My father had a habit of loudly “predicting” that a traffic light he was driving toward was about to turn green -- and when it did, he would let out a triumphant “yes!” underscored by a Tiger Woods-style fist-pump. He didn’t attribute these timely light-switches to chance, but to some telekinetic ability he “likely” had.
“What about the 10,000 times you had to come to a screeching halt when it didn’t switch?” I’d ask. He’d respond that lights do turn when he really needed them to.
I swear he wasn’t joking.
Related: 28 Best Habits to Have in Business
As seen with the sports fan who wears the same putrid pair of socks day after day while his team is on a winning streak -- so as not to disturb the divine order of things -- there’s a cave person inside each of us who believes we're creating outcomes that are, in fact, random and beyond our control. Psychologists call it “magical thinking” and a recent study from the University of Cologne, published in the journal Psychological Science, says that some rituals of irrational thinking may give people an edge, mainly by increasing self-efficacy.
But what about the cause-and-effect rituals that actually do serve us well, and reliably so? Recognized as such and nurtured, they can turn into quasi-religious habits that become the rails on which success arrives, time after time.
Wendy Wood, a social psychologist at the University of Southern California, remarked at the American Psychological Association's 122nd Annual Convention how habits form through associative learning: "We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals. We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response.”
Particularly for those of us engaged in creative endeavors such as writing, speaking, teaching and designing, actively searching for those cues and rituals, ones that support a state of mind that can take us from impasse to insight, can yield big benefits.
Take Thomas Wolfe, the early 20th century novelist, who after one particularly fruitless writing session gave up and disrobed for bed. Finding his inspiration had returned, he got on with it and wrote with “amazing ease, speed and sureness,” until just before sunrise. Reflecting on this sudden burst of creative energy the next day, Wolfe realized that the jolt of inspiration came when he was staring out the window, absentmindedly playing with his genitals, producing such “a good male feeling,” that he relied on the technique from there on out to stoke his creative writing sessions.
Similarly, Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, got herself in the mood to write by staying in bed (often in a fetal position, according to her biographer), surrounded by cigarettes, ashtrays, doughnuts and mugs of coffee in the effort to create a pleasurable environment that suggested anything other than the discipline of doing work.
Poet Maya Angelou had her own ritual for being productive. Distracted by the pretty surroundings of her home, she’d made a habit of checking into a nearby Spartan hotel room with a basic bed and a wash basin every morning at 7, equipped with a dictionary, a Bible and a bottle of Sherry. She’d write there until about 2 p.m., when she went back home to take care of business around the house.
Inspired by real geniuses, we can start observing what the circumstances of our own successes are. Reverse-engineer what you are doing and how, down to your physical position along the way. Examine the environment for cues -- from opiates to nutrition to the time of day and your mood to your wardrobe. (I personally work best, showered, shaven and dressed for business.)
Examine everything. Find the pattern. Rinse and repeat.