Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Rituals for Starting, Rituals for Stopping - #MindfulPhD Tips

I would love to be the kind of person who has a set schedule, or who got up every morning without fail to write for two uninterrupted hours before going about my day. Alas, I am perpetually working several jobs, with shifting priorities, plus managing client schedules, and a chronic illness that is predicable but not schedule-able. So, I rely on rituals to mark the beginning of my work, and the end of it. If I only have an hour to work on my writing, I need to make those minutes count, and rituals help me ease in quickly and ease out effectively. 

Why rituals?

There are many, many ways to think about rituals, but I like to think of them in this practical context as a cue. Cues are a powerful part of the cue---->routine----->reward cycle that is the basis of all good habits. So when I start a ritual before my writing session, it cues my brain that this is writing time, I click into the habit, and I trust that the reward is coming. The whole cycle is important, but today I'm focused on the cues. Cues are most effective for me when they involve a few different senses. I figure that the more senses are involved, the more chances my brain has to say BOOM this is what we're doing right now. Here are some of the things I use as ritual cues:

  • Sight: looking at a specific affirmation, sitting in a certain location to look at a view, writing down a list of tasks
  • Sound: starting a certain playlist, listening to a specific kind of music, putting in headphones or earplugs to block sounds
  • Taste: chewing gum, having a snack available, making a cup of coffee or tea
  • Smell: Lighting a scented candle, turning on a diffuser, the smell of your coffee, tea or other snack 
  • Touch: Putting a lucky charm on your desk, putting your feet flat on the floor, putting your fingers over the keys and taking a deep breath 

I don't do all of them all the time, obviously, but I usually create rituals that touch at least three senses. It doesn't have to take a lot of time, but a quick way to signal that work is starting, or work is ending.

My "Start Writing" Ritual

I am always "squeezing" writing into my schedule, and when I was writing my dissertation, I was often bouncing between locations, and times of day. I could be writing for two 25 minute pommodoro bursts in between meetings on campus, or for multiple hours at my desk at home. My ritual, then, had to be something that:

  • could be done anywhere
  • was cheap/free (can't afford a nice coffee/make myself a cup every time I start a work session)
  • was quick - if I only had an hour or less to write, my ritual couldn't take 20 minutes. 

So here were my ingredients:

  • Putting my feet flat on the floor - this is something that I have been doing since my junior year of high school, where my AP Language teacher would lead us through a small ritual (Deep Breath, feet flat on the floor, and go) before a timed practice exam. So, for many, many, years, uncurling my legs from their normal cross-legged position and putting them flat on the floor was a sign that work was coming. Even if I put them back cross-legged eventually, this action is great for getting my body set. 
  • Chewing a piece of peppermint gum  - this is my coffee substitute. I buy packs of gum in bulk, and this activates my "go to work" impulse through taste. I usually have a pack of fruit/bubblegum flavored gum that I chew at other times just so I keep mint for work time. #gumaddict
  • Putting on a bass-heavy playlist - I love music, and often listen to documentaries or podcasts, or even fiction TV while I'm doing administrative work, or work on other projects. But for writing, I switch to music without lyrics, with a ton of bass, usually based on Skrillex or some other DJ. But some other people I know always listen to Vivaldi, or always put on show-tunes. Whatever it is, keep it the same and keep it for writing, so that the connection is as clear as possible. 

And off I would go. More than anything, it signaled to my brain that the writing habit (which, as far as possible, didn't include surfing Twitter, or looking up citations, or answering email) had started, and provided a break from the other kinds of work I was doing. The more I practiced, the more the habit would cement itself, and the easier it got to make really good use of smaller chunks of time. 

My "Stop Writing" Ritual

I truly believe that "stop writing" ritual is even more important than my "start writing" ritual. Because I need to drop in on my writing quickly and efficiently, I have to be very conscious about how I wrap up for the day. Here are my guidelines:

  • Even if it isn't formal prose, try and get those last thoughts out of your brain and onto the page. I can't always recreate what was going on in my brain while writing, but it really helps me to see what was on my mind so I'm not starting cold the next session. Again, it is all about setting yourself up to be the most efficient the next time. 
  • Make an effort to speak/feel gratitude. Writing doesn't always feel good for me. Sometimes it feels like a slog, or like a punishment, or just like it isn't flowing. But writing down something that I'm grateful for (grateful for the fact that I showed up, for the fact that my coffee tasted good, for finding a citation, for writing 300 words, whatever) helps me end the session on a positive note. End mindfully, end positively, 
  • Stretch it out/dance around/shake it off. Literally move your body. Especially if the writing session was a tough one, give your body a chance to "feel" the reset. Switch locations, or if you can't or don't want to, just get up and stretch a little. Get a drink of water, shake your arms and legs, put on a two minute jam and dance it out. And then get back into whatever comes next. 

Find a ritual that works for you.

Maybe you need a bigger chunk of time to feel good about your writing - add in some coffee making or a little journalling before. Maybe you work analog and your ritual includes using a specific pen for specific tasks. Maybe you like to see your progress, so you mark the word count down on a chart above your desk every time you finish a session. 

The trick is - find what works for you. Be consistent when you find something that works. Be open to switching things around if it stops working. But treat your writing like an extraordinary event worth marking, because it is.