Every year it's the Same. Old. Thing. I think we should do something different for Thanksgiving Dinner, and my parents want turkey. I’ll take anything, really. How about ham, dripping with bourbon glaze? A roast duck maybe! I’m a devoted carnivore but I might even be willing to try a Tofurkey. Anything but a boring bird, a bigger, more decadent version of the supermarket rotisserie chicken that somehow ends up on our dining room table every other week or so.
It doesn’t matter what I suggest. If I keep talking too long, my father starts to shake his head in mock disappointment and then I know what’s coming: He points his finger in the air and booms out “Tradition!” like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. If I keep talking (which I do, I can’t help it, I know what’s coming and I like it) he stands up, punches the air even harder, and sings so loud and long he drowns out my words: “Traditiooooooooooooon….Tradition!” I hear the clarinet in my head, and then…“Tra-di-tion!” My dad loves that song, or at least he loves its capacity for squashing new-fangled ideas from disobedient daughters. And I love it too, even though it means, well…we’re having turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.
This ritual is ridiculous. It results in the same outcome every time. So why do I do it?
I do it, the research says, because it results in the same outcome every time. Not the turkey dinner, of course. That, I emphatically do not want. But my dad being silly? I love it. He's a very serious man, my father. A great believer that everything in life should be approached with purpose and consideration. But he's also got a goofy side that'll knock your socks off. And one of the great joys of my life is luring him over to that side as often as I can. So every year we engage in the same ritual: I put up a fight I know I'll never win. A fight designed to lure my father, a 6'2" black man from Chicago, into singing like a fictional Russian Jew from the early 1900s.
The mechanism by which rituals work isn’t always the same. But research tells us that they often do produce the outcome we’re looking for. Even when we don’t believe in their power, they can nevertheless have a positive effect. So… the holidays are coming. You’re gonna be drowning in ritual whether you want to or not. Some will be kind, some will be cruel. Some will be utterly dysfunctional. If you’re having trouble getting started with your writing, now’s the perfect time to consider starting a ritual that actually helps ease you into the experience.
My Thanksgiving Ritual, for example, helps me savor the things I love about the holidays and about my dad. Apparently, rituals like these help us pay more attention to whatever we’re about to do, so we enjoy it more than we otherwise would have. So maybe you don’t find writing so tough—you actually kinda like it, especially when your Writing Beast is calling, cause it’s the only point during your day when it’s quiet. You get forty-five precious minutes to yourself, when you can get lost in your own thoughts and don’t have to answer to anyone else. But you’re behind on grading, and you’ve got that search meeting in the afternoon and haven’t even glanced at the files. It’s so easy to let the writing time slip by. Setting up a ritual that helps you marinate in everything you love about writing can pull you toward it, even in those moments when other obligations call.
But let’s say you hate writing and would do anything to get out of it. So you decide that every time you write you’re going to wear your lucky boots—the ones you’d been lusting after but were unwilling to pay for, then found on sale at an outlet store. There’s evidence that acts like these will actually help you when you’re trying to write. In this case it’s the confidence boost that does the trick: our increased belief that we’ll do better actually motivates us to work harder, and in the end we perform better at the task in hand.
I’ve known about this research for a while, but I experienced it in a personal way when I unknowingly started a writing ritual. I did it because…
Every morning it was the Same. Damn. Thing. I’d get up, throw on some sweats, walk the seven steps from my bedroom to my office, then plop down in my seat and fire up my laptop. If I was focused, and had had a full night’s sleep, I’d start writing without opening email or scanning my calendar. Then, about a half an hour into it, juuuust when I’d started to warm up,
the army of leaf-blowers that surround my apartment building would begin their aural assault. Their incessant, mechanical whine would drill into my skull and--I confess--I nurtured thoughts that were uncharitable to say the least. Not only was the noise distracting me, I was also wasting emotional energy getting mad every time they interrupted my writing. I was so busy firing off texts to friends and subjecting my husband to early morning rants that pretty soon I was barely writing at all. Until one day, using the carefully calibrated tone he adopts when I’ve gone off the rails, my husband asked, “Why don’t you just use earplugs?”
In an effort to recover my dignity, I did him one better. I downloaded an app that plays café noises and popped in my ear buds. That first day I was so annoyed by the whole situation I spent an hour muttering to myself and fiddling with the volume. On day two I forgot to use the app, until the leaf-blowers started up again, and I popped the buds back in, in grumpy defeat. By day three, I was so beaten down I fired up the app before the blowers began, and pitched the volume so high I never realized when they started. By day four, I was so focused on writing in my fake little café world, that when my husband came in my office to say goodbye, he startled me so badly I nearly fell from my chair.
This ritual works, apparently, because in performing it, I accidentally created a habit loop: A habit loop consists of three basic parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue (the café sounds) is a trigger that tells me what I should be doing. The routine is opening up my laptop. And the reward is the time I spend writing (not to mention all the work I get done). The change isn't instantaneous; but when you perform the same loop over and over again, "the cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges" (Duhigg 2012, 19).
Think about what might work for you. A perfectly brewed cup of coffee? Five minutes of new music videos? A cuddle with your kids? There might be some things you already do that you could turn into your writing ritual, if you put a timer on it and followed up with some writing: the afternoon walk with your dog, say. Or the bus ride home.
If you'd asked me before, I would have insisted rituals weren't for me and I needed pure silence to write. Now I’m all, “this is my thing" and the buds are in my ears before I even realize it. Regardless of whether I’m spewing out crap or spinning pure gold--I walk into my "café" and I'm working. That quiet hubbub in my ears has turned into my signal that it’s time to write. And now the two go together, well...like Thanksgiving and turkey.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach