I want a ritual that does for skill cultivation what Sabbath does for rest. I want a coherent practice, one which systematically promotes sustained motivation and deliberate practice. I want an established pathway and routines to effortfully move potential blockers out of my way.
This is another post in my series of weekly ritual ideas. See also: Learnday
I took the morning to consider what hinders practice and mastery. Why think in terms of removing blockers rather than promoting tools? Well, people vary in what works for them, and their real problems may not fit the mold I expect. The least a system can do is not tie the hands of intelligent agents who want to solve the problems it's built for—that is my personal variant on 'first do no harm'.
Complex skills barely get anywhere for lack of the basics.
You need to start adding challenge from the level you're at.
You quit a course of mastery prematurely.
This might come from lack of diligence in grabbing reliable incremental gains, or frustration with a perceived plateau, or general pessimism and distractibility.
A chaotic environment confuses your attention.
It competes against what you've decided to focus on, and adds unnecessary noise to your performance.
Decision paralysis ensures you never come to a decision about what to focus on at all
Or at least not one you can stick to in difficult moments.
The setup phase stumps you
You can't move on to actual practice.
You need a timely, relevant improvement signal to follow, whether you judge your own progress or take direction from others. Lack of embodiment or mindfulness can block building your own feedback loops.
Your practice reinforces the wrong skill or bad form.
You might misinterpret which parts of competent examples matter, or have insufficient channels of feedback from reality.
You also might learn habits too narrowly if you never test them in other contexts or conditions.
You flinch away from mistakes and "wasted" time.
You will struggle to put in the work to improve if you spend every second resenting that you're not competent already.
Your mindset or self-image conflicts with trying or, worse, with succeeding.
You can't move forward until you've resolved that conflict sanely.
I like the framing of ritual in Sabbath Hard and Go Home:
"One more useful attribute of the Jewish Sabbath is the extent to which its rigid rules generate friction in emergency situations... If something like the Orthodox Sabbath seems impossibly hard, or if you try to keep it but end up breaking it every week – as my Reform Jewish family did – then you should consider that perhaps... you are in a permanent state of emergency." - Ben Hoffman
Rather than offer solutions in search of problems, I want to shift a context to surface existing problems and remove pressures that disincentive actually trying to solve them.
My sketch of a practice
Remove distractions. Emphasize your intentions. Work first with what's already within your skillset. Suspend sense-of-failure/awkward/waste and try stuff anyways. Decouple satisfaction with practice from satisfaction with absolute performance. Practice task setups. Keep task contexts whole and meaningful. Shorten feedback loops.
It's the concepts that are important, not the specific path people take to achieve them. That said, I did have an idea for one possible implementation.
Start a 10-hour timer
Going room by room, cover all the clutter with plain sheets and clear every surface. Only leave out what you will use that day.
When that's done, do whatever feels appropriate... but whatever you do you must try twice.
When the timer goes off, take down the sheets and put back the items you moved.
Take 5 minutes to reflect on your day.
(Because a lack of context leads to misunderstandings and lost purposes.)
Start a timer to cover as long as you commit to. This whole day will have you make small commitments and stick to them; this is the first. Better if you can display it prominently, like a 7-hour hourglass.
All those irrelevancies you could just ignore? Make them invisible instead. Lay plain sheets over cluttered areas in your home or workroom to keep them out of sight and mind. Clear off all visible surfaces, e.g. tables, counters, beds. Clear the home screens on your devices. Maybe draw your curtains and cover your wall art.
Clear the air of unintentional sounds and smell if you can. Open doors as needed to get fresh air, close windows as needed to block sounds from the street. Put on white noise, apply scent or deodorize, set the thermostat or (de-)humidifier. Silence your device notifications.
Do the same for your mind, if you think it will help. Write whatever thoughts, ideas, worries come to mind in 2 minutes' thought onto little cards of paper. Put your stray thoughts under the sheets with everything else.
Leave nothing laying out, unless you've made a clear and considered decision to use that day. No plans are invalid—"stare at this object for a while" totally counts as a thing you can prioritize iff you want to—but take care not to collect more intentions than you can act on. You may leave out mirrors and clocks—or objects that similarly provide continuous, relevant feedback on your actions.
Deciding how far to take The Clearing will get tricky in some cases. I intended for it to bring those problems to a head. If you're on a tight schedule, you want to prioritize the changes you make and what places you need them in. If you switch between environments often, you want to decide how much setup effort to spend at each one. If you spend lots of time in a place you don't get to rearrange at will, you want to consider how that changes what you work on there or how long you stay. If you need to keep things looking professional or guest-worthy, you want to think of things like using fancy room dividers instead of sheets. You might converge on keeping a pre-established Practice space easy to setup, and maintaining a set of tools there for making incremental progress on your long term goals.
With that done, everything you work on today you will try an even number of times. If you do something once, you do it again. If you do something three times, try for a fourth time. It's basically up to you what you count as a discrete task, and what you count as trying again.
Possibilities and examples
You might put everything back as it was and start over.
Go to the store, go back home, go to the store again. Pull out an instrument to practice, put it away, pull it out and practice it some more. Write a page, open a blank page and rewrite it from scratch.
You might divide your day into blocks of time and spend every other block doing approximately the same activities as the last.
Timer goes off and you remember writing some code, sneaking snacks from the kitchen, and browsing funny cat pictures. You write some code, grab more snacks, and look at funny cat pictures. You set another timer
You might decide on specific activities to do and incorporate both instances into a whole day plan.
Listen to a podcast in the morning, listen again in the afternoon. Make the same meal for dinner as for lunch. Work through some backlog stuff, take a break, clear some more backlog. Call your friend to talk about plans, call them later to confirm they're still on for it.
You might split a task into many little pieces and aim for doing even numbers of them
Wash pairs of dishes at a time, count your steps or distance, speak in couplets, buy even quantities of groceries, read pairs of of pages.
You might create elaborate Trigger-Action chains to more arbitrarily satisfy "trying again".
You could technically repeat the high level action of "think of a thing to do then do it" all day long. Do what makes sense for you.
Yes, repeating a one-off after you got the result you wanted gets awkward and retrying in general looks clumsy. Yes, your extra efforts may not create any useful outcome. Yes, it will probably take more time. I intended this. When do you value self-improvement enough to actually spend resources on exploring and iterating? How much leeway do you usually give yourself to handle genuine errors and unprecedented delays? What skills could you improve if you gave them more focus than you currently do? Where do everyday tasks cause you the most trouble, such that you dread doing any more than strictly necessary, and can you make those parts easier?
When your day's timer goes off, remove the sheets and put moved items back. Reflect on your experience.
h/t to lahwran, Xer Rowan, and Carrie for reading over my drafts
Do you have a "stupid" question? A wishlist of what someone would write?
What impressions or sensations came up as you read? How thoroughly did you read/consider it and why?
Can you see any potential inferential gaps? How big? Where is the gulf widest?
What best makes a person qualified to speak on skill mastery and ritual?
Is this something you would do? Is it like or unlike things you already do?