Ruth Bader Ginsburg was given a little piece of advice on her wedding day by her mother in law: “In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” Ginsburg would say she applied it to her job too: “I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”
This is nothing new, ancient history tells stories quite similar. There is a story of Cato, who was struck by someone in an argument in the Roman baths. The man was forced to apologize when it was explained to him what an important person he had just punched. Cato’s response? “I don’t remember being hit.” He was practicing not just deafness, but forgetfulness—even as his face was probably still stinging from the blow.
That’s the point though: You can go around in this life looking out for every insult and snide comment. You can hang onto every time you’ve been wronged and investigate every case of possible bad faith. Or you can tune it out, be a little deaf to it and let things go. Not stupidly of course, not completely or utterly forgetful, but just enough that you can get along with people and function above the fray and the muck and the things that catch other people up. Just enough that you don’t go around angry all the time.
There is probably no piece of literature that the Stoics were more familiar with than the Odyssey. Seneca quotes it. Marcus Aurelius quotes it. Pretty much everyone in the ancient world was so familiar with Homer’s verses that they could be quoted without attribution and people would know what the speaker was referencing.
It makes sense. It’s a beautiful, inspiring poem with all sorts of lessons and images. But here’s one that the Stoics never mentioned, that is easy to miss unless you read all the way to the end. In fact, in some translations it’s cut off or ignored. What does Odysseus do after nearly ten years of war and then ten more years of struggle to make it home? What does he do shortly after arriving home after having been gone so long that his wife’s hair was grey and his old dog was barely alive? After he slaughtered the invaders in his home and secured his kingdom that he was blocked from for so long?
It’s almost unbelievable: Almost immediately after coming home, he gets ready to leave again! As Emily Wilson beautifully translates Odysseus giving the insane news to his long suffering wife:
But now we have returned to our own bed, As we both longed to do. You must look after My property inside the house. Meanwhile, I have to go on raids, to steal replacements For all the sheep those swaggering suitors killed, And get the other Greeks to give me more, until I fill my folds.
Isn’t that the human condition in a nutshell? Isn’t that restlessness exactly what got Odysseus in trouble in the first place? The insatiability and greed that nearly took him and his men to the brink a hundred times? As Blaise Pascal put it, “all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room.” Because we cannot be happy, because we can’t just be, we waste years of our life. We go begging for trouble. We invent problems. We flee, as Seneca once put it, from ourselves. Clearly that’s what Odysseus was doing. No one who actually likes themselves or their lives spends twenty years fighting to get back to it...and then leaves the day after they get there!
We must realize that stillness is the key. Stillness is how you connect to yourself and others. Stillness is where true happiness comes from. Where is all this rushing taking you? Where was Odysseus pointing his ship toward? We are rushing toward death. A life of restlessness is not what we’re after. That’s not where meaning comes from. No one is saying that Odysseus should just lay back and lounge for the rest of his life—but if he can’t take even a few minutes with his family after that long of an absence, something is wrong with him. Turns out the war with Troy was the sideshow—the real battle was in this guy’s head and heart...and it was against the fear of not being in motion constantly. Sadly it’s an affliction shared by a good portion of ambitious, talented people.
There is no greatness that is not at peace, Seneca reminds us. There is no greatness if we cannot be. We must be still.
Rituals are the secret to productivity and working more effectively. Some of the most successful people around have morning rituals.
They can put all the small things of your life on autopilot, so that you can use your mind to focus on what’s important: creativity and problem solving.
Advice on what to include in rituals and routines is robust, but a framework is needed for their implementation. After studying and experimenting with productivity and effectiveness for years, I’ve put together one such framework for a morning routine. Use it to create the perfect, customized morning ritual that will work for you and be sustainable.
Many most popular artists, writers, entrepreneurs and masters have relied on a specific set of rituals. Study the person you look up to most and learn about his or her daily rituals. Consider these steps:
1. Identify a leverage point.
Identify the highest leverage action in your life, the big domino piece that makes everything else fall into place. Structure your ritual around making sure this one action absolutely happens.
For example, it might be waking up by 6 a.m. and meditating 20 minutes. Or perhaps you rely on a jog or yoga routine. Whatever it is, identify it and place utmost importance on completing this task each day.
2. Put the big domino first.
Once you’ve identified your highest leverage action from Step 1, make it one of the first things you do each morning. Your ritual should be based on supporting this new habit.
3. Write things down.
Have some fun with this and feel free to be creative. Use a piece of paper, create a simple document or just keep a habit checklist in the Coach.me app.
4. Begin with just three actions.
You already know what the most important piece of your ritual. Now just add two more items to the list of things you must do every single day.
5. Start simple and make it easy to succeed.
Flossing a tooth could be offered as example of a simple ritual. I think that’s too simplistic, but the point is to begin with a simple routine to ensure success.
6. Give it time.
While some subscribe to the notion that a habit takes 21 days to form, that may be a myth. Psychologist Jeremy Dean has found it could take 66 days to build a habit.
And a study by Phillippa Lally concluded, “The time it took participants to reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity ranged from 18 to 254 days.” The truth is, people are different. Some individuals need no time at all and others may need more.
7. Nail it, then add new habits.
Once you master a routine, add on new habits to make your ritual more robust.
8. Be open to change.
Your rituals shouldn't be set in stone. Be open to adjusting and adapting your plan along the way as part of a dynamic process. Add a weekly review and planning ritual, a productivity secret of successful entrepreneurs.
After a while, you may find that you actually don't like yoga or jogging. You may discover how great you feel after drinking vegetable smoothies. Keeping your process dynamic means letting your ritual continuously evolve, which can be a good thing.
9. Don’t be discouraged by slipups.
Your ritual will give you power. The act of having a routine will become an addiction and at times you may feel superhuman because of it.
At other times you may feel lost after missing a step or neglecting your ritual. Stay strong, don’t beat yourself up and step back into it. Building a ritual is like building a muscle. All it takes is doing the workout again to revitalize the habit.
I suggest committing to performing the new ritual for at least 66 days. Make it a challenge. Ask a friend to help with accountability and use a positive or negative reinforcement technique to make the ritual stick. For example, treat yourself to something you’ve wanted once you complete the challenge.
As a bonus, use the extra momentum to work more effectively. You can become more productive throughout the day by making tiny changes in a multiplicity of ways.
Below is an outline of my personal routine:
Wake up at 5:00 a.m.
Hydrate by drinking a massive glass of water immediately.
Exercise with a 20-minute jog or a quick workout at home.
Take notes (do a brain dump) and plan the day.
Take a cold shower.
For breakfast, drink a green vegetable smoothie or juice and make coffee
Spend time learning for 30 minutes by reading a book, catching up on articles or listening to an audio program.
Will you create a morning ritual now? If you already have one, what’s in your routine?