When I don’t leave the house, I won’t get much done. That’s the deal my brain has struck with itself. Little of my best work has happened at home. I’ve always been most productive when I separated the two, and being self-employed while living in a studio apartment has only confirmed that trend.
It doesn’t matter when I leave the house. As long as I do and arrive at an office, a Starbucks, literally anywhere with wifi, productivity will follow. The other day, I went to WeWork at 6 PM on a Saturday to shop Christmas gifts. It worked! Even a task as trivial as booking a train ticket, I’d rather do “at work” if you gave me a choice.
Lately, my mornings look like this: I wake up at 7, drink water, and brush teeth. I do some push-ups, some sit-ups, and shower. I meditate for 10–15 minutes, get dressed, grab a banana or prep some food, and go. That’s a lot of stuff. The part that matters, however, is that I leave the house. I could skip all the rest, and sometimes, I do. I might meditate at work or shower at night. I’ll move my workout or get food on the way.
The point here is that some habits deserve protection, whereas others do not. To determine which is which, I like to separate them into two categories: Routines vs rituals.
A routine is a recurring, cornerstone behavior that enables many others. It should be flexible in how you do it, but the fact that you do it is important to who you want to be. In my example, leaving the house is a routine. It doesn’t matter when I do it, and there are a million places I could go, but I know leaving the house makes me productive — and I want to be a productive person. Therefore, it’s a routine I must protect.
Showing up for practice is a routine. Cooking your own food is a routine. So is listening to your partner. There are many ways to live up to these routines. One day, you practice the topspin by yourself. On another, you have a session with a trainer. But you’re always showing up to practice tennis. Similarly, there are a million dishes you can cook, and which one you pick will depend on your mood and what you have in your fridge — but if it’s important to you to only eat what you’ve prepared, you’ll find a way.
A ritual is a fixed, intentional expression of who you are. It’s an exact set of steps, done in a certain way. If you go out of said way, you’ve failed to perform the ritual correctly. For me, doing 50 push-ups is a ritual. I’ve never been an exercise nut, but I do pride myself on moving a little every day. I’ve done 50 push-ups for so long, doing 10 no longer feels valid. The ritual has become fixed. At the same time, a million options would suffice my “move a little” criterion. I could switch to jumping jacks, squats, or running around the block any day of the week, and that’s important to remember. My rituals are expressive, not aspirational. Therefore, I should keep adjusting them as I go.
For religious people, lighting a candle is a ritual. So is meditation. Drinking coffee can be a ritual, as can making your partner’s bed and the 7-minute ab workout. People love to argue about the rules of various rituals, but in truth there are as many rituals as there are ways to do them. Even if others disagree with you, you’ll always have a specific idea of what it means to perform a certain ritual “correctly.” In that sense, each ritual is rigid on its own, but there are countless ones you can choose from to show who you are.
Routines determine your identity, rituals merely express it.
If I wanted to be “a fit person,” I wouldn’t keep doing 50 push-ups. I’d commit to the routine of “working out,” and the rituals I’d pick as part of living up to that commitment would change drastically over time. I’d also do a whole bunch of other things, like reading fitness articles while sitting on the toilet and curating workout playlists. Many non-ritualistic behaviors would follow. The routine would encompass many rituals, but it would be a lot bigger than the concept of rituals altogether.
Naturally, there are exceptions. Some rituals are so important, almost all of us perform them. Brushing our teeth, for example. But those are far and few between. For the most part, rituals serve the sole purpose of enabling our routines. Therefore, if they get in the way, it is our duty to change them.
Writing is one of my routines. It’s important to me to do it regularly. Coffee is a ritual to help with said routine. The smell, the taste, the feeling of a warm cup in my hand — it just gets the muse talking in the morning. There is, however, a limit to this ritual: If I perform it more than once or twice a day, it stops supporting my writing and starts hindering it.
I go from alert to jittery and from focused to distracted. After my third cup, I can no longer sit still, and neither can my brain. It races from thought to thought, from browser tab to browser tab, and my word count goes downhill. If I have coffee too late in the day, it even affects my sleep and thus next day’s performance! Clearly, this ritual needs to be reined in to serve its purpose.
On a good day, I’ll only have one coffee. I’ll combat post-lunch tiredness with a break or a walk, or I’ll have tea to simulate the feeling minus the caffeine. That’s a ritual well-swapped! Whatever it takes to aid the routine. Similarly, if I insisted on all my morning rituals, on some days, I’d lose all my writing time! What does it matter how good they are individually if, collectively, they prevent me from doing the most important thing? That’s why sometimes, I shorten my mediation or workout or shower in the evening.
You can’t have many routines. They grow quickly. The more you do them, the more meaningful they’ll become, and the more space in your life they’ll take. That’s a beautiful process, and even when it gets boring, a good routine will offer enough room for a break, be it a literal one or a change of rituals and patterns. Your tolerance for routines should be high. They’ll carry you to your goals. Better yet, in time, they’ll become their own reward.
Rituals, on the other hand, should be like books in a library: As long as you only pull them out when you need them, you can’t possibly have too many. Insist on doing them all at once, all the time, however, and you’ll become a fanatic. Consider “The Power 5,” a cheat sheet from billionaire trader Paul Tudor Jones’s early days:
Five times a day on each and every trading day, I will break from the momentum of the moment and take control of all trading situations by reestablishing my vision, my game plan, and my invincible physiology. I will enter my Power Room, drink fresh water, take 3 deep abdominal breaths, and take the following 5 steps…
It only gets more ridiculous from there. “Be Mr. Tough and hold contempt for the weak trader!” “Take pain! Take pain! Take pain!” No matter how much you love them in isolation, a long list of rituals compressed into one big ceremony will often feel like a cultish rite, and if you perform said rite five times a day, when will you get anything done?
Rituals are the gears in your routine machine — interchangeable parts of a much larger whole. Rituals are the means, the routine is the end. Treat your rituals like a general treats his soldiers: Value them, respect them, but dismiss them when their service is done. Let them rest once they’ve done their fair share, and if the situation requires it, swap one out and put in another. Some, you might not replace at all.
Protect your routines, not your rituals. Use one as the tool it is to maintain the other — nothing more, nothing less. Stay flexible, replace good with better, and throw out what doesn’t work as soon as it stops working — and yes, that does include our new ideal of working from home.