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Living a good life means managing your time. Problem is, we don’t understand time at all. Go ahead, explain time to me; I’ll wait.
(Eric hums to himself and drums fingers on the tabletop.)
Don’t blame yourself. To be fair, the nature of time has been a matter of some debate for, oh, a few thousand years now. Aristotle said time wasn’t real. (I know some people who live like this but they tend to get fired a lot.) Aristotle thought time was just a measurement of change. If nothing changes, there is no time. That simple.
Then Newton showed up on the scene and said the exact opposite: time is not only real, but it’s also objective, independent and universal. Be at work by 9AM — and your 9AM better be the same as work’s 9AM.
It took Einstein to break up the fight. He said they were both kinda right. Newton was correct that time is real. But Aristotle was on to something when he said it’s not universal. Einstein realized time is warped by gravity and speed. A universal “now” doesn’t exist. Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli says that asking what “now” is for someone light years away is like asking which football team won the basketball championship. The question doesn’t even make sense.
And when we get down to the level of quantum mechanics, hoo-boy, time is weirder than the love child of Salvador Dali and David Lynch. At the quantum level there is no difference between past, present and future. No cause and effect, only probabilities. Only one thing matters in the quantum realm: how things relate to one another.
I know, I know, with the exception of that Newtonian clock time, this sounds like it has nothing to do with real life. But it does. I swear. Because there’s another kind of time, one that doesn’t fall under physics, and one that is even more important than clock time: internal time. Time in your head.
And that can be weirder than anything physics has come up with. But, in the end, it’s the only time that matters.
Follow me down this rabbit hole, won’t you, Alice?
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
The worth of a great day is not measured by the space it occupies in the calendar.
Does time on the clock have any relationship to how meaningful the moments of your life are to you? Barely at all. March wasn’t a better month because it had 31 days to February’s 28.
The Newtonian clock ticks by consistently but inside our heads, well, “time flies when you’re having fun” or something “takes forever.” And we’re not crazy. Subjective perception of time is real. When you’re in a car accident, time does seem to slow down. And, yes, time really does seem to speed up as you get older.
All due respect to Sir Isaac, it’s the other forms of time that are more like the one in our heads. Per Aristotle, if nothing is happening in your life, if there’s no change, you forget those moments. Time collapses. And like Einstein, our internal time is not universal. A moment can be very meaningful to me and be irrelevant to you. And, like quantum mechanics, when you look back on your life, all that matters are moments in relation to other things: to our feelings, to our values, to other people.
But Newton isn’t letting us off that easy. He’s still there. If we don’t make the most of those hours on the clock, we don’t create the moments that will matter to us internally. And clock time so often slips through our fingers. So how do we control time?
Well, we can’t. But we can make time special so it registers with us internally.
We can only solve the problem of time through sanctification of time… We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.
Heschel was writing about the Sabbath. A ritual. He said:
The Sabbath itself is a sanctuary which we build, a sanctuary in time.
We can’t control Newtonian time, but we can use it to create moments that are meaningful to us internally. And once there, time can stop for us to savor it. We can reverse time, as in the pleasures of nostalgia. And we can project forward in time through anticipation and hope. Rituals create this magic.
So how do we get started?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the number one ritual we need to do each day is… more rituals.
Rituals are not so much about what you do; they’re about the meaning you give to what you do. They don’t have to be tied to religion or spirituality. They can be subjective and personal. They’re sacred because you decide they are, to you.
But what makes a ritual? Ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School, Casper ter Kuile says there are three elements:
Sounds kinda like we talking about habits. But habits are the opposite of rituals. Habits are an effort to make things less conscious, less intentional, more automatic. But with rituals we want to increase intention. We want to pay more attention. We don’t want to do these things robotically, sleepwalking through life. Habits are forgotten in internal time. Rituals are not chores on autopilot; they are miniature celebrations. We don’t engage less, we engage more.
When building habits, you’re doing something new. But we want to take what you already do and ritualize it. To give your current moments of external time more internal meaning.
