Groundhog Day, New Habits, and Other Restarts


I have committed a cardinal error of blogging: no new posts for two months. OH NO! After building a fabulous community of readers, I allowed other tasks to interrupt my trail of commentaries, images, and ideas on 21st century cities. Now I am asking for redemption, a second chance to win your trust.

Today is Groundhog Day, which also happens to be the title to one of the best movies on errors and redemption. In brief, an arrogant TV weatherman, played by Bill Murray, lives a self-centered existence. He trounces on the feelings of his co-workers and curses his annual mandatory trek to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He scorns the people, the town, and even poor Phil, the prescient rodent. When a snowstorm traps him and his crew overnight, his nightmare implodes.

In short, this TV weatherman is having the worst day of his life. To top it off, the day just keeps repeating itself, over and over, in an endless loop. Same music each morning, same people on the street, same child falling out of a tree. That is, until he gets it right.

Through repetition, improving one act at a time, he finds joy in the day, beauty in the small town, and pleasure in his teammates, especially the TV producer played by Andi MacDowell.

The blind man found sight, the error of his ways, corrected his actions and sought redemption. He discovered grace. By repeating the same day, only changing his behavior and attitude, he finally got it right. Fully redeemed, born anew, he could move on.

Repetition is the beginning of habits and ritual. Ritual becomes myth, the framework of our beliefs.

Now I don’t actually relate to a pompous weatherman. But like Murray’s character, I am asking for another chance to earn your trust. I am committing to regularly post ideas on this blog and ask: Will you join me?

Because, according to Gandhi, ritual and habits build values and even our destiny.

To start fresh, I am devoting this first post to forming new habits for a new plan, and to friends and colleagues who are up for a challenge.

The Power of Rituals

Recently I have pondered the power of ritual, the benefit of habits and knowable patterns. Like a rudder on a sailboat, ritual lets us explore new territories without getting lost. The steady control of known patterns below enables creative spontaneity above board.

“Rituals have the function of celebrating the whole over the part,” says scholar Mary Douglas (Natural Symbols). An ordinary act that carries significance, such as spring planting, is given ceremonial significance by prayer, song, dance or some other type of noted celebration, even, as in “Groundhog Day,” logging a varmint’s shadow. Through re-enactment, the act becomes a sacred act. Our actions weave into a mythic narrative.

What Are Ritual and Habits?

No doubt, as a culture, we are addicted to novelty and innovation. Newness sells. Yet to be able to invent, we need to be grounded. We rely on ritual to know who we are and what matters.

In my mind, novelty and ritual are two sides of the same coin; they complement and offset each other. Novelty expands into the unknown, it’s the power of more; and ritual operates as a familiar, stable pattern, the power of less. Novelty carries risk, an open system; ritual avoids unknowns, a closed system.

Habits and rituals are frequently used interchangeably, yet they are different. Habits are routines of behavior, repeated so that we gain proficiency and can perform them subconsciously. Rituals add the layer of meaning to a set of actions, creating a performed rite. We build a narrative around the enacted ritual. For instance, breakfast can be a habit where we internalize the action, even dulling the senses. Or it can be a ritual of breaking fast, a daily awakening, a rite.

Plus rituals re-enact mythic narratives and inculcate values. When we share these rituals with others, they become social myths and show us how to live.

But don’t let me sell habits short. Good habits pave the road towards any goal. Strong habits become best practices. Daily progress depends on habits.

Repetitive actions, whether habits or rituals, keep us on track, allow us to know what to expect. They organize our lives and enable automatic execution that frees us to meet larger goals, explore, and innovate. They are the rudder that enables creativity and the stabilizers that frame our identities.

To renew my commitments, I need new habits, new patterns of activity that underpin my work, give me a daily plan, and clarify what I need to do first.

What Comes First?

In The Power of Less, Leo Babauta ( ) offers a two-part philosophy towards accomplishing life’s most important aspirations.

  1.  Identify the essential.
  2. Eliminate the rest.

Here’s the nutshell version: Create a list of three goals that will take from one to six months. Large goals are given monthly sub-goals, then weekly and daily tasks, dubbed Most Important Tasks (MIT’s). Each day begins with three MIT’s of which some must relate to large goals.

That gives a blueprint for what I should do first. Equally compelling are his ideas about HOW to get the work done: learn new habits and get into the flow of the work. YES! I agree wholeheartedly, my best work depends on these two gems. 

Changing Habits: The 30-Day Challenge

  • “Focus on one habit at a time, one month at a time, so that you’ll be able to focus all your energy on creating that one habit.”

