on writing, organization

2 Simple Rituals To Begin The Work Day

Some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters, including Beth and Sarah of The Nuanced Life, have been talking about the importance of daily rituals. They help us slow down and appreciate a moment, mark the passage of time, and inject a special feeling into daily routines. In this post I’ll talk about the 2 simple rituals I recently implemented to start my work day.

Much has been written about the writer’s struggle to “stay in the chair.” A writer I used to know even signed his emails with a quote from French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Of course, this struggle extends to other professions, too. For example, I’ve noticed the human impulse for distraction while supervising my daughter’s piano practice. Yes, she is only four, but one of my takeaways from parenting toddlers is that they really aren’t that different from adults. We grown-ups have all the same emotions and urges; we are just better at repressing, delaying, or lying about them. So when my daughter sits on the piano bench, I see myself at my desk. She fidgets, looks for objects in the room to focus on instead, asks if she can make up her own song rather than practice the assigned ones. As she finishes a measure or a song, we pause for a beat. I coax her to keep going when she wants to be done already. These practice sessions last a mere 10-15 minutes but they’ve been very illustrative for me.

When I sit down to work each day, one or all of these things usually happen:

  • I realize I have to go to the bathroom. On my way there I notice objects that could be put away, cleaning chores that need to be completed.
  • I suddenly feel thirsty, tired, or hungry; therefore I need a glass of water, a mug of coffee, or a snack. When I sit down again, I think, “let me just scan the news headlines while I finish this snack.”
  • I get a strong urge to sort unread emails and organize the physical objects on my desk and in surrounding areas. I hated the admin jobs I held post-college, but suddenly filing papers seems like the most desirable task in the world. I think, “once my space is clear I will be able to work better.”

It’s easier to keep someone else on track (i.e. a child at the piano) than to police yourself. The mind can be very wily, making us think we are not procrastinating but taking care of something that Really And Truly Needs To Be Done. To counter the distraction impulse, I’ve started two easy and quick rituals that tell my brain, “get your butt in the chair and focus. Everything else can wait.” I once read that Joyce Carol Oates rewards herself for a morning of writing with housework and I totally get it. Sometimes a mindless physical task is the perfect refresher after hours of sustained mental focus.

Ritual One: Turn on the essential oil diffuser.

A friend gave me an extra aromatherapy kit she’d received as a gift. It came with one diffuser and two bottles of essential oil. I use the Grapefruit scent, which supposedly promotes energy, to start my work session. Plugging in the diffuser, pouring the water, and counting the drops of oil help my mind get focused. The nice scent adds that special feeling to my workday. Does it actually make me energized? I have no idea. Ask me again when my kids are actually sleeping through the night.

Ritual Two: Listen to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14

I like to listen to classical music while I write; it makes me feel “smart” and focused. After exploring different composers and playlists through Amazon’s Music Unlimited feature, I’ve settled on the album “99 Must-Have Piano Masterpieces.” It’s long enough to last through writing sessions of various lengths and it begins with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. Something about the opening notes of that piece imbue me with a sense of gravity and purpose, so that whatever I’m working on next, even the most mundane writing task, can make me feel like Tolstoy composing War and Peace. And really, that’s how we should approach anything we do because your work is that important to someone: your boss, client, or customer. The care you’ve put into it will show in the final product.

Do you have rituals or habits that help you ward off distraction and procrastination? I always love to hear other people’s tips and hacks.

1 thought on “2 Simple Rituals To Begin The Work Day”

  1. Thank you for refreshing article. As a freelance writer and composer I struggle with staying in my seat and keeping my focus! I love the idea of the aromatherapy and of course classical music! Having taught piano for 30 years, your comparison of adult behavior to a young child at the piano made me laugh with great appreciation and familiarity!

    Things I do include my daily chanting routine (think ‘energizing meditation,’ more info here: SGI-USA.org) to start my day with determination & focus, setting my iPhone with alarms to keep me on task or to change task if I get too focused, structuring my day as best as possible with priorities in mind. One thing that I noticed helps is taking a 10 to 20 minute rest in the afternoon prior to an hour of exercise to give me a second wind!

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