I’m going to share something totally different today. It’s not about making art, but it certainly applies to how we approach our daily tasks – from washing the dishes to making art. It’s a blog post from Peter Bregman at the Harvard Business Review. Peter posted this entry on his blog on Wednesday, December 8.
The Harvard Business Review is not on my usual reading list. I saw a reference to this post in a discussion on investing. If you are wondering what in the world a blogger from Harvard, an investing forum, and quilting have in common, I invite you to read on and discover how we can all use the power of rituals to be more focused on our work and produce better results. Here is Peter’s entire post. I’ll add my comments at the end.
The Value of Rituals in Your Workdayby Peter Bregman
I recently saw the movie The Last Samurai for the second time. Set in Japan in the 1870s, it tells the story of an American civil war veteran who was captured by samurai fighters and, over time, learned to honor their ways.
The first time I saw the movie, when it came out in 2003, I was enthralled by the beautifully choreographed fight scenes.
But this time, I was most moved by a scene I don’t even remember seeing the first time: a samurai drinking tea.
Sitting at a low table, he moved deliberately, singularly focused on his tea. He contemplated it. Then poured it. Then sipped it, tasted it, and, finally, swallowed it.
This, I realized, was the source of the samurai’s strength.
His acrobatics were impressive, but they were merely a demonstration of his strength. The source was this tea ritual and many other rituals like it. His power as a warrior came from his patience, precision, attention to subtlety, concentration, and his reverence for the moment.
The power of ritual is profound and under-appreciated. Mostly, I think, it’s because we live in a time-starved culture, and ritual is time-indulgent. Who can afford the luxury of doing one thing at a time? Who has the patience to pause and honor an activity before and after we do it?
We all should.
Religions understand and leverage the power of ritual. In Judaism, blessings are as plentiful as iPhone apps. Wake up? There’s a blessing for that. Wash your hands? There’s a blessing for that. Experience something new? Eat a meal? Go to the bathroom? There’s a blessing for each one. Every religion I know has similar practices to make our experience of the world sacred.
Which might be why we avoid ritual in the business world. Religion is so loaded, so personal. But ritual doesn’t have to be religious; it’s just a tool religions use. Rituals are about paying attention. They’re about stopping for a moment and noticing what you’re about to do, what you’ve just done, or both. They’re about making the most of a particular moment. And that’s something we could use a lot more of in the business world.
Imagine if we started each meeting with a recognition of the power of bringing a group of people together to collaborate and an intention to dedicate ourselves, without distraction, to achieving the goals of the meeting. Perhaps even an acknowledgement that each person’s views, goals, and priorities are important and need to be heard. Of course, that would require that every meeting have a clear goal, an agenda, and a purpose. But those are just nice side benefits.
What if every performance review began with a short thought about the importance of clear and open communication? If every time we worked on a spreadsheet someone else created for us, we paused to acknowledge the complexity of the work she did and the attention to detail she brought to it? If at the beginning of the day we paused to honor the work we are about to do and the people with whom we are about to do it?
Here’s what makes it easy to get started with this: no one needs to know.
Start with just yourself. Sit at your desk in the morning, pause before booting up your computer, and mark the moment. Do this by taking a deep breath. Or by arranging your pens. Whatever it is, do it with the intention of creating respect for what you’re about to begin. Do the same before you make a phone call. Or receive one. Or before you meet with a colleague or customer.
Each time we pause, notice, and offer respect for an activity, it reminds us to appreciate and focus on what we’re about to do. And by elevating each activity, we’ll take it more seriously. We’ll get more pleasure from it. The people with whom we work will feel more respected. And we’ll feel more self-respect.
Which means we’ll work better with each other. And produce better results.
That focus will help us accomplish our tasks more carefully, more proficiently, and more productively, with fewer distracting under-the-table BlackBerry texts. And all the research shows that that kind of singular focus will make us far more efficient.
In other words, that time-indulgent ritual thing? It might just be the perfect antidote to a time-starved world.
Rituals and Everyday Life
The rituals that Peter describes so well can go a long way to making everyday tasks more enjoyable. Even the mundane things like washing dishes. Jack and I have a simple ritual that helps us wrap up each day. After dinner, we often pause for a cup of tea and simply take time to talk about our day. I find out what he has been working on in the house or what he’s reading. He finds out about my day at the office. Even our cat joins the conversation by jumping up in my lap for a few minutes for a good scratch under the chin.
