The Importance of Ritual

Every few days I get a call from my parents who inevitably want to know, ‘so what’s new with you’? I don’t often have much to say to that, except that, ‘Ah well, yeah, we’re just getting on with it, researching and stuffs’. Now that the year is basically over and I don’t have any tutorials or marking to do, my life basically consists of getting up, attempting to work, doing something relaxing and then going to sleep. The danger of this is, however, that I just get up, ‘faf about’ on the internet, watch several episodes of Wire in the Blood and oh, look at the time. Lunch!

So, Francois and I have come to the conclusion (several times, and with increasing gravity) that we need an established routine, or we’ll just flop about all day thinking that we should ‘probably get to work’. In the past few weeks we have been trying to establish this routine, now that we don’t have to go to campus at odd hours like 11:25. It’s been working, thus far, and I thought I would share it because I’m sure, somewhere, somehow, someone (probably generally only my family and friends, but hey, there is a chance) might be wondering what I do with my day. It’s not all that exciting and definitely doesn’t count as news, but hey, I have some pictures to share. First, though, a bit about the importance of ritual, and why I say ritual instead of routine.

The Pros and Cons of Ritual:

The importance of routine is a well-established fact for working people, and just about every piece of advice recommends it. It appears as a key point on productivity to-do-lists and various lifehacking websites (like Lifehack and Zen Habits). However, I feel a bit uneasy about some of the recommendations for an ultra ‘mapped out to the second’ schedule for each day. One site even recommends waking up at 5 AM every morning to ‘get a jump on the day’. Not. Happening.

Most sites have the expected recommendations. Pick a time for specific tasks, plan ahead, stick to your plan. Others tell you about how you can turn yourself into a “productivity monster” by following a structured routine. Some make it sound like routines will change you into a mindless robot that doesn’t have to think about work, but only work (and this is somewhat scary, because you should never stop thinking about what you are doing). So no, I don’t want to plan out specifically everything. I have found that this isn’t that useful to me. You see, I rather enjoy making lists and planning things. Planning, planning, planning and never doing. I like making schedules and I have several calendars somewhere with meticulously noted things to do. It’s the doing part of my routine that I don’t quite have down.

So, while having a brilliantly structured routine might work wonderfully for the more disciplined, I feel like my best bet is to stick with ritual. I have several of them already, and it doesn’t seem like such a big task to change or add a few, as opposed to sitting down with pen and paper and planning out the whole day. Our routine, then, is rather loose and, like most things in our lives, revolves around the consumption of food and consists of small rituals. We aim for things, and we have decreed that we shall no longer eat on our laps in front of our laptops. Every night we clean our kitchen table (which used to be a vortex of stuff around which all my cleaning attentions centered) and wash the dishes. This is how it generally goes:

A Day in the Life of … this Master’s Student:

7 AM: my alarm goes off, and I get up somewhere between 7 and 7:30. I stumble to the kettle, put it on the gas and make myself a cup of coffee. This is the first essential ritual of the day, without which I cannot compute. While waiting for the kettle to boil, I open my laptop, check my disappointingly empty inboxes and open my WordPress reader.

8 AM: this is about the time that I try and wake Francois, my partner and roommate, who does not get up as easily as I do. These attempts can last everything from 5 minutes to half an hour, and sometimes entails minor torture (cold hands on toes) or the fetching of socks. In between attempts I go through my reader to see if there are any blogposts I feel moved to comment on. Apparently this is how traffick is gained, and there are some really interesting blogs out there, and I’ve decided to at least attempt to work more on mine, so there.

If Francois has disembarked from his little bed, we have breakfast. Since I am trying to be healthier and follow a ‘banting’ lifestyle, this usually consists of bacon and eggs for me, and whatever Francois can stomach this early in the morning. Yesterday, because I was tired of bacon and eggs, I made this marvelous construction – the tomato-mozzarella-basil-and-rocket stack – which duly toppled over almost as soon as I made it:

My tomato-mozzarella-basil-pesto-and-rocket stack, before toppling.
My tomato-mozzarella-basil-pesto-and-rocket stack, reconstructed for the purposes of this photo.

Once breakfast is consumed, we get to work. I usually aim for this to be around 9 AM, but I have thus far failed and it usually ends up being 9:30 or 10 AM when we actually sit down to our respective computers. Although I would like to say that my desk usually looks a bit neater, it really doesn’t. I have loads of books. I need more book-open-holder thingies. And space. I need so much more space.

My little corner. I'm no baby, I prefer them.
My little corner. I’m no Baby, I prefer them.

This completes the second big ritual of the day. Fed, watered and caffeinated, I feel ready to get going. I don’t usually have a very prescriptive idea of what I would do. Sometimes I have to read and sometimes I have to write. Once university starts again, I will probably have to prepare for tutorials or go to campus. For the time being, however, I sit at my desk, put my earphones on and, while listening to some classical music and epic movie soundtracks, I do what I have to do for a while.

