The importance of 'Rituals'

 Rituals - everyone has them!

Rituals - everyone has them!

"We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then is not an act but a habit."

The first time I came across this quote was when we were shooting a video for my business school, Management Development Institute, Gurgaon. A few of us were asked to say this aloud and funnily enough, the team which was making this video made us repeat this line quite a few times to get the best shot. I found the quote quite fascinating and it was probably my first exposure to the idea of system-thinking versus goal-thinking.

The first book I read in the ‘self-help’ genre was Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance earlier though I didn’t consider it a self-help book then. (On that note, the first book that I read which I’d classify under self-help will have to be The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.) Coming back to Rich Dad, Poor Dad – I had picked it up because it had been highly recommended by so many people at work. The one idea that I seem to recall from that book was how a person is the sum total of his/her friends and where/ with whom he spends all his time.

The same idea popped up again when I read about what most sport-champions consider the secret of their success; what the world’s best CEOs consider the small things they do that make the difference; what Scott Adams recommends as life-advice. Was this the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon at work?

Seth Godin has talked about the secret-handshakes of tribes. When I see religious and cultural rituals, I try to imagine how that particular ritual must have come about. One tends to retro-fit many rituals to some agricultural or ecological context to justify why it was started in the first place. I wonder if they were designed deliberately or evolved over a period of time or were done and followed for generations, without anyone giving it a thought.

An interesting ritual I come across is in the kids’ school. The school usually starts everything with five minutes of meditation and a prayer – kids start their day this way in most schools. The interesting thing is the parent-teacher meetings also start with five minutes of meditation and followed by a Sanskrit spiritual chant which says the Teacher is the representative of God and we all salute the God. Such sessions usually are crib sessions where parents come to the school with a long list of complaints. I feel the five minutes of relaxation and the chanting in praise of the teachers goes a long way in either eliminating most of the unnecessary complaints and definitely reducing the intensity of the complaints.

One habit that we have developed in our team is to ask quiz questions. One thing that binds everyone in our team is that we all love quizzing. So someone volunteers to ask a Question of the Day on our Whatsapp group. We also do a short quiz at the start of every meeting. This is our equivalent of meditation. Trying to answer questions gets us all to be mentally present for the meeting - we all are in the right frame of mind and meetings become a lot more effective!

Rituals, habits, systems are the building blocks for making any sustainable change. Change is happening all the time – sometimes planned and many a time, it is inadvertent.

I’d love to hear your experiences with designing rituals in your life or at work.

Tennis Chronicles: What did I tell my best friend?

There had been a lull for some time since the last time I had written about my Tennis. A book we often recommend is Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. One of the techniques they talk about while taking decisions for yourself is to answer the question “What would I tell my best friend in this situation?” If you can detach yourself from a situation but also think about it for your best friend, you will care enough. That really increases the chances of taking better decisions. I have been trying to get this balance of dispassionate-ness and ‘caring enough’ in lot of the decisions I have been taking at work and in life.

Coming back to my tennis - I had a feeling that I was just showing up at my tennis class every day and going through whatever was on offer that day – it was not really going through the motions but it felt like that to me because I didn’t have a plan; I felt I was drifting. I decided to take a step back and look at my learning, what could I change and of course, give some rest to my troublesome knee. So I decided to take a break for the month of May.

During my cycling trips every morning, I chanced upon a different tennis academy and decided to play there for a few days to see how it goes. The new place was different in many ways:

  • It’s a hard-court. I had played only on clay courts for one year.
  • It’s much closer to my house. So I could save a lot in transit time.
  • There were three courts as against the four at the previous place.
  • There were fewer people who came to play.

