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.


Here are two pieces of advice I’ve found helpful.  The first is one I learned long ago, which has stuck with me for nearly a decade.  It’s never far from top-of-mind whenever I begin a new project.  The second is one I just heard this past weekend on Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast interview where he spoke with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street.

One of my favorite stories that I find inspiring comes from the book, Final Jeopardy by Stephen Baker.  In the book, Baker recounts the origin story of IBM’s Watson– specifically back in 2011, how IBM conceived and executed the project.  The anecdote that’s always stuck with me is before they embarked upon this multi-billion dollar endeavor, IBM’s Watson team tasked a summer intern who’d just joined with the task of trying to create “Watson” with the most basic, off-the-shelf, open-source software that was commercially and freely available.  They timeboxed it to three weeks and simply let the intern, a bright fellow, I’m sure, wander off into the interwebs and do his thing.  The motivation behind this assignment was to develop a baseline not constrained by conventional thinking.  It’d be incredibly humiliating and embarrassing if the IBM team poured billions into Watson only to have it outperformed by a garage project some rando created in his spare time.

I’ve always found this story compelling because it champions a scrappy and resourceful mindset.  Forget all of the fancy tools, machine learning, expensive vendor solutions, etc.  You’re not always the King of England with superior firepower, vast armies of men, and overwhelming force.  Sometimes you’re Mel Gibson in Scotland and the only things you have are your own two bare hands and your wits.  Learning to build a lean, mean, fighting machine is a healthy approach and good for the human spirit.  After all:  “Necessity is the mother of all invention.”

The second piece of advice comes from Shane Parrish/Warren Buffett:  Choose a domain of knowledge that doesn’t change quickly (Eg. Not technology.)  This way you give your knowledge base a chance to compound and grow.  If you are working in a fast-changing domain, the ground is always shifting beneath your feet making it extremely difficult to build on your terrain of knowledge.

Parrish cites Warren Buffet as an example who, famously, for many decades shied away from technology because Buffett simply felt like he didn’t understand it.  (Now certainly, and by Buffett’s own admission, that ended up being a huge mistake and he left billions on the table, but that’s beside the point.)  Instead, Buffett focused his investments on consumer staples and things like rail transportation.  By focusing on just the few, slow-moving industries that he knew well, Buffett was able to make tremendous amounts of money.