Making your own Rituals

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I sometimes struggled to get started with work in the morning. Prior to the pandemic, the start of the work-day was clearly delineated by walking into my desk at the office. The end was marked by the walk out and arrival at home. With the change to working from home, these delineations faded and the line between work and home life blurred, sometimes to the detriment of one or the other.

My solution was to come up with my own delineation, a set of actions I would take to start the workday and another set I would take to end it. The workday began with me brewing tea, taking vitamins and medication, and a quick 5-minute meditation. The workday ended with me making a to-do list for my tomorrow-self, taking a warm shower to decompress, and changing into more comfortable clothing. Most of the individual tasks I find pleasant, and thus in the morning I look forward to starting the ritual which inevitably leads to getting work done.

I recently realized that in creating these rituals for myself to create new boundaries separating work and personal time, I had also begun to classically condition myself to work. Now, my morning tea or vitamins almost immediately begin the process of bringing my mind towards focus for work. And my evening shower and new clothes are almost always associated with a release from the stresses of the day and diffuse / creative thinking. By making the first step in each of these rituals a pleasant one, it makes these quite useful mental modes more readily accessible.

Could this system work for you? Are there any rituals you can use to achieve certain mental or physical states, initiate long-desired habits, or build towards productivity goals? How can you start them with a pleasant or luxurious first step that you will look forward to each time? Let us know in the comments below if you discover something that works for you or already have a ritual that brings joy to your day.

Contain Multitudes

“I am large, I contain multitudes” – Walt Whitman

I have often found it useful not to think of myself as a single individual with a single lifetime, a single set of goals, and a consistent level of competency and motivation. My favourite mental hack is to instead think of myself as a multitude of people, a myriad army of past and present me’s, one for each unit of time. Like a family or a community, this multitude benefits from helping each other progress and succeed, but we are heterogenous, and different versions of myself might well have different energy levels, different desires in the moment, or even a different perspective on the world. In this post, I’ll explore a few different ways this mental model helps me be more motivated, productive, and empathetic.

Motivation: Favours for Future You

Have you ever found it’s more motivating to help a friend or family member than to do something towards your long term goals? If your best friend had a flat tire, you probably wouldn’t have to overcome procrastination to go over to help them. However, if you want to get into shape, you might have to fight enormous inertia to get yourself into the gym those first few times. I find thinking of the future version of myself as a separate person is a helpful trick to find the energy (and even joy) in doing those chores that might otherwise be taxing. Cleaning the apartment, going to the gym, studying for another hour, etc, are all favours to future me, and since I’m a big fan of future me, it’s easy to do him favours.

Gratitude: Thank Past You

The converse of the previous point is that it helps to thank past you for the things they’ve done. Wherever you are in life, there’s usually something that some version of you from the past has done to be helpful. Perhaps you have a job or a degree thanks to the hard work of past you. Maybe you have friends you can talk to because past you put in the time building those relationships. Maybe past you read a good book or played a great game that gives you happy memories. Whatever it is, try to take the time to thank past you for what they’ve done. Building this kind of gratitude practice towards yourself can also help make it easier to be kind to the future versions of you.

Productivity: Be Your Own Boss

One thing I know I can’t always count on is the energy or motivation level of future me. Sometimes I feel like I can take on the world and sometimes it’s a struggle to even do the simplest tasks. Knowing this, every day I try to give my future self a leg up by outlining the most important things for him to do that day. That way, even if he wakes up not feeling very motivated, he has a clear path to follow and usually can make progress on the list. And, often, by just taking that simple first step (one he didn’t even have to think of himself), he’ll remember our collective goals and find the motivation to do even more. Or perhaps not … but that’s ok if most of us are working together to push the ball forward.


To sign off, I’d just like to encourage you to give it a try! Explicitly think of yourself for each future day and each past day as a different person. And do your best to help that community of people succeed. You might be surprised with the tricks you come up with to help them all.

Foundational Habits

One of the frequently encountered challenges to building a productive life is uncertainty over which habits to build. In future posts, we’ll go over how to set short and long term goals for your life and break them down into a series of actions and habits over time. For this post, however, I wanted to highlight a set of foundational habits that should serve well in almost every life situation. These habits are good fundamental tools to have, regardless of the path you’re taking in life, but they also serve as a strong basis for learning how to build habits and can act as hooks to hang future habits on.

