Rituals are the key to meaningful progress

June 2016

Dedicating sacrosanct time to ensure meaningful progress is hugely rewarding, writes Jason Fox.

Just pause reading this and have a look at the date today. Can you believe how quickly the months have flown by?

Most cannot. We find ourselves perpetually surprised by the passage of time. Months go by and we still haven’t progressed that important piece of pioneering work. We’ve been busy and we keep saying we’ll get around to it, but other urgent things always seem to crop up and so we don’t. 

Part of this is due to the default view of most of our productivity tools (whether they be calendar apps, task managers, diaries or wall planners) presenting a day, a week or a month. And so our focus becomes contained within those parameters — we think in terms of daily, weekly or monthly priorities, and therefore struggle to progress our quests and the bigger projects that matter. 

Rituals change this. They are the sacrosanct time we dedicate to ensuring meaningful progress. But how do we go about creating such rituals? When do these sacred routines occur and what purpose do they serve?

Momentum in context

A few things are going on with this model. Let me explain its parameters and then we’ll get into the juicy bits relevant to leading a quest.

Firstly, you’ll notice that the model represents a number of time contexts — from daily through to weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly and decennially. Each of these contexts nests potential rituals of differing activity and focus (which we’ll get to soon). 

These time contexts are mapped across a spectrum — from specificity to fuzziness. This is almost like exploring Google Earth, where you can start in a detailed street view, and then zoom out to suburb view, city view, state view, country view and planet view. The more proximal the focus, the more specific and detailed we are. The more distal, the fuzzier things get.

Some businesses get this important spectrum totally mixed up. Instead of embracing the sheer complexity of an uncertain future, they attempt to deny it by manufacturing specific distant goals. Some will go as far as putting specific numbers to it. Not only does this hobble your ability to adapt along the way, but the emphasis on narrow, distant outcomes can also make how we can progress towards these goals unclear — particularly if progress requires us to challenge our own defaults. It’s akin to a motivational speaker asking high school students to visualise exactly where they want to be in 10 years’ time. "What job will you have? What car will you drive?" I’ve heard a speaker ask. Erm, I think. There are going to be entirely new industries in 10 years’ time — the likes of which we can barely perceive right now. Let’s not rob ourselves of the ability to adapt.

Contextual momentum keeps our thinking and our activity in context. It serves meaningful progress, providing specific actions while preserving the ability to adapt.

You’ll notice three lenses by which we view each time context.

  • The WHY lens extends across all time contexts. This is where we connect our activities to purpose and meaning. When we stop and think, Wait — why are we doing this?, we are returning to the bigger why. This is powerful in any given moment or time interval.
  • The WHAT lens is generally useful from the daily to quarterly level of focus. It’s here that we determine our experiments and projects that matter, and what our mission critical actions may be. In some businesses, extending this lens to a yearly level may be prudent — but in many cases what is important changes faster than we may think. A quarterly focus encourages us to maintain the pace and balance thorough thinking with faster learning.
  • The HOW lens is useful at the daily and weekly level and frustrating or unnecessary at any other level. Have you ever been in an annual strategic summit where people find themselves debating tactical issues at the micro-level? It’s just not really that helpful within that context. Likewise, if you’re struggling to make meaningful progress at a daily or weekly level, connecting with your bigger "why" may help — but it may also be helpful to identify the friction that’s getting in the way, or to change your methodology.

Righto! Having now paced through our framework for contextual momentum, let’s drill down. 

We’re going to explore rituals that serve to integrate pioneering leadership into enterprise culture, and assist you in progressing a quest. But! We’re not going to pace through this in a logical, sequential manner. If only meaningful progress were that neat! First, we’ll start with yearly rituals you can adopt and adapt to your context. Then, we’ll explore quarterly rituals, followed bydaily, weekly, monthly and decennially anchored rituals.

Yearly rituals

Here are some important rituals that should be performed at least once per year. Such rituals are more concerned with bigger, contextual questions and longer-term strategy and purpose. But don’t be fooled by their relative infrequency — this infrequency (when compared to other rituals) doesn’t mean they’re less important. Quite the contrary: each of these recommended rituals is so important that the time and effort required to do them well is what precludes them from greater frequency. 

Ideas include choosing one word for your year (as an individual and then as a team) and setting a theme for the year, doing a strategic offsite, attending a big conference, putting on something memorable for your clients.

Quarterly rituals

Your yearly rituals provide a meaningful context and purpose for your quarterly rituals. Of all the time signatures in our framework for contextual momentum, the quarterly rituals require the most deliberate attention.

Across all productivity and time-management tools, you rarely have the option to view time from a quarterly perspective. And so days, weeks and months fly by — and, before you know it, another year has passed in which we haven’t progressed any of the pioneering projects that matter.

Quarterly rituals keep us on track with the what in service to the why

Ideas include declaring three experiments to conduct in your business, having a mini strategic offsite (to ensure you’re still on track with your most important projects), hosting your own mini event (like watching TED talks with your team).

Daily rituals

Yes, we’re doing a jump here — from yearly rituals, to quarterly rituals, to the routines you hold sacrosanct each and every day. Naturally these will differ for everyone. And where most other rituals are group activities, most of the daily rituals suggested here can be undertaken as a solo act.

Ideas include a meta-morning ritual (identify the actions you can take that are most conducive to meaningful progress, and plan to achieve them before 2pm), reviewing a curated feed (use an app like Flipboard), tracking gratitudes.

Weekly rituals

Righto, now we are in the territory of things that would be wonderful to do daily — but just probably aren’t feasible. We can’t escape the fact that at least 80 per cent of our work will still be the default, business-as-usual things that must be done. But if you are able to embrace these small-team rituals, your work will be much more pioneering, and much more conducive to meaningful progress.

Ideas include identifying friction (the things that get in the way of meaningful progress) and reviewing progress (a reflective activity with your team at the end of the week).

Monthly rituals

Righto, now we are at the monthly interval. These things need to be scheduled in the calendar — they’re too infrequent to be in the rhythm of, and not big enough to make a fuss of. But our monthly rituals are part of the thread that connects all of the things we do to meaningful progress. 

Ideas include tracking alignment (reviewing experiments and failing/quitting them where needed), reading a new book and sharing insights with your team, writing a newsletter for your clients, having a long lunch with someone interesting.

Decennial rituals

And now we are well and truly back in the land of the fuzzy. If you don’t know what the future holds, or what the meaning of life is — great! No clear answers are possible anyway — just keep searching.

I’m not sure that rituals can be sustained over decades, but one thing that is a useful concept to keep in mind is the sabbatical. At some point in your career — and I’m speaking to you, as an individual leader outside of the context of your enterprise — you’ll want to embark upon a sabbatical. Take three to 12 months away from your normal work. During this time, your sole focus is to reflect, gain perspective and explore. 

The key is to disrupt the default

By crafting rituals we are deliberately carving out time against the grain of busyness (and the default thinking it brings). These rituals ensure that your business is not merely being efficient and productive but also effective and progressive.

Make time to change your frame so that you can change the game.