The Power of Writing Rituals

May 4, 2019

Spring is here in the northern hemisphere. The sky has cleared. Bare tree branches are beginning to send out green shoots. It’s not only nature that is sprouting anew. At this time of year, our minds also turn to thoughts of renewal. For millenia, peoples around the world have celebrated the end of winter. Easter, Passover, Nowruz, Holi, the births of Rama and Hanuman, and many, many more.

Each of these religious holidays, plus many other secular rites, involve age-old rituals. Often colorful and filled with objects, such as eggs or flowers, that symbolize the cyclical nature of life, these rituals tie us to ancient stories, beliefs, and traditions. In enacting the rituals, whether it’s an Easter egg hunt, a Passover Seder, or a thorough drenching as part of the Thai Songkran Water Festival, we connect ourselves to the natural world and the cultures and peoples around us.

Ritual is an especially powerful form of repetition, and human brains are wired for repetition. If we do something enough, that action becomes imprinted, which makes it likely that we will continue doing it.

We engage in repetitive actions all the time and never give it a thought. This morning, I woke up, brushed my teeth, put on my shoes, and took my dogs out for a walk. When I got home, I put the kettle on to make a cup of tea. I went through the same series of actions yesterday, and I will go through them tomorrow.

Most people have these kinds of repetitive sequences embedded into our days. We’ve acclimated ourselves to these routines to such a degree that they become rote.

The word “rote” tends to have negative associations, but it shouldn’t. Rote actions can have positive or negative effects. Reaching into that box of doughnuts without thinking every time you pass by could lead to negative effects in the form of stomachaches or sugar rush-and-crash cycles. Going through a morning routine without needing to think about every step, on the other hand, saves time and attention that can be used elsewhere.

These routines help us organize ourselves. They give shape and intentionality to our actions. Think of athletes, some of whom are famous for their pre-game rituals. They eat the same meal or wear a specific piece of clothing. Doing so helps them focus on the task at hand.

In creating these personal rituals, these athletes accomplish the same thing that the many springtime observances do. They focus the mind and impart meaning onto the moment. And because ritual depends upon repetition, the more a practitioner engages, the more meaning accrues.

What is true for religious adherents and baseball players is also true for graduate students.

As a coach, I often encourage my clients to develop personal rituals around dissertation writing: Use the same pen every time you work on your dissertation edits. It doesn’t have to be an expensive fountain pen; I used a blue Pilot G-2 gel pen, which come in packs of 12, when I worked on my dissertation. Find a coffee or tea cup that you like and use it every day. Go to the same coffeeshop at the same time of day, or set up at the same library carrel.

Each of these is a small thing, but taken together they become routinized, and once they are established, they become the triggers that alert the brain that it is time to work on your dissertation.

Writing a dissertation is not just an intellectual exercise that depends upon our ability to collect and analyze data. It’s not just about presenting an exciting idea. It’s also a process that depends on habit. To write anything, a person has to keep coming back to the page. By ritualizing that return, the writer comes to associate the elements of the routine—the pen, the mug, the coffeeshop—with the action of writing.

Writing a book-length project is daunting. Even in the middle of the process, a writer can come up for air, so to speak, and be newly overwhelmed by the scope of what he or she is trying to accomplish. One powerful way to allay that feeling is to depend on the rituals that help up reach our goals. So reach for that pen. Pull up a chair to a table in that coffeeshop. Take a deep drink of coffee. And start working, again.