Then we wash the dishes and clean up the kitchen. We have a very small kitchen with no room for a dishwasher, so Jack washes the dishes and I dry them and put everything away. He prefers to wash – he has some arthritis in his hands and the hot water feels good. I just like the kitchen to be tidy before we settle into the evening.
Our ritual is a small thing, but it keeps us focused on just one thing until we’re done. (Now I need to learn to do this in the morning. It would only take 3 minutes longer to do one thing at a time instead of three.)
Rituals, Quilting and Creative Moments
If you are like me, your quilting and other creative activities are often squeezed into 20 minutes here and an hour there. This time is precious and deserves our full attention. What if we paused before beginning to focus our attention completely on our project, simply appreciating the time we have set aside to do something we really enjoy.
And perhaps a second ritual, at the end of our creative time to tidy up our work, put away our tools, and leave everything ready for the next hour of creative time. Now that’s a ritual that would be helpful in my life!
Are small rituals a part of your creative time? Do you make a cup of your favorite tea or coffee before sitting down to sew? Play a favorite CD? Leave a comment to share your favorite creative rituals – and enjoy your creative time to the fullest.
Kelly Jackson says
Thank you Shelly. I appreciate your post and the time you spent writing it. Honestly, I need to slow down….show reverence for the gifts and tasks I’m afforded the opportunity to do each day.
I have a ritual every night with my boys. I kiss them good night and tell them how much I love them.
Thanks, Kelly. I thought Bregman’s post was really interesting and decided to pass it along – and I’m trying to slow down a little and do just one thing at a time. I ALMOST got it right this morning. I only caught myself trying to multi-task once while I was making my lunch. A pretty good start to the day. 🙂
Two years ago I got a book at the library “Everyday Sacred” by Sue Bender. After reading this slim book, I started to appreciate that the things we do everyday are our life and need to be appreciated. The simple act of cutting vegetables for your meal is an expression of the love you have for your family and that you want to take care of them. It can really change how you look at the mundane things that we do every day.
Thanks for the book recommendation, Diane. I’ll put this on my list for the next trip to the library. And speaking of cutting vegetables, there was an interview with a chef on the PBS Splendid Table show recently who chimed in on this topic. He has a virtually gadget-free kitchen – including no food processor. He said he felt better about cooking when he chopped everything by hand. I don’t have room for a lot kitchen tools. I’ll have to think about him when I’m tempted to go shopping in the kitchen section…
Celine Perkins says
The timing of this is so perfect! I’ve been thinking about the coming new year and what goals should go on the list. Adding more ritual, taking time and gaining appreciation seem to fit right now. Maybe my desk would be easier to deal with if I just took the time to do one task at a time instead of making an overwhelming pile! I love the idea of making tea…Thanks for the post.
Happy New Year!
And Happy New Year to you too, Celine!
I’m going to join you in the goal of one thing at a time at my desk. I’m pretty sure mine could win a major league Disaster Desk competition most any day of the week.
Tea is good. I’m brewing some Precious White Peach now. It’s a good way to spend a cold and snowy evening. We’ve had way too much wind and snow up here today to go out for any New Year’s events – and it looks like we have more on the way in just a few hours. Take care.
Leslie McNeil says
Shelley, appreciate the thoughtful blog and it’s insights, especially for us girls who are so used to ‘multi-tasking’ we fairly shake at the thought of going ‘cold turkey’ and doing one — thing—-at—a—-time, and cherishing the time and moment to do exactly that.
I am a morning girl… and to spend time in devotion, reading God’s word and preparing myself to enter the day is everything. How I have had to train myself to FOCUS on just… HIM. That’s why my blog in part, has the song lyrics to “The Great Adventure.” ‘…all the thoughts inside my head of all I have to do today…’
I’ve been a fan a long time, as well as many thousands of others, and I thank God for your artistry and inspiration. May you be blessed, as well as continue being a blessings to others, like me!
Thank you so much for your kind words, Leslie. I truly appreciate your comments. I had a wonderful time looking through your work on your blog. You have some lovely pieces and it looks like you are having a wonderful time. Question — are the leaves on your table runner painted on separate fabric and appliqued to the runner?
Today’s challenge with one–thing–at–a–time is the furnace in my office and warehouse. We have an interesting problem that just occasionally causes it to stop switching properly between gas and electric. It’s one of those things that totally interrupts your day and puts you in heavy-duty multi-tasking mode, especially on a really cold day. Now the trick is to shut it off (the multi-tasking — not the furnace!) and get back to productive mode. Time for a deep breath and some focus on what needs to be done next. 🙂