At a reception at the Lean Startup conference, where I was speaking last week, I struck up a conversation with a couple as waited on a food line. The three of us had started the day together in the hotel’s small, dark, grey gym, with ESPN blaring.
“How was your workout?” the woman asked, kindly.
“Oh, it was terrible,” I replied. “Truly, every minute was awful. But I finished.”
It was true. I’d had a tiring week, had rushed to catch my 6-hour flight to Las Vegas, wore earplugs all night because the hotel room was so loud, hadn’t eaten breakfast, and was feeling sluggish. I didn’t feel at all like running on the treadmill, but hoped that after I started it would get easier or better.
It never did. This is normal.
I exercise a lot, and at least half of the time I don’t really feel like doing it before I go. I mostly ignore that feeling and the accompanying thoughts, because they tell me almost nothing about what will happen once I get going, let alone how great I’ll feel afterwards.
I notice the same pattern with my kids. This weekend I had to wrench my 7-year old daughter from a lazy Sunday afternoon TV show to get her to practice her ukulele. As kids do, she vocalized all the feelings she had at that moment. “I don’t want to!” “I’m too tired!” “Can we do it a little later?”
But this morning, before school, without protest or prodding, she was in her room strumming away, belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
It’s made me realize that most of what we do as parents is to try to instill good rituals.
Rituals of saying please and thank you. Rituals of putting dishes away after a meal. Rituals of how we go to bed. Rituals of doing homework early in the day. Rituals of always saying hello when we enter the house and goodbye when we leave. Rituals about using our phones and when we put them down. Rituals of reading before bed. And on and on.
These rituals only stick if they are for all of us.
My days are no different, filled with ritualistic behaviors: on the train into work, how I act when I get into the office, how and what I eat, what I do on a long-haul flight or how I get to sleep in a hotel room in a different time zone.
These rituals can be comforting, helpful and reassuring. They can be positive, well-thought out, and intentional. They can lead, day by day, to big positive changes.
Or, they can work against us: reinforcing the limitations we’re feeling in our lives, distracting us from what’s going on right now, buttressing our limitations…different flavors of short-term relief we trade, moment by moment, for a future we say we want.
Rituals are powerful because they help us push through the protests we’re feeling in our minds and bodies – whether we say them out loud like my 7-year-old, or we voice them silently. Rituals are a pre-determined set of priorities that free us from the decision of whether we should do this or that.
How we use our rituals is up to us. But when we watch someone who is doing something that seems impossible – running on a freezing cold and rainy morning; showing up perfectly pressed for work no matter what’s going on around them; always listening carefully; writing a blog every day — we should remember that what we’re witnessing isn’t a display of willpower, talent or skill.
It’s the result of ritual.