The Value of Rituals

One of the joys of the pandemic has been the return of baseball. (Congrats to the Dodgers on their World Series win. We’ll get ’em next year KC!) I’ve started to think a lot about my local team and some of the fun quirks of the game. All sports have superstitions and illogical practices, but baseball is bathed in them. Rally caps anyone?

One of my favorite young pitchers would always jump over the chalk lines on his way back to the dugout when an inning ended. It wasn’t that he simply didn’t step on the chalk line, he jumped over it so there was no chance that he would step on it accidentally.

Another favorite player adjusts his batting gloves between every pitch. Not every at bat or after every swing, but after every pitch. He pulls back the velcro, tightens it, then grips his bat and gets back into his stance. Thank goodness the MLB put rules in place about batters not leaving the batter’s box during their at bat. If not each of his at bats would take 10 minutes.

Perhaps my favorite quirk of baseball is the pre-game routine. There are pitchers who play long toss across the width of the outfield. There are position players who stretch in a certain order for a certain amount of time before they take batting practice. And of course there are managers and coaches who write their lineup cards in elaborate handwriting.

These rituals might seem strange, but they plan an important function. Pre-game rituals help players mentally prepare for the game. That might seem obvious, the need to get ready before you play, but playing sports at a high level requires players to have incredible consistency and focus. No matter what happened at home, during the drive to the game, or what personal issues a player is going through, in order to be successful during the game they need a way to be mentally and physically ready. That’s why successful players can be obsessive about their pre-game rituals. It’s one of the steps that takes them out of their normal life and places them in the mindset of competing and performing.

You and I may not be professional athletes, but we all have important work to do each day. Some of that work is likely hard, or boring, or not the kind of thing we want to do today. To be successful, to perform at a high level, we need to find our own rituals that prepare us mentally and physically for our work. Rituals and habits that help us set aside the other things going on in our life and that let us make our art, wherever type of art our work calls for.

Now that many knowledge workers work from home, this is even more important than before. You can only show up in your ratty pajamas to a full day of work so many times before our work starts to feel like a bad dream.

Take time to think about your rituals. Codify them, even if only in a simple way. For me, my morning starts with a hot cup of Yerba mate, reading RSS feeds, and arranging my desk. Then I review my calendar, make notes of to do items that I’ll need for each meeting, then I block out time for deep work and note what that work will be. Once that’s done, then I’ll open my work email and chat apps and start to go through the inboxes. Those two things are some of my least favorite tasks, but they are important for my work. By starting with things I enjoy (a hot drink and reading interesting articles), moving on to things that get me excited for the day (planning for meetings and setting aside time for projects I like), I’m ready to start tackling the things I don’t really like but need to do well on.

Find your rituals. Make then an important part of your day. Consistently do them, because they will lend consistency to your work and to your art.


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We All Need Beard Oil Sometimes

For most people reading that title doesn’t make much sense. You only need beard oil if you have a beard, right? Yes, if we’re talking about literal beard oil. Luckily we’re talking about figurative beard oil, so this can still apply to everyone.

I started growing a beard last November, and I’ve kept it going in various states ever since. I’m a guy who has never had long hair so I didn’t have much experience with the difference hair products can make in your life. (I know, I know: cue the groaning from most of the guys reading this.) Beard oil is one of those miracle products that makes such a big difference it really does feel like magic.

One of the reasons many guys never grow a beard is because it itches and feels scratchy after a while. Unsurprisingly, this is skin irritation, but not for the reason you might think. The beard scruff isn’t causing the itching, it’s actually dry skin. Hair follicles on your face secrete oil which moisturizes your skin. If you have a beard, however, that oil moisturizes the beard and your skin is left without that natural oil. This causes beard itch, and can also lead to things like “beard-ruff”, dandruff from your beard. Not very comfortable or good looking. (I just love seeing snowstorms fall from my beard, don’t you?)

I was a few weeks into growing my beard and having a tough time with the itch. One of my coworkers, who has a magnificent beard, mentioned that beard oil is his secret weapon. I did some research and went out to get a bottle. Immediately after putting it on the itch quieted down. As long as I use beard oil every day or so, I never get beard itch.

Every area of our life and our work has the potential for small optimizations that make a big difference. Spend time to discover what they are, make a plan to implement them, and then evaluate the results. Not every optimization is worth the cost, and not every routine needs to change. There are some, however, that bring outsized value and can fundamentally change how we work. Look out for those and seize them when you find them.


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Foundational Work is a Long Term Investment

My work at SpiderOak revolves around customers. My team handles customer support, account management, onboarding, and some technical aspects of our websites. Working with customers means a constant influx of work. There will always be questions, some big and some small, and they will always come at times when you don’t expect them.

This makes doing foundational work hard to schedule. If a server goes down or there’s a technical issue that affects customers, it means that we’ll be working full time to communicate and assist while the problem is solved. Those are busy times, but important times too.

Once in a while, everything seems to go right. No hard drives fail, the system runs as it should, problems that crop up are small and get solved quickly. When we’re lucky enough to have times like this we turn our focus to foundational work. This is the work of documentation, evaluation, professional development, and planning. In a perfect world we’d be able to consistently schedule all of these things, but at least we know that slow times mean we’ll have time for it.

Here’s an example of why this kind of work is so important. One member of our team decided to take on a project to create an interactive troubleshooting form. Customers with problems answered a series of questions and were given suggestions of how to fix their problem based on the answers. Some people that use the form still end up contacting our team, but more than 50% end up finding an answer and don’t contact us. In the three years we’ve used this interactive form, more than 3,000 customers found self help answers through it. This saved our team hundreds of hours and saved those customers a lot of time too. It’s a pretty good return on a few weeks of part time work.

When your work hits a calm patch, enjoy the break but also consider what foundational work you can do. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Take a professional development course. Read a book. Do some of the work that’s been put off for “someday” so that you’ll be able to start to reap the rewards now.


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Now Page Updates

I’ve been a big fan of Derek Sivers for a long time. Years ago he added a “Now” page to his website as a way to update people on what he’s working on and how things are going. It really caught on and now there’s quite a movement of people adding /now to their website. I haven’t had a Now page for years, but added one today. You can see it here.