalizes and strategizes.

What, then, must we do to embrace the work that we’re capable of doing and to build better habits?

Seth Godin shares practical insight in the latest 99u book, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei, Manage Your Day-to-Day, on the importance of having a set, deliberate practice. How difficult it is to start this but equally important, how it shapes who we become and what we’re capable of creating:

Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done. There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.

The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.

There are many ways you can signify to yourself that you are doing your practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place—in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art.

The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.

In the words of Hunter S. Thompson, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.”

It’s about showing up when we don’t feel like showing up. It’s realizing that, no, laziness isn’t done to me but rather done by me. Steven Pressfield, the paragon of slaying the Resistance shares his morning ritual in The War of Arta methodology of professionalizing his art, a decision to show up today and then again tomorrow:

I get up, take a shower, have breakfast. I read the paper, brush my teeth. If I have phone calls to make, I make them. I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO name tag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, which my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I’m getting tired. That’s four hours or so. I’ve hit the point of diminishing returns. I wrap for the day. Copy whatever I’ve done to disk and stash the disk in the glove compartment of my truck in case there’s a fire and I have to run for it. I power down. It’s three, three-thirty. The office is closed. How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.

When Pressfield says, “How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got.” That’s the epitome of a pro.

It turns out that rituals work. Michael Jordan wore his college basketball shorts under his NBA uniform because he believed it brought him good luck. In order to hide his second pair of shorts, he started wearing longer shorts, which created a whole new fashion of its own. Serena Williams—famous three-time Wimbledon champion—will wear the same socks during her tournament runs, tie her shoelaces a certain way, and bounce the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second. A bit superstitious, but then again, so what?

A routine tailored to you elicits a certain kind of confidence and readiness. It’s as if we’re telling our brain and bodies that a task or obstacle is at hand, and that we’re preparing to conquer it. If you don’t have a practice then it’s time to start building one, and what that entails is tinkering your habits or, as a start, becoming conscious of them. How do you spend your mornings? When are you most tired and most energetic? Being mindful in how you operate throughout your day-to-day is imperative in being efficient and allowing your progress prosper.

Scott Belsky, founder of Behance, rings the bell for a call to action on why mastering our habits is a far worthy endeavor than trying to master our environment:

It’s time to stop blaming our surroundings and start taking responsibility. While no workplace is perfect, it turns out that our gravest challenges are a lot more primal and personal. Our individual practices ultimately determine what we do and how well we do it. Specifically, it’s our routine (or lack thereof), our capacity to work proactively rather than reactively, and our ability to systematically optimize our work habits over time that determine our ability to make ideas happen.

In a world where ideas can be embraced quickly, spread rapidly, or ignored incessantly, it’s our responsibility to optimize our work flow and to realize how efficient (or not) we are. From pitching an idea or starting a small project on the side, the machine that brings our ideas to life is our creative process, habits, and grit.

Realize this: Another person’s methodology or daily work ritual may not serve you equally. You have to discover and reinvent your flow. You need to experiment with your cues and understand when you operate best for specific tasks. For example, my mornings are spent on exercising. Once it hits 11 a.m., I lose all motivation, so that’s why I wake up, eat breakfast, and workout immediately. This is how my habits work. Trying to fight this has proved to be an exercise of futility.

Robert Greene, in his most recent book Mastery, shares an important principle in overcoming impatience and procrastination:

Leonardo da Vinci understood the dangers of such impatience. He adopted as his motto the expression obstinate rigor, which translates as “stubborn rigor” or “tenacious application.” For every project he involved himself in—and by the end of his life they numbered in the thousands—he repeated this to himself, so he would attack each one with the same vigor and tenacity. The best way to neutralize our natural impatience is to cultivate a kind of pleasure in pain—like an athlete, you come to enjoy rigorous practice, pushing past your limits, and resisting the easy way out.

“To cultivate a kind of pleasure in pain…” is perhaps one of the greatest assets that a striving individual can embrace, a mindset worthy of your time and effort. You don’t build this mindset by thinking about it, you do it by engaging in the kind of activities that evoke discomfort and anxiety while staying mindful in those moments—reveling in the pain and being conscious of your thoughts, not closing your eyes and ignoring it.

In a world filled with hacks, shortcuts, and relentless instant gratification, it’s normal to get lost in the pursuit of quick-and-easy. We tend to believe that these shortcuts will help us get to where we want to go—that we will embrace our best selves sooner. Sometimes they do; other times they’re just a distraction from facing the elements that are likely to present themselves again later down the road.

I’ve given up on such pursuits. What I would rather focus on is building habits that last—showing up daily, battling through the pressure and anxiety while being mindful about what I feel and experience, perfecting my process so that my ideas survive, and to never forget to enjoy the process and progress. Such activities fashion you into something that hacks and shortcuts can’t.

I’ll end this with a brilliant passage by James Victore, on the difference between using shortcuts and doing the difficult:

There are no shortcuts. And any technology-aided shortcut robs you of the work. Recently, a concerned friend of mine suggested an app that could help my meditation practice. I try to be open to new ideas, but this seemed like a choice between playing Guitar Hero and actually learning to play guitar. Maybe the work of developing a good meditation practice is worth it. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe there are skills I can develop—unaided—that will make me stronger. Why adopt a crutch only to let your muscles atrophy? Why cheat yourself of the effort? The work, the process, is the goal. It builds character. It makes you better.

Do you have a work routine? A set schedule? How did you start and how did creating this foundation help you do better work?