One of the things I learned from my parents is “Love the person you will be tomorrow by washing the dishes tonight.” They never said it that way. In fact, they never voiced any kind of life rule about washing dishes. They simply set an example. Usually Mom cooked and Dad washed, always by hand; we didn’t have a dishwasher.
At my last home, I used the dishwasher for storage: kitchen linens in the bottom; foil, wax paper, plastic wrap and rolling pin in the top. Washing dishes by hand nightly kept the kitchen tidy, and gave my hands good work to do while my mind rested.
Then came the year that I traveled out of town six full weeks and 17 of 52 weekends. Routines crumbled. A parent died. Grief came to visit and stayed a while, and I didn’t take good care of myself. So thinking just that far into the future—from the dark weight of night to the lightness of morning—was a way to establish some good ruts. “Love the person you will be tomorrow by washing the dishes tonight” became an act of hospitality toward myself.
That’s why my morning routine begins the night before:
- Wash the dishes.
- Set up the coffeemaker.
- Set out a mug.
- Write five good things about the day in my gratitude journal.
- Leave the alarm clock (aka iPhone) across the room, many feet beyond arm’s reach.
My morning routine has an aspect of hospitality to self, too:
- Get up when the alarm (either iPhone or insistent cat in face) says.
- Make the bed (perhaps the most significant room-tidying trick ever).
- Start the coffee.
- Sit down and write.
“How you begin your morning largely determines the flow of your entire day,” Valorie Burton writes in How Did I Get So Busy? The 28-Day Plan to Free Your Time, Reclaim Your Schedule, and Reconnect with What Matters Most. “Is your morning a frantic sprint for the door? Or a well-thought-out series of actions that prepare you to have a joyful, productive day?”
Beethoven counted out exactly 60 coffee beans for his morning cup. Margaret Thatcher woke at 5 a.m. to listen to “Farming Today,” a BBC Radio program. One of my friends brushes her teeth, first thing. Another waters her plants. Judging from my informal poll, two rules of thumb for creating daily rituals are “make coffee in the morning” and “have a dog,” the latter because walking the dog was a common answer. Walking, period, is a habit for some of us.
It probably doesn’t matter what it is. What matters is the commitment to something, which eventually becomes so habitual that you don’t have to talk yourself into it. You get yourself across the monkey bars by a series of handholds. Daily habits and routines are the firm handholds that help us swing through the unpredictability of our days.
I do think “ritual” is too precise and too strong a word for some of our morning or daily practices. Habits, sure. Routines, if there are several actions in succession. I think it achieves the level of ritual.
Aristotle would exhort us: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
And Ralph Waldo Emerson would reassure us: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.”
Some relevant readings:
Modern Mrs. Darcy, Creative Habits and Daily Rituals vs. Day Jobs and Family Life.
Fast Company, The Morning Routines of the Most Successful People.
We’re writing our way through a self-care series. Have something to say? Please join us at your own writing place. Simply drop a link to your blog in a comment on the corresponding post as long as comments remain open.