Rituals for Better Remote Work

How to prime your mind and body to form a habit of high performance

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

In the late 1990s, Alyxandra Savage was counseling heroin misuse clients when she discovered that as soon as they started applying the tourniquet and heating the spoon to dissolve the heroin powder to self-administer the drug, their bodies would already start to prime themselves to receive it, by altering their brain chemistry. She understood then that the ‘natural’ surge of neurochemicals triggered by the pre-injection ritual made it an integral part of a substance dependent client’s habit.

Armed with the skills she acquired helping her clients to kick their pernicious habits and rituals, and replacing them with new, healthful ones, Alyxandra has now found success advising companies on how to improve teamwork and productivity, by focusing on the mental health of individual employees.

As companies introduce policies promoting remote work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, there has also been an increase in social distancing-related mental health issues among their employees, and in the relevance of the application of experiences such as Alyxandra’s in the workplace.

More remote work for the rest of us

There has always been a part of the workforce that works from home. They were typically the people who needed the flexibility to take care of children, elderly parents, a sick spouse, or to pursue a significant personal or volunteer project.

In these cases, it used to be very likely they consciously built the way they made a living around another core set of activities that constituted their primary source of meaning and social interaction.

We also know that for many people, work is an important, if not their primary source of meaning or social interaction. Being the ways of the modern economy as they are, it is also likely that this is not a consciously chosen arrangement.

For these people, a common complaint about having switched to working from home, not only from themselves but also from their family, is that work bleeds into their family time, often with deleterious effects on both work and family life.

You might say that they are not able to know when to stop working, which results not only in inharmonious family lives, but also in lower work productivity as a consequence of the resulting chronic stress the constant need to juggle work, family, and perhaps not meeting the expectations of either induces. Many of the mental issues related to remote work stem from people’s inability to effectively achieve work-life balance.

Which is why we now turn the spotlight to Alyxandra’s work.

Rituals

A ritual prepares your body and mind to perform a task, first by priming it, and then by helping you create a habit.

As Alyxandra tells her clients, the neurochemicals released by the body as a result of the priming effects of rituals are your body’s natural performance enhancers.

A pre-work ritual promotes the release of concentration and stamina enhancing neurochemicals. Then, as you perform the task, you enter the state of flow, which releases its own neurochemicals, linked with feelings of well-being or satisfaction. This is what promotes habit creation. More on that later, under the exercise section.

Finally, the body cannot sustain a state of high-performance constantly without breaking. Hence, you should adopt another set of rituals to promote a winding-down from the high-performance state, into a relaxing or relationship-building state.

Mind hacks

In essence, a ritual is a mind hack that primes your body for the task ahead, be it in a work, family, or social context.

Here are some of the mind hacks that Alyxandra recommends:

The fake commute

For some people, the office commute has redeemed itself from a dreaded time-waster into welcome me time, to either prepare for or wind-down from a day’s work.

Adopting the practice of a fake commute at the beginning, conclusion, or even at both ends of your workday, can help you transition in and out of the work mindset. It can be as simple as a short walk around the block. You can even use the time productively for non-work-related tasks, such as exercise, walking the dog, or buying groceries.

The work t-shirt

People underestimate the powerful priming effect that the ritual of the morning shower and getting dressed for work can have. But wearing comfortable clothes is about the only benefit from social distancing, you may think.

If you are not willing to give up working in sweatpants, there is a middle ground: Pick a specific color and t-shirt or polo shirt model that you only wear for work. Put it on at the start, and change into something else at the end of your workday.

Exercise

As a habit-promoting mind hack, exercise has a special place, as it is a habit in itself, and can help us illustrate the whole process.

The physical effort of habitual exercise regulates the production of the neurochemicals needed to sustain high-performance in a healthy way: Cortisol for increased focus, adrenaline for stamina. And then, when it is time to wind down on the adrenaline and cortisol, you produce endorphins, for relaxing and a sense of well-being, which promotes the creation of habit, and oxytocin, for social bonding.

Exercise is beneficial in itself, but it is also worth experimenting to find out if it works best as a priming ritual at the beginning, middle, or end of your workday.

Success begins in the mind

Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher recites in The Iron Lady:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
What we think, we become.

Or, one might say: We become our rituals.

Read the original article in Medium.

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