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Weekly 3: Find meaning in the mundane


Idea Journal Weekly 3

April 14 · Issue #82 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Automate your healthy habits. Embrace repetition. Get more out of your everyday chores. (~7 min read)

#1. Create a ritual that works for you
Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp writes in her book The Creative Habit that it’s vital to establish some rituals – “automatic but decisive patterns of behavior” – at the beginning of the creative process, when you’re most in danger of giving up.
Here’s Tharp’s own ritual that she performs every morning: she wakes up at 5:30am, puts on her workout clothes, walks outside her home in New York City and hails a cab to her local gym, where she exercises for 2 hours.
As she points out, the ritual is not the stretching and weight training she does at the gym – the ritual is the cab ride: “The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”
For Tharp, there are 2 reasons why rituals are so effective:
1. They save you energy and time
Having a ritual takes the emotion, unnecessary decision-making, and need for willpower out of the process.
You don’t get stuck asking yourself questions like: What should I do first? How should do this?
2. They give you positive momentum
Performing a ritual boosts your confidence and increases the likelihood that you’ll follow through with your broader goals.
As Tharp puts it, “By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed. The cab is moving. I’m committed. Like it or not, I’m going to the gym.”
She acknowledges that there is no ideal condition for creativity – what works for one person may be useless for another.
The only criterion is to make it easy on yourself: “Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it.”
#2. Improve your skills through repetition
Author Daniel Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent that repetition has a bad reputation – we tend to think of it as boring and uninspiring.
But for Coyle, that perception is totally wrong: “Repetition is the single most powerful lever we have to improve our skills, because it uses the built-in mechanism for making the wires of our brains faster and more accurate.”
He tells the story of Moe Norman, who is often hailed as the most accurate golfer in history.
Norman was enthralled with repetition early on, and from the age of 16, he hit 800 to 1,000 balls a day, five days a week: “calluses grew so thick on his hands he had to pare them with a knife.”
At a demonstration in 1995, he hit 1,500 drives in a row, all of them landing within 15 yards of each other. As fellow golfer Tiger Woods later put it, Norman “woke up everyday and knew he was going to hit it well. Every day. It’s frightening how straight he hits.”
Norman’s case may be at the extreme end, but the lesson is relevant for all of us.
The key is to change your mindset: instead of seeing repetition as a chore, see it as the most powerful tool in your skill-building arsenal.
Coyle cites the following perspective from the martial artist Bruce Lee: “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.”
#3. Who says washing dishes has to be boring?
Author and educator George Leonard writes in his book Mastery that most of us can’t avoid doing mundane tasks: from grocery shopping and preparing food, to commuting and the routine aspects of our work.
These everyday chores exist “in between” the major activities and events that really count: beginning a new romantic relationship, completing a project, getting a promotion at work, and so on.
But as Leonard points out, if you stop to think about it, most of life is made up of this in-between time.
He suggests that you can use the practice of mastery, with its emphasis on process rather than product, to be more present during these everyday activities and to reduce the feeling that time is constantly slipping is away from you.
For example, take the experience of washing dishes. You can perform that chore in a hurried and haphazard way, with your main goal being to finish it as quickly as possible.
Or, you can approach it as a kind of meditation or dance.
Here are Leonard’s tips for making the most of washing dishes, or similar routine activities:
Compose yourself: Take a moment to balance and center yourself. Decide on the overall sequence of your work, and then begin.
Pay attention to your movements: Try to maintain full awareness of each motion. Even though your hands are most directly involved while washing dishes, pay attention to the rest of your body as well – especially your abdomen, back, feet, and shoulders.
Don’t rush: You’re going for efficiency and grace in your movements, and there’s no need to rush. Instead of thinking about getting the job done and moving on to something else, stay focused on the moment and the task at hand.
As Leonard notes, the irony of focusing on the process instead of the result is that it “often ends up creating more and better products in a shorter time than does the hurried, excessively goal-oriented rhythm that has become standard in our society.”
In any case, the odds are good that you’ll feel better at the end.
Quote of the Week
“The ultimate wisdom of enlightenment, whatever it is, cannot be a matter of having fleeting experiences. The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of wellbeing that is inherent to the nature of our minds. It must, therefore, be available in the context of ordinary sights, sounds, sensations, and even thoughts. Peak experiences are fine, but real freedom must be coincident with normal, waking life.”
- Mindfulness expert and neuroscientist Sam Harris in his book Waking Up
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