I started with some doubts but decided to give the new place a shot anyways. The first week was horrible – I found it difficult to get used to the pace of the court; I was anyways coming off a month-long break. But I slowly got more comfortable. When our kids came back from their vacation, I convinced them to join me at this new place (leaving all their friends from their older class). Around 2 weeks in, I realized the biggest difference – the coach at the new place has given me ‘technical advice’ on exactly 2 occasions in the last 40 odd days. You might recall the equation I had quoted from The Inner Game of Tennis,

Performance = Potential – Interference

In the book, the author talks about how the ‘coaching’ from the coach becomes an interference for the player because she wants to implement what she has been told – extend your arm, check your grip et al. This new coach plays regularly with us; has been coaching for a few decades. So I’m sure he has a lot to say but his philosophy seems to be to let players develop their own style. He has a slightly different approach with the kids but largely the philosophy seems to be the same.

This works very well for me, personally. I can make my plans for what I want to improve every day. Since there are fewer people, I play more sets instead of going through the standard routine drills that everyone was put through. Fewer people as compared to the earlier place also means that there are fewer people whose tennis skill- level will be rated as high. Yet, my level has definitely gone up because I have been able to make the changes I want to and plan for. The biggest difference is that I feel more in control of my tennis journey and I feel happy about it! For an autodidact like me, this is the perfect scenario. I’ll wait to see how it goes for the kids.

So if I had to report back to my best friend, this is how his advice helped –

  • Found the new courts when I was out cycling -  Increase exposure to new situations, people, to improve chances of serendipity to happen to you
  • Took a break – allowed me to do detached reflection
  • Tried out the new place – experiment before coming to any conclusions
  • Fewer people at the new place – more mind-space and playing-time
  • Under-coaching allowing me to do my own thing.

What advice would you give to your best friend?

5 ridiculously tough ways to make your children fall in love with reading

5 ridiculously tough ways to make your children fall in love with reading

At Choose To Thinq, we are nutty about reading. So we often get asked: “How do I building a reading habit in my child?” 

Based on our experiences as readers, parents, and uplevelers who study habits, change, and innovation, here are five specific ways in which you could influence the creation of such a habit in a child.

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Tennis Chronicles - the Background

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Our kids started going for tennis coaching last year. I used to look at others and have a comment and an approving look (all to myself) about their technique – all based on more than 30 years of watching tennis on TV. One day when I was watching some of the new students, the coach called me and asked why don’t I join the class? I initially resisted because I couldn’t  be taking up something new at the age of 36, could I? I was also worried if I’d be able to control myself if I actually start playing a sport that I have loved for so many years – would my work suffer? But I decided to allow myself to be seduced and I fell for tennis, hook, line and sinker. It became such an integral part of my life that I just had to go to the tennis courts at least for an hour every day – irrespective of the weather, work or a bad knee.

I also started looking at tennis as an experiment in self-learning and deliberate practice. I’d set small targets for myself before going to the class and see if I’d be able to execute my plans. It was now a game within game and my sense of enjoyment actually doubled. I must have missed more targets I have set for myself than met them. The other outdoor sport that I have played with so much passion is cricket. I once practiced alone for 50 days, just trying to get my yorker right. I am capable of such single minded determination and believe that I can crack a complex problem by dividing into small parts that I can ace this way and then it’s just a question of putting it all together.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to use this approach fully in my tennis practice yet as I end up playing with someone else. Finding a partner who is at the right level has been a challenge – I need the high of beating someone who on his/her day could have beaten me but I also don’t want to battle it out with the more superior players because I theoretically know what I should be doing but clearly, my skill is nowhere near what I’d recommend to a Roger Federer in a blog post (like this). This is very similar to the concept of flow where you have to get the levels of difficulty and the skill just right.

It is fun to introspect on how I play and analyse how I did. Unlike the serve, most other aspects need another player on the other side of the net. I end up losing my rhythm very badly when I end up playing against someone who doesn’t hit it hard enough or plays as if he’s playing table tennis (yes, I had two such players in my batch today!). And once I lose my rhythm, it takes either a week or 30 minutes of practice with the head coach to get back to square 1.

I know I’ll never be playing tennis at the highest level. In fact, looking at the way the sport is played at the junior level (where well-built hunks try to pass off as under-12 participants or a Nike-cap wearing boy calls a shot out on his side simply because he knows there’s no referee around and he can speak in English as against his opponent), I’d not have lasted too long anyways. Yet, seeing some of the older people play at the academy, I feel this could well be the type of physical activity that I could continue till my body allows.

