By Laura Vanderkam
Rituals and habits are hot topics in productivity circles these days, for good reason.
What you do as you manage your daily life matters a great deal. A simple choice to grab a piece of fruit with your coffee in the morning turns you into a person who eats a healthy breakfast. If you get up and write five pages every weekday morning, you will have a manuscript in a few months.
But, that last description of frequency — every weekday morning — contains an insight that suggests there’s a problem with how we sometimes think about time. Even people with so-called daily rituals don’t always do the same things on weekends. They do these rituals Monday through Friday, and as I study people’s schedules, I find many veer from the usual routines on Fridays, too. So, again, these so-called daily habits actually happen only four to five times a week.
Why does that matter? This insight is good news for those of us whose days can’t always look the same, but who still want to build sources of joy or meaning into our lives. We live in weeks, not days. Rather than succumbing to the “24-hour trap” — the belief that something has to happen daily on weekdays in order to be part of our lives — we can look at all seven days, and find space for things more often than not.
Take exercise for example: Many people would like to exercise more. But, then they tell themselves “I’m not the kind of person who can just leave for an hour at lunch each day to go work out.” Or “I just can’t stomach getting up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to exercise.”
This is the 24-hour trap. But, if you can’t leave at lunch every day, here’s a different idea. Just one day a week, pack a lunch and comfortable shoes and go for a walk during the time you’d normally hit the deli. Then, one morning per week — just one! — wake up early and use the treadmill that's gathering dust in your basement. Add in a run around the fields where your kid plays soccer on Saturday, and maybe another run sometime Sunday evening while the rest of the family is watching TV and suddenly you’re exercising four times per week.
It’s not the same time Monday through Thursday, but it doesn’t have to be. Accumulated minutes still matter.
I’ve been trying to adopt the same philosophy when it comes to writing fiction. I’m never going to be Anthony Trollope, working on my novel for three hours each morning. But, if I block off 5:30-8:30 p.m. one night per week, and another hour some afternoon, in those four hours, I can crank out the 2,000 words per week I need to write to stay on track.
Daily rituals are great, but they are not the only way to make things happen. By being creative and looking at all 168 hours in a week, we can often find space for more things than we think. The 24-hour trap limits possibilities. Looking at 168 hours opens things up.