Building Rituals: The Dilbert Guide to Managing Life

Clocks with gears coming out of them.

(Image by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay)

Every day when I make a cup of tea in the microwave I think of my Aunt Klara.

While staying at her house in New Hampshire years ago, I dropped a tea bag into a cup of water and put it in the microwave. “No!” she (very nearly) shrieked. “You have to microwave the water without the tea bag!” And then she said why … and I think it was something to do with the microwave making my teabag radioactive or something like that. I can’t quite remember.

I keep almost looking this tea bag issue up, but I’ve enjoyed the mystery for more than a decade now. Why spoil it? There’s a small part of me that hopes one day I’ll go retrieve my tea cup from the microwave, only to find that the tea bag has grown arms and legs and a face, and is banging on the inside of the microwave door demanding to be let out.

I don’t make my mind remember that trip to Aunt Klara’s house or wonder why my tea is trying to murder me; it just happens. The act of making tea is a trigger.

Every night, I set up the coffee pot for the next morning. That way, all I have to do is come downstairs and hit the power button. I don’t have to remind myself to do this; the act of closing up the house for the night is a trigger.

Every morning when the kids are here, I get out everyone’s vitamins, the (miracle drug) Flonase (that has nearly obliterated my and Megan’s severe sinus issues — ask me about this if you have sinus problems), and whatever prescriptions Benjamin is on at the moment (reflux, asthma … sigh). I don’t think about getting this stuff out; the act of starting breakfast is a trigger.

When the kids aren’t here, I often forget to take my vitamins and my Flonase. If they’re gone for multiple days, I’m likely to get a sinus infection. Without the appropriate trigger, the ritual falls apart.

Triggers and thoughts. Triggers and rituals. These things are on my mind at the moment.

Dilbert Made Me Do It

I bought a secondhand edition of Tony Robbins’s Personal Power series years ago. (On cassette, no less.) In it, he talks a lot about setting yourself up for success through triggers. The idea is that you can train your brain to feel empowered or focused or virile like a young, sexually mature lion (pretend I said in a growly voice) by hooking up physical triggers. I haven’t listened to this in a while (cassettes!), but I believe he said he hooked up a trigger so that if he touches his left shoulder he immediately sprouts a cape and is able to scale tall building in a single bound.

I goofed around with the idea of creating physical triggers, but like most self-improvement techniques that require focused attention or (gawd forbid) homework, I never really followed through with it.

But I was recently reminded of a workaround for all of that self programming. I can just do what Dilbert does. Or the guy who created Dilbert anyway.

You remember Dilbert, right? Maybe, like me and half my coworkers in the late ’90s and early aughts, you had the Dilbert desk calendar, where you tear off a page a day? (Do they even still make those? Give me sec. Why yes they do. Forgive me. I’ve been out of the office world for a long time.)

Anyway, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, was recently on Tim Ferriss’s podcast (which is consistently interesting for anyone with a vastly curious mind). Adams was discussing all kinds of things I never knew that he knew about. Dilbert is just a small piece of this guy’s existence.

It turns out that Adams is very into creating systems for success. A lot of those systems are built around what he refers to as systems, which are basically schedules and rituals that cut out decision making. For example, he eats the same protein bar for breakfast every day. That way he’s eating a healthy breakfast automatically.

We’ve all heard that Steve Jobs had 80 gajillion black mock turtlenecks so he didn’t have to think about what to wear in the morning. There’s science supporting the idea that people suffer from decision fatigue, so removing decision making from certain parts of your day can boost your overall efficiency. That is, you only have so many smart decisions to spend in a day, so you should ration them and not burn through them standing in your closet in the morning.

This is not a new concept for me … but I just forgot about it in the daily grind of getting through my days. As a person who works from home, scheduling daily life can be really frustrating. If I’m not careful, I can find myself sitting in my PJs at 2:00.

And this year, my kids’ new school starts an hour later than their old school. So I’m starting work later … and I still want to find time to exercise, meditate, and do the kind of writing that I love on top of doing my paid work. Oh yeah, showering and all the grooming that goes along with being female should happen somewhere in there, too. That’s a lot to fit into a day.

So now I’m looking at how I can build in rituals triggered by regular daily events. For example, I was already walking the kids to the bus stop. Now I put the dog on the leash before we go, and right after the kids get on the bus the dog and I go for a two-mile walk. I break a sweat, the dog gets a walk. I’m sleeping much better at night and I feel more energetic. Wins all around. However, if I have to go back into the house for something, it’s too easy to get distracted and go do something else. The key is to make sure I have my phone, the poo bags (bleh), and my sneakers. We even go in the rain.

Now I want to work on coming back and immediately doing some light weight training. (I love 8 Minutes in the Morning by Jorge Cruise. I just do the exercise part — in 6 days, you work through all the muscle groups.) I want to do this every day. I don’t. But sometimes is better than no times. Like I said, I’m working on it.

This also works in the reverse. A few years ago I did a fast (with mixed results). But one thing I learned is that I had built a ritual of stopping for coffee nearly every time I got in my car. And then sometimes I’d get a doughnut or something to go with it. Quite an awakening.

One last thing: After listening to Scott Adams on the Tim Ferriss podcast, I bought his book How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. So far it’s a pretty good read — would recommend for anyone who needs a jolt of inspiration in going for those big life goals (except that Adams will tell you not to shoot for goals, and what you should do instead; spoiler alert: the answer is above.)

Have some pointers for building productivity or health rituals? I’d love to hear them. If you know the answer to the tea bag question, though, don’t tell me. I’m enjoying not knowing.

This post was originally published on my personal blog at AccordingtoTrish.com.

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