Digging a rut

“A rut is just a grave with open ends.”

I remember hearing this phrase growing up, but never fully understood what it meant until I entered the workplace. Like most people, I sat at the same desk, went to the same meetings every week, had the same conversations about the same problems and issues repeatedly, and tried desperately to break my thinking out of the self-imposed cage I’d unwittingly constructed.

However, as I researched what makes contributors and teams effective, I discovered that most of the people I studied also had routines and regular rhythms that defined their days, and that their expectations were not always much different than mine. They also had mandatory meetings, problems to solve that felt more like irrelevant nuisances, and difficulty focusing on the work they deemed most critical. What was different, in many cases, wasn’t the physical circumstances, but the mindset they brought to them. They were able to see beyond the activities and focus on intent and desired outcome. They refused to allow their rituals to become ruts.

That’s when I learned that a ritual is a rail, not a magic formula.

Simply changing your circumstances or your productivity system might inject a measure of energy into your work and give you a boost for a short while, but that increase in output will be short-lived if you aren’t committed to an outcome. Your systems and rituals exist only to serve the outcome you’re trying to achieve. They are not an end, but a set of guide rails to help you channel energy toward your goals.

Over time, I’ve heard of people adopting the specific rituals of their heroes because they hoped that the simple act of getting up early, or drinking a cup of tea before writing, or writing letters in the early afternoon would somehow unlock their ability to do better work. (These were smart people, so I suspect that it was more wishful thinking than anything.) Shaking up your system may help for a while, but those rituals will eventually grow stale if they’re not serving a greater purpose. It’s easy to become addicted to perfecting your system, and that obsession can distract you from the real work you should be doing.

There is no magic bullet for creativity or productivity, only tendencies and rhythms. If you deeply understand the outcomes you’re committed to achieving, a set of defined rituals can help you achieve them, but if you don’t have a clear through-line in your work, no system will save you.

– What outcome are you trying to achieve today?
– How can your routines/rituals be better channeled to help you achieve it?
– Which routines/rituals are undeniably in the way of it?

Rituals are more than just repetitive behavior. They carve out space to be filled by more substantial activity. They are open ends that facilitate the closing of creative loops. However, don’t allow them to become mindless, distracting behavior or they will drain the focus and energy out of your day.

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