That zoo of odd little things you do every day can be taken to a higher level. Reading, taking a relaxing bath, going for a run, going to see grandma, they can all be something special with intention, attention and repetition. Heck, turn that afternoon nap into something meaningful.
Don’t be afraid to take little things a little more seriously. Allow them to be special. Give them your full attention. Savor them. A new perspective on any activity can transform it. Suddenly, it’s brand new. And when you do it, you feel like a million bucks, like you’re in an “Irish Spring” commercial.
The banal can become the sacred with intention, attention and repetition. You don’t need someone else to tell you what the meaningful practices of your life are. Is a family tradition of watching “Shrek” any less significant because you came up with it yourself?
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
The possibilities are endless, only constrained by your imagination — but it’ll be easier to get started if we’re more concrete. Let’s begin with a hard one. Can work benefit from a ritual? You better believe it…
Work is rarely fun. Often, just thinking about it can make you feel like Eeyore on a bad day. You don’t even want to get started. But a “getting to work” ritual can actually reduce procrastination.
When I spoke to Charles Duhigg, bestselling author of The Power of Habit, he suggested we try a “getting to work” ritual. Here’s Charles:
One way to use habits to fight procrastination is to develop a habitualized response to starting. When people talk about procrastination, what they’re usually actually talking about is the first step. In general, if people can habitualize that first step, it makes it a lot easier.
Yeah, he said “habit.” But actually, it’s more like a ritual. He suggested you do something fun. Not robotic but engaging. Something that puts you into the right mood. Yeah, even surfing the web or playing video games. A little bit of whatever makes you feel good. Just get the momentum going and then direct that toward the day ahead.
And rituals aren’t just something that helps kill the pain of work. When I spoke to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, she told me her research shows that a little ritual before you get started can actually make you perform better.
Athletes are known for having some crazy rituals they do before they play to boost their confidence. Guess what? Those rituals work.
Some of the pregame routines that some of the players have are kind of funny. What we studied in this project was whether these rituals are really of beneficial effect in terms of bringing you confidence and potentially impacting your performance positively. That is actually what we found.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
So a little ritual can help you get more done. But rituals are also powerful when it comes to doing less…
These days we hear a lot about taking a “technology sabbath”, a break from the chitter chatter of the social media maelstrom. (One of the worst parts about the internet is it has given the dumbest people on the planet direct access to one another.) Too much time online can make you crazy.
But we can take this to another level by not limiting it to technology and having a full-on secular sabbath. Designating a time away from all of the frantic hullabaloo of life. No errands, no goals, no checklists. It’s not deprivation; it’s celebration. Playtime. There used to be these things called “hobbies” before the internet came along and swallowed them whole. They’re fun. Trust me.
This is critical for maximizing internal time. Chip and Dan Heath looked at the science and found that “The most memorable periods of our lives are when we break the script.” What’s that mean?
Research shows that when older people look back on their lives, a disproportionate number of their big memories happened in a very narrow window: between ages 15 and 30. Why? Because after 30, life can get pretty darn boring. After their third decade has passed, most people don’t do anything as novel as falling in love for the first time, leaving home, going to college, or starting their first job.
We need novelty to make more smile-worthy memories and fashion a meaningful life. But it’s not all about looking in the rear-view mirror. Neuroscientist David Eagleman found that when you inject novelty into your life, internal time expands. Surprise stretches time. So break the script. Do new fun things. This is how you create more moments worth remembering.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
So far we’ve discussed solitary rituals. But as we saw with quantum mechanics, the universe is fundamentally about the relations between things. You’re no different. So what’s the best type of ritual to have with others you care about?
No, don’t get in a fight. But the Heath brothers looked at the research and saw that what deepens connections with others is struggle – the good kind.
Anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas (say that three times fast) found that groups that went through “high-ordeals” bonded far more than those that went through “low-ordeals.” Struggling together made people closer. This is why fraternities haze. Why soldiers feel like they are kin.
