“Quick! What day is today?” my husband shouted from his home office space to my home office space. “I don’t know. Does it matter?” I replied. Somewhere between the 100-something day of work-from-home and today, I have lost track of the days. Thank goodness for Google calendar. But in talking to people in coaching, I know that I am not alone in having lost my sense of time and, more importantly, my focus.
Back when I used to work in an office, my Monday through Friday had a certain rhythm, a certain order. Get up, shower, get dressed, grab a coffee, drive to work (while listening to NPR which told me what day it was!). Even once I arrived at the office, I had a routine. Say hello to the same people, grab another cup of coffee and settle into my desk, boot up my computer, take a deep breath and begin. As boring as this routine was, it was settled, it gave me a sense of stability. On those days when the routine was broken by a traffic backup or someone announcing an emergency the minute I walked into the door, I could feel my sense of calm and focus disappear and my stress level rise.
During this extended period of work-from-home, I know that those old routines have been disrupted for many people, especially for folks with kids. Everyday is a new day. Everyday is different and yet, the same. Nothing seems to mark time for us anymore, which has started my thinking about the importance of ritual in our lives.
When we think of ritual, most people’s thoughts immediately go to religious ritual. But all consciously chosen routines can become rituals – religious, spiritual or entirely secular. Rituals help us mark time and celebrate milestones. They signal transitions and liminal space. And they bind people together around a common cause or purpose.
Rituals mark time. When my kids were little, they and their dad had a special ritual of decorating the yard for Halloween. On the 1st of October, they dragged the boxes out of the attic, had a pow-wow about the theme for “Scary Guy” that year, and spent hours creating their elaborate scene to terrify every preschooler in the neighborhood and forever mark us as “that house”.
Even daily rituals can mark time. Weekday visits to the coffeeshop, ordering the same drink, greeting the same barista. Weekend trips to the farmers market, or donut shop, or, if you’re in Austin, the breakfast taco truck.
Rituals pull focus. Yoga classes that begin with a bell or a singing bowl to signal that it is time to begin. Lighting candles before a special meal. Lowering the lights before a movie or concert. Each of these rituals help us to turn our focus to the activity that is about to begin. They create a shared space – physical, spiritual or psychic – and serve as liminal invitation, inviting us into that new space.
Rituals provide communal bonding. Almost every family has their holiday rituals – when do you open presents, what foods do you eat, do you go to church, etc. Many a first fight has been had by newly married couples when they realize that their holiday rituals are different. Sports teams have high fives and inside jokes. Even workplaces have Taco Tuesdays or after-work Wine Wednesdays. Shared rituals build social bonds beyond the literal meaning of the ritual.
So, given that my life right now is sorely lacking in all three of these areas – marking time, shifting and maintaining focus, and communal bonding, I decided to try to add a little more ritual into my work-from-home life. Each weekday, after I walk the dog, I make myself that crucial cup of coffee, head to my office and, instead of opening my laptop and seeing what crisis has developed overnight, I settle into my comfy armchair, take a deep breath and just sit – savoring my coffee and my morning. I don’t do it for long, maybe a couple minutes. But I find that just this little break helps me transition and provides me with a clear delineation between home and work.
I’ve also created some communal rituals which have provided much needed stability to my week – Sunday night dinner with my husband and son, Wednesday night virtual happy hour with my girlfriends and texting daily affirmations with a friend. Not only do these rituals keep me bonded with the folks who mean the most to me, they are also a great way to keep track of my days!
So, what kind of rituals do you need in your life right now? A short morning ritual to provide transition time and space between home and work? A work team ritual of daily check-ins to provide better bonding and team cohesion? New family rituals to help mark passing time and important occasions? Unlike habits, rituals require a conscious choice and follow through. Instead of just letting the days happen, a little ritual in our lives can keep us mindful in the midst of the uncertainty and anxiety around us.