We Don’t Need Commutes. We Need Rituals.

I love it when I see, hear, and/or read the same themes in seemingly very different contexts. I don’t know if it’s the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon at work or just something like it, but I’m sure it’s because something’s on my mind that I notice the same theme everywhere. Young people in love see themes of love and romance everywhere. This week I keep seeing the theme of how to get yourself in the right place mentally to be productive towards personal and business goals. C’est la vie.

Last week, I…

  • Listened to the After Hours podcast discuss “Old Habits and New Rituals.”
  • Listened to Thirty20Eight podcast discuss “Disney Ritualogy.”
  • Read several different articles and columns on post-pandemic commutes and a return to the office.
  • And read this review of a documentary about Anthony Bourdain.
  • I even re-watched this absurd video where the CEO of an office leasing company claims that those who would prefer to keep working from home are the least engaged. Gosh. I wonder what could have incentivized the CEO of an office leasing company to argue that working from home is bad.

A few of those things are not like the others, but in my mindset they all have to do with what we mean when we talk about getting back to normal in a post-pandemic world. We’re talking about getting back to feeling more human. To feel more human, many of us want to get to a place where we feel productive. To do that, we don’t need offices. We don’t need commutes. We need schedules and habits. We need rituals.

People will create a ritual for anything if given the opportunity. As Bourdain often illustrated in his writing and on his shows, everyone on the planet creates rituals around food and eating. Some say a prayer. Some have preparation rituals. Some have certain kinds of foods they eat for certain occasions. Fans of theme parks have rituals (often involving food!) that both expand their enjoyment of the parks and prepare their minds for returning back to the real world. Athletes do seemingly nonsensical things to prepare for a game or even a single play.

Basketball superstar Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game; Curtis Martin of the New York Jets reads Psalm 91 before every game. And Wade Boggs, former third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, woke up at the same time each day, ate chicken before each game, took exactly 117 ground balls in practice, took batting practice at 5:17, and ran sprints at 7:17. (Boggs also wrote the Hebrew word Chai (“living”) in the dirt before each at bat. Boggs was not Jewish.) 

It’s no surprise that though most of us probably hated our commutes when we had them (for good reason), some of us now miss them, as we basically converted them into rituals in preparation for a productive day.

Commutes aren’t the only rituals we “lost” recently. Remember “Must See TV?” Linear, scheduled TV viewing has cratered in an age of on-demand streaming services. Many series release an entire season or more at the same time. As a result “binge-watching” is extremely popular. As many as 72% of Netflix’s customers consume shows via binge-watching. We don’t attend religious services nearly as often as we used to. Almost 70% of America did that at the start of the century. In just over 20 years, only a minority of Americans are active religious participants, attending services weekly or more. And thanks to smartphones, the vast majority of us have an always-on, constant source of distraction from “the usual.” We don’t consume news every evening from 6 to 7pm before Jeopardy. We get pinged and distracted by news as it breaks. We don’t “need” the Sunday paper anymore. Though now that I think about it, maybe we do.

Rituals (and schedules) are a way to mentally anchor oneself in an otherwise chaotic world. As exhausting and, uh, “kinetic,” as it may be for their parents, our kids have a nightly bedtime ritual where they read after prepping for bed to hopefully help calm their minds. On Fridays, during the pandemic, we have “takeout Fridays” as a dining ritual to mark the end of a work/school week and the start of a weekend. In my entire childhood, I only remember one time that my father skipped a daily run. It was so surprising, my sister and I thought he may be gravely ill. We used to think he ran every day for fitness, and he probably did, but now that I’m also a dad, living in an even more chaotic world, I realize he also did it as a matter of ritual.

I’d always naturally resisted rituals. As soon as I could get away with it, I’d stay up late and never keep a steady bedtime. When we first married, my wife had to adjust to me constantly coming up with new things to try to cook for dinner rather than having a set menu at the start of the week. In my 20s, as I adjusted from a youth full of coaches and scheduled athletic practices, I exercised, but it was anyone’s guess if I’d exercise in the morning, the evening, or possibly even at 11pm. Didn’t want exercising interrupting something like getting a beer with friends. Unsurprisingly, my lack of ritual often led to me skipping an exercise session.

I’ve come to understand how much I need rituals. I had it backwards in my 20s. I should have been worried about not letting “life” interrupt my rituals. I find that scheduling things at regular intervals and knowing what’s coming (even with food!) helps my mind function better. I don’t get bored (well, okay, maybe I do with some of the food). Instead I don’t get as exhausted. And my head is free to think up things that are useful rather than worry about reacting to every little thing in life b/c I didn’t plan for it and didn’t put some rituals around it.

I often tell members of my team that if they want to get something done, schedule time to do it. It’s so easy (particularly at the office, ironically) to just “plan” to do some work with a coworker or 2 whenever the moment is just right. Then 3 weeks go by, and much to everyone’s shock and disappointment, that thing everyone was meaning to get to never got done. Often it wasn’t even started.

We humans are creatures of habit, but we’re also creatures of adaptation. We don’t need commuting for a ritualistic anchor. At an evolutionary scale, commuting is a blip of a phenomenon. We need new rituals – rituals that won’t make us and the world more miserable. Find new habits. Start the day with a cup of the same coffee as every other day. Or hell, start the day testing a new kind of coffee every day. Take a walk every day before lunch. Doesn’t have to be long.

I need new rituals. I want to organize my thoughts. I want to continue getting more fit. And I want to golf more, so I’m going to schedule time to do all that. I’m going to set aside time every week to write and structure what I write about in order to use constraints to breed creativity. I’m going to run another half marathon so that I have to work with a training plan. And… Somehow I’m going to find a way to schedule golf. Or maybe to schedule time at the range. Or maybe just putt around in our playroom every evening after dinner. The golf one might be tough.

Anyway, welcome to my writing ritual. Thanks for reading.