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On Ritual and Routine

“Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.” — Jane Kenyon

Last year my bride and I took a morning walk on a quiet beach in the off-season. We saw an older gentleman swimming with his dogs in the brisk Atlantic Ocean and met him as we were walking back towards our car. Well, as is usually the case, his dogs met us first, and he joined them in introductions soon after. He looked like Obi-Wan Kenobi in a thick, hooded robe. He mentioned that he took this Atlantic Ocean plunge with his dogs every day of the year, no matter the weather. The robe and the walk back home were his rewards for completing this ritual, and were thus an integral part of it. His fitness level and radiance betrayed a lifestyle worthy of consideration.

Lately I’ve thought more of lifestyle design—of deliberately choosing how to spend my remaining time on this earth in daily ritual and routine. We might agree that we’re already living our lives based solely on the bookends of ritual and routine. The question is, are we optimizing our life or should we build better bookends? Is writing first thing in the morning the best use of this time? Or is a long walk better? Or a brisk plunge into cold water? The answer is whatever sets the table for an exceptional day—what comes first should hardly matter, just that we do the things that, stacked together, make up a productive and meaningful day, and by extension, our life.

We tend to track things like workouts, but don’t always track other things that make up our days. Tracking habits makes sense when you’re trying to establish or reinforce them. I began flossing every day when I stared at an empty box one day, knowing I’d broken the streak. A friend quit smoking simply so he didn’t have to leave a day on his calendar without a big X through it. We forget sometimes in our realization that we can’t control everything that we can control some things. And these small things, added up over time, become big things indeed.

The way to be a good steward of our gifts is to protect our time in ritual and routine. Kenyon outlines hers in the magical quote above. We might add a few others that punctuate our own days. The trick in building these bookends is to fill the space in between with more activity worthy of our precious time. We know that that space will be filled either way—shouldn’t we make it fulfilling?

Plunge into things that optimize your days

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