Now you don’t have to do that much struggle. But consider a ritual less like movie night and more like board games with teams. Fewer coffee catch-ups and more touch football. If it ends with high-fives, you’re probably in the ballpark.
Or have a ritual where you help a friend accomplish something. Work on their car together or paint their bathroom. Sounds silly but these are the moments we remember. Studies show that, counterintuitively, spending time on others makes us feel less time-constrained.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
So what’s a ritual that we can engage in with friends that is already definitely on the calendar? Hey, ya gotta eat…
The Japanese tea ceremony. Saying grace before dinner. Breaking the Ramadan fast. Rituals around meals go back forever and have profound meaning across almost all cultures and religions.
So take a second before a meal with friends and acknowledge how special the moment is. Any such gesture can become a ritual — just add intention, attention, and repetition. And they make a difference…
Ever do a toast before you drink? It made your drink taste better. Yes, really. By focusing your attention on what you drink or eat, studies show those little rituals help you enjoy those moments more. Here’s Francesca Gino again:
Think about rituals that you engage in prior to consumption experiences. What they do, they make us a little bit more mindful about the consumption experience that we are about to have. Because of that, we end up savoring the food or whatever we are drinking more, we enjoy the experience more, and in fact, we’re also more willing to pay higher prices for whatever it is that we just consumed. Once again, rituals are beneficial in the sense that they create higher levels of enjoyment in the experience that we just had.
But mealtime rituals don’t just improve the taste of food. They can also improve marriages, and make your kids healthier. Having regular family dinners is crazy powerful.
According to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, “In families with predictable routines, children had fewer respiratory illnesses and better overall health, and they performed better in elementary school.” The article added that rituals have a greater effect on emotional health, and that in families with strong rituals adolescents “reported a stronger sense of self, couples reported happier marriages and children had greater interaction with their grandparents.”
You can also have a dinner party with friends and do a little ritual beforehand. (After a year of pandemic lockdown, I want to hug my friends so close that it might qualify as adultery.)
Intention and attention are critical but don’t forget about repetition. Try and make something regular, even if it’s annual. This is how convention becomes tradition. And it will contribute to the growth of your relationship over time as you can look back (and look forward) to the times you have together.
Organize a group meal like this and you get a twofer: you add rituals that expand your internal time, but you also give that gift to those you love. Ain’t nothing better than that. Do this and your greatness will be sung by bards for generations to come.
(For more on how to motivate yourself to exercise, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. (Hopefully the time went by quickly.) Let’s round everything up and find out about the ritual you have just unknowingly engaged in…
Here’s how to use rituals to improve your life:
“Time” is the most commonly used noun in American English. We find it, lose it, save it, waste it and spend it. It flies, crawls and stands still. Sometimes we are out of it and other times we claim to have all there is in the world. But just thinking about how much time we waste is enough to rend your soul. Errands and responsibilities build up until the ticks weigh more than the dog.
The external time of the clock isn’t going anywhere but internal time is how we will judge our lives. So use rituals to build meaningful moments that will shape your life for the better. Don’t worry if your rituals seem a little odd or silly at first. As Irwin Kula said: every tradition was once an innovation.
Some of my posts are easy to write but others are harder. The latter take more reading, more thinking, and more editing. For this one, yeesh. Studying the physics of time, the Sabbath and other traditions, the science of rituals and meaningful moments… If I was looking for any sort of direct return on this investment of time and energy, well, this post was unequivocally “ROI negative.” But that’s not why I do it.
Writing is my ritual. Sacred to me in a personal way. A chance to learn, and to share as I learn. To inspire and give hope (or at least try to). It can be a lot of work, but sharing it with you is the best part. I know my time is not going to waste. I hope you find rituals that are as meaningful to you as this is to me.
Fundamentally, time is absolutely bonkers-crazy but that can be a good thing. The weirdness of internal time means the smallest moments can have the biggest impact on your life.
During her journey through Wonderland, Alice asks the White Rabbit, “How long is forever?” And the White Rabbit replies:
“Sometimes, just one second.”
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