In 1796, Italian distiller Antonio Carpano sat down in the summer heat and took the first sip of his latest creation. He just invented a new aperitif. A lighter and sweeter alternative to red wine. He named the recipe vermouth.
For years aperitifs were used before meals to help digestion. The word even comes from the latin word “aperire,” which means, “to open.” But vermouth became an overnight success. It became so popular in Europe that soon a new meaning for the pre-dinner cocktail was born.
Today, the aperitif is an homage to transition. It signals the shift from busy afternoon to relaxed evening. It is a state of intermission—punctuating the space between endings and new starts. The aperitif is the marketing genius behind, “Happy Hour” and the culprit responsible for the phrase, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”
But the idea of taking a ritual, such as drinking, to punctuate the day goes beyond ice cubes and orange peels.
I recently found myself speeding towards severe cognitive burnout. Too many projects, too little space. The chapters of my day bled into each other. I felt like one long, run-on sentence that scrambles the mind and torments the page.
I needed transitions—alcoholic or otherwise.
Looking at the vermouth stained pages of history, I decided that I too could use some rituals to space out my focus. With a few well-timed pauses, I punctuated my day and started producing clean, clear, and well-written productivity.
JUST NOTE GONE
The good news is that most of us already have mini-rituals sprinkled throughout our day. We grab a coffee before work, scroll facebook after checking email, eat three donuts and sit in shame (maybe that’s just me).
These are not necessarily “bad” rituals. The problem is—we don’t stop to recognize them as moments of transition. They become unconscious habits instead of deliberate shifts in focus.
The author of, The Science Of Enlightenment, Shinzen Young is a meditation teacher that blends mindfulness principles with neuroscience at places like Harvard and Carnegie Mellon. Ask him about the quickest path to enlightenment and he’ll tell you, “Just Note Gone.”
Most people are aware of the moment when a sensory event starts but seldom aware of the moment when it vanishes. We are instantly drawn to a new sound, or new sight, or a new body sensation but seldom notice when the previous [sensation] disappears.
The “Just Note Gone” technique is simple—“Whenever a sensory experience—a sound, a sight, a body sensation—suddenly disappears, make a note of it.”
If the path to enlightenment is hidden in the act of just noticing, then restructuring our schedules isn’t necessary. Using strong mental notes, or physical movements, to punctuate the space between our focus is enough to transition with awareness.
MY RITUALS AND THE POWER OF IDLENESS
Last month I started two large projects, each with dozens of tentacles that strangled my attention. I wasn’t compartmentalizing my blocks of time. When my girlfriend would ask, “How was your day?” I rarely had an answer or idea of just what the hell had happened that day.
My mind untangled once I added dedicated “in-between” time to my schedule. I’d walk around the neighborhood after writing in the morning and before starting other work. I’d listen to the same song over and over to trigger the shift to the next section of my day. A coffee break became more than a caffeine fix, it was a deliberate break on the page—conscious spacing to separate ideas.
There’s plenty of data supporting the notion that “disengaging” can increase brain activity. Andrew Smart, author of Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, says that practicing “idleness” in the brain is essential for increasing “ah ha” moments. The brain has an autopilot, but we have to consciously let go for it to take over.
The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane and let your autopilot guide you.
The key (and hard part) to get your brain’s autopilot steering is to not think about the work that’s been done or what’s coming next. Mini-rituals should require little to no cognitive work.
Mini-rituals can be as simple as standing up and stretching at your desk. Or, you could be a total weirdo like me and do air squats in the parking lot. You can check social media, watch Netflix, or, hell—grab the vermouth.
This isn’t a plea to incorporate “healthy” habits. All I can tell you is what worked for me.
Using dedicated transitions and mini-rituals I was able to shine a light on where my time was being spent. I became able to objectively answer the question, “How was your day?”
NIGHTCAPS AND EXCLAMATION MARKS
In a chapter from his latest book, Deep Work, Cal Newport makes a case for “fixed-schedule productivity.” He goes on to detail his own self-imposed work curfew where he “powers down” every day at 5 pm.
On my mission to punctuate time, nothing had a stronger impact than adding an end of the day exclamation mark.
Newport points out how when people first make a declaration of “no work past x,” they fear they won’t have enough time to finish projects. After implementing the practice, however, the opposite becomes true.
By working backwards to establish habits and block out more “focused time,” most people not only finish their work more efficiently, they get more accomplished.
For the last month, I’ve powered-down right at 7 pm. No writing, problem-solving, or reflecting on the day. Instead of gnawing guilt for not, “getting more done” while watching Billions, I’ve removed the possibility of working at all. That part of my day is over.
Making a strong gesture to power down my problem-solving brain opened up space for real, much-needed relaxation. Now my evenings are for playing guitar, reading, watching movies, and recharging creativity for tomorrow.
Self-imposed nightcaps, mental idleness, and practicing “Just Note Gone” are only a few ways punctuate the day and create more space. Find what works for you and raise a glass to the timeless art of transition. Because hey—it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.