Writing Rituals – Part I

Writing rituals are critical in helping me produce consistent and quality output.  It’s crazy to me that I’m rapidly approaching the 30-day mark of my daily writing exercise.  A month of consecutive writing!  I’ve been generally satisfied too with what I’ve produced.  Obviously, it’s not Shakespeare; but I’ve been pleased and even at times surprised with the material I’ve conjured from the depths of my brain. It was rattling around in there all along! All this time, who knew?

On the last Knowledge Project episode, Shane Parrish interviewed Apolo Ohno, the most decorated winter Olympian in American history, and what has stuck with me is Ohno’s commentary about ritual.  Before every big race, he had a standard routine; in fact, many athletes have some version of this– they’ll listen to a specific song or repeat a personal mantra right before a big race to “get in the zone.”  There’s an idea that the next several minutes of my life are going to be tremendously high-stakes.  Another example:  Recall your student days when you took standardized tests for college admissions.  There was a gravity then that those next 180 minutes were going to determine your very destiny.  And thus, it was time to step up: Everything boils down to this.  Everything is on the line.

For writing, I’ve come to realize through tons of trial and error, that it’s similar.  Once upon a time, I believed it was a matter of discipline.  Just sit down every day, put in the time and work, and grind your way to victory. This is totally wrong though.

Preparing to write is more similar to preparing your mind and body for the act of sport. Similar to how a runner prepares his/her body and mind before the starting gun, the first writing phase –just general production getting the initial story and ideas out of your brain and onto the physical page (rewriting is a whole different phase and process altogether)– is like taking your position at the starting blocks.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’ve been happiest when my output when the writing has been effortless– when it’s just flowed.  (Real talk: I’ve had stretches of inspiration where I banged out 500 words in 20 minutes right before dinner that I’ve been more pleased with than spending an entire day, nose-to-the-grindstone.) But the trick now, is getting to that flow state. How to get into that zone.

In this vein, I’ve been trying to study myself and learn how I –as a system– operate.  It’s strange just how little I knew myself.  Here’s one epiphany, for example, I’ve recently discovered:  When I get stuck, I take a shower.  It’s weird, but there’s something about taking a shower that ignites ideation for me.  Same with brushing my teeth.  It’s strange, I know. But some of my best ideas have come when I’ve been brushing away at those back molars while absently staring off into space.  Noticing these patterns have allowed me to exploit and weaponize these life hacks to better be productive.

Why Negativity is Good

It keeps us from wandering too far astray. Haha, imagine a world with no negative feelings! It’d be like that M. Night Shyamalan movie— a total hellscape! People destroying themselves left and right, unchecked self-destructive behavior everywhere!

We feel positive when we behave in ways that make us feel good. If we eat delicious food or awake refreshed after a great night of sleep, we feel happy and joy because those actions are healthy. Feeling positive reinforces healthy actions and behaviors.

Likewise, we feel bad when we engage in self-destructive/unhealthy behaviors. We feel awful after consuming too much liquor. We feel exhausted after pulling an all-nighter. Those negative feelings is our body warning us to not repeat these actions.

Positivity and negativity are flip sides of the same coin– they cannot exist absent each other. Both are our friends. Like a world without brake lights, a world absent negativity would be disastrous.

Furthermore, I argue that a life well-lived is a life where someone has encountered a high number of negativities. I would much rather live a life having experienced 100 positives and 200 negatives than a life of 10 positives and 1 negative.

It is simple logic: Positive experiences are much more valuable (and thus more heavily weighted) than negative experiences. If I taste 100 foods and dislike 90, I’ll never eat those 90 foods ever again. But the 10 dishes I do enjoy, I’ll eat many more times, until the end of days!

Life is like the timeless BFS vs DFS challenge. Do we go broad? Or do we go deep? Obviously, the answer is both, depending on the details. But if I were forced to choose only one: I contend that we go broad.

The next great adventure might be the one right around the corner. Your next favorite dish might just be the one you decide not to order. The love of your life may very well be that very next date. (Related: Optimal Stopping Problem.)