The rewards of repetition
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Much is made of variety. Of change. Of disruption and the virtues of “shaking things up” a bit. And there is much merit in this thought. Life needs spicing, of course, and variety is often a good thing. When football teams, for instance, stagnate, they often bring in a new manager. To shake things up a bit. And often teams enjoy what is called a “new manager bounce”. When results, at least for a short while, seem to improve substantially. Not so much because the manager has radically changed the kind of football the team plays. But because the change in methods, and communication and strategy, seems to shake the team out of their complacency. Novelty, in itself, is a wonderful thing.
Which is why many people find new jobs so exciting. The emotion may be temporary, but there is no denying that new jobs generally come with a “honeymoon period” before the novelty wears off and once again you’re reading newspaper columns about untangling life.
But this fetishization of change and renewal—that seems to pervade every aspect of life, from your washing powder that comes in a brand new package, to your café that has a new holiday paper cup design—often conceals the fact that routine and repetition are also wonderful things.
And don’t take this writer’s word for it. Take Steve Jobs, for instance. Jobs famously wore the same clothes—LL Bean turtleneck sweater, Levi’s jeans and New Balance sneakers—all the time. Because, presumably, he had far more interesting things to do with his waking hours than worry about what he was going to wear each morning. For Jobs, clothing had become something of a ritual.
We all know successful, driven, busy people who somehow have the time to go for a run in the morning, every morning.
This writer once had a co-worker—a sharp, successful, productive chap—who ate the same lunch in the office canteen every day. Day after day. Why? Because he had developed an entirely transactional relationship with lunch. Lunch on a working day was just fuel. So he came, he saw, he topped up, he left (on the weekend, however, the man was a completely different beast. He became what they call a foodie: someone who photographs food till it gets cold, and then complains about the taste).
This writer has some rituals of his own. For instance, each morning I like to make my coffee using freshly ground beans and a moka pot. It is a ritual I look forward to every day as soon as my eyes open. And even though I have seen it countless times, each morning I watch with rapt attention as hot fresh espresso comes bubbling up the spout and into the receptacle. And even this is nowhere as obsessive as Beethoven’s morning coffee ritual. The great composer, each morning, ground his coffee from 60 coffee beans. He counted them by hand. Each morning.
Toni Morrison, the author, wakes up each morning just before dawn and then watches as the sun rises. According to author Mason Currey, this has an almost mystical effect on her creativity.
All this might make it seem like rituals and repetitions are just a way of avoiding waste, saving time, assuring quality or staying creative.
But there is more to these rituals. Amid the turbulence of everyday life rituals can often be something of a safe haven. Opportunities for us to stop, reset our emotions, and take stock of things. Like most readers this writer too often wakes up fretting over deadlines, pending emails, delayed projects and so on. Each time I walk into the kitchen, however, my mind tells me to stop, relax, and focus on the coffee.
And I do. The cup of brew may not do much to alleviate the problems facing me that day. But at least it gives me the comfort that there are some things that I can still control, enjoy and look forward to.
That rituals have an anchoring effect on our emotions and state of well-being is not new information, of course. No doubt readers have relatives who pray each morning before they leave home. Perhaps they do this themselves. But these days, with our pinging devices, breaking headlines, and email alerts, and our obsession with “new new things”, it can be a little hard to find these moments to anchor ourselves in our own rituals. So perhaps we will have to find new rituals.
Why not abandon that jar of instant coffee and find a new more involved way of brewing? Why not find a new favourite place for lunch and eat there all the time? Whatever be your chosen ritual, see if you can carve out a little space in the day that is entirely yours. We all need somewhere to drop anchor once in a while