Journaling

In order to improve, I need to better understand who I am. It’s for that reason that journaling has become my most important tool in seeking to improve myself. It gives me space for self reflection and to digest the experience of my days and weeks. And because I am forced to articulate them to a reader (if only myself) I am forced to make concrete what was previously just a wash of impulses and actions. Journaling also enables big picture thinking, where I fit my experiences and goals into the larger objectives of my life. Finally, it is a place where I keep track of my progress, whether it be for building habits or towards my larger personal and professional goals. Watching this progress bar increase is a satisfying reward which reinforces virtuous habit cycles.

So, how do you get started journaling? We’ll go into this in more depth in a future post, but the short answer is the exact technique you use doesn’t really matter. I would encourage you to buy a blank journal and use it exclusively for this, buy a nice pen that you like to use, and set up a system in advance that works for you. For a lightweight approach, commit to just writing the date down every day in your journal and writing at least one sentence. Sometimes this one sentence will seem boring or redundant, but sometimes inspiration will strike and you’ll end up writing for pages. It’s from such small commitments that long-lasting habits can be born.

Meditation

Another keystone habit is meditation. Like journaling, meditation helps me reflect and understand myself better, but more importantly for me, it helps reduce the noisy impulse driven part of my mind and helps build focus. This increased focus then allows me to sit down and truly complete tasks to which I’ve set my mind. Reams of papers have been written on the other myriad psychological and physiological benefits that meditation accrues.

Again, one challenge of building a meditation habit is knowing where to start. There are many different schools of meditation, including approaches like mindfulness, zen, and loving-kindness. I would suggest initially picking any school that resonates with you without spending too much time at the decision phase. They all have things to teach and the tools from any are useful in the others. I started with mindfulness meditation and found the Headspace app helpful, although others enjoy apps like Insight Timer or Calm. Like with journaling, start small with just a 1 minute, 3 minute, or 5 minute daily commitment and see where the habit takes you from there.

Exercise

Maybe you already exercise regularly, by going to the gym, playing a sport, or even just taking regular walks. If so, you already know the benefits that having regular exercise can make in your life. If you don’t, let me try to convince you by showing you what you’re missing out on. Exercise is good for the body, yes, but it has also been shown to significantly affect the mind. It relieves anxiety, reduces depression, and improves mental health. For me, when I’ve been knocked out of my habit cycle, the increase in mental health that comes from exercise has made it a great first habit to rebuild from.

Ok, but if you don’t exercise regularly, how do you start? My advice would be to take a broad and shallow approach initially. Try lots of different forms of exercise for one or two sessions and see which one fits you best. Maybe you’ll enjoy the social aspects of joining your local badminton club, or the clarity of thought that comes from a 5 minute run. Maybe you like the measurable progress of lifting weights at the gym or the connection to nature that comes from a short hike. What works for you will depend on a lot of factors, including what’s available in your area. Start small, but try a lot of things, and try to notice which ones bring you feelings of joy that you’d like to have again.

Reading

I stopped reading books for fun in university. I found it hard to keep up a good reading habit after spending my day working through a textbook or academic papers. Youtube and Netflix were just easier ways to decompress. It wasn’t until I’d been working for a couple years that I picked up a reading habit again and rediscovered its benefits. 

Reading is the main way that new ideas enter my life. Reading a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, exposes you to new points of view and new experiences. Because when reading (unlike when watching something) we also have time to reflect, these thoughts and experiences are better integrated into our own experiences and frameworks of thinking. Unlike television, reading also pushes our minds to focus and imagine, growing these skills for our future endeavours.

So, how to get started? After my long hiatus, I set myself the simple goal of just trying to read 4 books in the next year. It was such a small, achievable number, just 1 book every 3 months (that’s like 5 pages a day or so). I didn’t give myself any other restrictions on book length, genre, or even format (audiobooks were critical), but I did start a document where I kept track of the number of books I read and their names. And that was enough. In the first year, I barely scraped by with the 4 books, but every time I added a book to my list, it felt like a huge win. The next year, I set a more ambitious goal of 8 books, and blew through that. Last year, I managed to read 50 books and am aiming even higher. Starting small and building up in any of these habits is a powerful trick.

Best of luck in building one or more of these foundational habits! We’ll dig in soon on a more detailed look at each one and a more holistic set of tips on how to start a habit and stick with it.