About 11 AM, or earlier or later, my next ritual becomes essential – the making of filter coffee. Francois and I have a particular liking for coffee. I wouldn’t say we’re fanatics or connoisseurs or anything. We just really like the stuff. Usually we’re fine with Douw Egberts Espresso instant coffee (because this, and perhaps Woolworths’ instant coffee, is the only worthy instant coffee), but since last year we’ve had a hankering for some stronger stuff. We got a little inexpensive coffee machine because we’re both rubbish with French Presses, and the making of the filter coffee is now a little ritual, even a little treat.

Our little coffee machine. I cherish it.
Our little coffee machine. I cherish it.

Since I bought a coffee bean grinder, we have been making large pots of coffee with super-fresh, super-strong Mug&Bean Espresso Dark Roast. Hmmm.

12 AM: Although we’re liable to take breaks during the morning, 12:00 is our official mark of the burning question ‘What’s for lunch?’. Now, this question is very difficult to answer since we nixed bread. We’re both somewhat picky eaters. Luckily, we live about 2 minutes’ walk away from a supermarket, so this would be the approximate time that we go foraging. Once we have it, we eat lunch at the table, make some more coffee and then, depending on the day, watch a show, or two, or three. Mondays and the ends of the week are typically not too bad, because everything we like seems to air on Monday evenings. So Tuesdays, we’ll watch Castle, Forever and Scorpion in a row, and then lament the wasted time and the fact that we have nothing left to watch. On other days, we’d watch Constantine, Supernatural, The Flash or Marvel Agents of Shield.

When it’s not Tuesday, we each depart to our own work spaces and do some other thing until approximately 2 PM, when we get back to work. Francois has his games that he loves to play, while I usually have a show that to watch on my own, since he either doesn’t like it or we’ve watched it a couple of times already. My favourites are Modern Family, American Horror Story and Downton Abbey.

2 PM: Get back to work (hopefully).

5 PM: The rest of the afternoon is something of a free time, in which we generally try to work but take breaks whenever we feel the need to. By 5, however, we are generally fried. At this point, when I’m feeling dedicated and not too whiny, I get ready to exercise. I absolutely hate going outside to do this, and the gym is not a great option for me (I don’t like exercising around others, generally), so I go to the best thing I’ve every stumbled upon using StumbleUpon: Fitness Blender. This site has over 400 free workout videos for all fitness levels and types that range from pilates and yoga to strength-training and cardio. If you’re like me and you don’t want to go outside or you’re too lazy to go to the gym, this is a wonderful alternative. I cannot commend Fitness Blender highly enough.

7PM: Usually by this time we’re kind of just loafing through the rest of the day, making dinner and deciding what to watch. Academic work can really take it out of you, so by this point we want to relax with something that’s not too taxing on the brain. If we have something to watch, we’ll watch it during dinner. If we don’t, we might play a game or then each do their own thing.

9 PM: Around this point the geyser is switched on, so that we have water for showers and dishes. Trying to do all the dishes is now part of the daily list of rituals. It seems like such a pain, but really it only takes about 20 min. Surprisingly, this and the cleaning of the table seems to be the linchpin of my dedication to my rituals. If I get up the next morning and the table is covered with things and my cup is dirty, I’m less likely to do everything I have to do.

11/12 PM: Around this time I go to bed. I read a bit before falling asleep, otherwise I really struggle. At the moment I’m working my way through Lauren Owen’s The Quick, and, when I feel like it, Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Also Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. That’s more daytime reading though.

And that is my day, in general. Most of the time, though, it’s disrupted by some errand that needs to be run, like grocery shopping or getting my car washed. It’s strange how many things seem to need to be done early in the morning and urgently all of a sudden. For the most part, however, this string of rituals helps me to keep focus. Many articles on sites like The Thesis Whisperer mention just how difficult it is to stick to a set day-by-day schedule when you’re working on research and writing. You can’t just churn things out. Sometimes your brain just doesn’t want to, and then you have to be flexible. You do, however, have to try, and my rituals help me to get to that place where I can attempt my work with some success.

And sometimes, living in South Africa and just living in general, the whole day is bombed by some silly thing like load-shedding or pipes bursting. Last night, because Francois had to be somewhere, I decided to have a nice evening of pasta and my favourite, stockpiled shows (I only watch Downton Abbey when I have a couple of episodes together). Eskom had different plans though. The load-shedding schedule, which we had been told would come into affect a few weeks ago and never did, was suddenly actually implemented in Grahamstown. That’s how you end up on a Friday night, in the dark, with Dinner for One.

C'est la Vie
C’est la Vie
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