Scott Adams, in his book “How to fail at almost everything and still win big” recommends picking up a daily habit like tennis (where you can see daily improvement) as the key to happiness. Well, the habit’s been picked up. The book also talks about self hypnosis and programming your mind. I did a self-hypnosis bootcamp last year. Now I just need to figure out how not to be reminded of John McEnroe’s joke about Ramesh Krishnan’s 10 kmph serve every time I face a newbie-pretending-to-be-an-expert (like me) and focus only on my game and my game within game. I’ll try to post regularly about my Tennis chronicles – you might be able to use something from here in other pursuits of your life.

Harish is co-founder, Choose To Thinq and Thinq2Win

3 ways to use your vacation to change your life

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vacation

Vacations can be like parole - they can release you from the prisons of old routines where others set rules for you, and let you taste a different kind of life. But if you've just done the usual touristy things, lazed around with bottle and cards, and slept most days in a hotel room, you've missed out on an opportunity to turn your life around.

Here are 3 ways to use your vacation to thoughtfully change your life:

1. Try out a new habit

a vacation is a great time to trial a new habit. According to The Power of Habit, to form a new habit, pick a "trigger" when you initiate the activities in the habit, and find a reward when you complete it. Since you are on holiday and don't have to make breakfast or get ready for work or school, you have the mental space and time to do the hard yards. Also give yourself the luxury of a reward when you complete the routine. Hopefully, by the end of your vacation, you'll have put the roots of a new habit.

2. Finish that great book

Use the long flight or train journey to get through that life-changing book that you could never make time for. Sitting in

3. Thoughtful photography

Everyone has a great camera these days. But many of them don't know how to use them well, resulting in an ugly mass of photos that pollute our info-streams. Learn how to use your photo device (if you follow simple rules of thumb of composition, modes, and techniques, you'll be taking good photos in no time). Click thoughtfully, not randomly.

Sometimes, you should just be paying attention to the real scene in front of you, rather than watching it through a viewfinder. There are millions of photos of the Taj Mahal, so unless you can add something unusual, you are better off just taking a personal moment in its magnificence.

And if you do, you'll have something to cherish forever.

The Power of Habit - Charles Duhigg

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Let's start with the biggest problem with "The Power Of Habit" - its name. It sounds suspiciously like one of those self-help type books that give you wishy-washy solutions to difficult problems. Habits are deeply human and as anyone who has tried to change a habit will tell you, it's incredibly hard to pull yourself out of a habit. So when a book comes along talking about habits, with a title that sounds a little bit like some of the books you would not be seen dead with, you are allowed to be a tad suspicious. 

Except that The Power of Habit is actually a reasonably down-to-earth and useful book. Here's why:

1. It's based on scientific research: the book is in that modern breed that aims to bring the current state of scientific thinking on a topic to lay readers like us. This book looks at what habits are (in individuals and in groups of people such as societies and organisations), describes a simple model to study them, and summarises ways to go about creating and changing habits.

2. Stories: like books in the Malcolm Gladwell space, this drives its messages through lots of interesting stories and anecdotes. For instance, the author describes the US Army as perhaps the biggest habit-formation exercise in history, given how much time and money is spent on training troops to automatically and consistently respond uniformly to a variety of situations.

3. Useful strategies: No, there's no silver bullet or Aladdin's lamp to change a habit. It takes hard work, mental willpower, and the ability to recover from slipping back. However, the book does provide a easy-to-use scaffolding with which to build habits.

All in all, we would recommend the Power of Habit, even if you are the perfect human being with nothing to change, even if just out of sheer curiosity. As with other books, always keep your shaker of salt at hand and question every easy conclusion and seek nuance (which books like these often can trade off when they are trying to simplify the complexity of messy, real-world scientific findings).

For more, visit the official website for the book.