Excellent! Surely I can stick to one habit for thirty days. That’s doable, right?

My selected habit: work in my new office for thirty days. I have a beautiful garden office but with minimal workspace and loaded with distractions and interruptions. Form over function. Last summer, I built another office upstairs with bookcases, file cabinets, work tables, and pin up space galore. Ready to go. True confession: I rarely use it. Consequently, I don’t get as much done as I could. I know it. Oddly, I love to go up there. But… I don’t. The familiarity of this garden space, its beauty and convenience capture me every day. Upstairs is more, well, closed. On purpose. It’s a workspace, for goodness sakes!

Ok, that’s a huge goal and also Habit Number One. Further instructions are: write it down, post it publicly, report daily, and after thirty days: Celebrate!

The reason the 30-Day Challenge works? Commitment, public accountability, encouragement, and inspiration through small successes and cheers.

That’s it. Simple, yes? You might like to start a challenge with me? If you are ready for a new habit, post it, and we can watch out for each other via twitter and here.

All I have left to do is go upstairs. Tomorrow, ok?

Flow: Just Do One Thing Really Well

  •  “Immerse yourself in the task. Focus completely. Forget about everything else and let the world melt away. Get excited about the task and have FUN!” 

Single tasking occupies major real estate in The Power of Less. Yet it makes sense. If you want to do something well, get into the flow, just do it, nothing else.

Fact is: single tasking is nearly impossible. Temptation lurks. Commitments to write other articles and blogs, give presentations, workshops, attend events and meetings, do twitter, email, music, sketching, phone calls, ten websites open, thirty books on my desk and several projects are littered across the office. Not to mention, personal duties like getting meals, errands, home and personal maintenance, family and friends, volunteer activities, meditating, working out, running, gardening, golf, reading and so on. And that is now that I have a simplified life focused on research and writing. Distractions exist and I multi-task compulsively. And I WANT to do these things. That’s the rub.

The big payoff for single tasking: flow. Flow is when you’re cruising through work, ideas abound and your mind, body, soul are in sync. To get in the flow, schedule big things first. Set aside the daily duties. Begin with a list of 3 MIT’s, make sure each task is doable today, and focus on one exclusively at a time. Declutter the rest, just put it all out of sight. It doesn’t mean you don’t do those other things; many are have-tos and want tos and actually support the big projects. The point is, you just do MIT’s first. Period.

Flow means focusing, being immersed in a project, letting go of time, and forgetting the rest of the world, letting it slip away. Focus on just one thing, and do it fully.

Sounds a bit like self-hypnosis. It may be. Or it may be just the opposite – heightened awareness.

Tomorrow, block out time early. Do not allow distractions, appointments, twitter, nada to interrupt. Start with 3 MIT’s, and pick the most important one, that you’re passionate about. Not too challenging and not too easy; just right to capture your energy.

A friend of mine, Linda Moore, says: put the big rocks in the bucket first, and then add the small ones later if you have time. It’s the only way big rocks fit. That’s my plan.

Only Three Most Important Goals – The Short List

  1. My first claim, to write a book, represents my greatest dream at this time. And of course, I want it to be excellent, worthy of the hours that people, perhaps you, will spend reading it. It needs to be valuable, a substantial effort that significantly contributes to the knowledge we have about cities. Will I be able to complete a final product in six months? Probably not. I believe that I can write a proposal, an outline, and a full first draft. Those will be my sub-goals. Furthermore, that the book gains valid support from a publisher and/or readers.
  2. My second claim concerns this blog. While I have written a number of entries, with many looks, for which I am immeasurably pleased, thanks to you, let’s make this community expand and communicate more. Create a place where you connect with others, seek their opinions and mine, and we talk about the future of cities, architecture, the planet, your life, your dreams and fears of the future.
  3. My third claim involves discipline and habits. My goal is to balance planning/organization, community/communications, and creative production in my daily habits. In fact, my life depends on creating better balance between creativity, communications, and organization. I love to search, find new ideas, twist them to my own devices, and share them. Now I need to focus on the editing and development, while still maintaining the adventure and building community. The first step will be working in the upstairs office.

The possibility of failure looms. And of reward, the potential of making a contribution, and changing how we think about cities and the future. 

Because I really don’t want to write just any book or any blog but one that makes you clap and bothers your sleep and keeps you glued to the writing.

What Are Your Most Important Tasks?

Share your big goals, your MIT’s and I will watch them with you, encourage your progress, ask how you’re doing. Pick your own start date, and then tweet your progress or post it here.

Will you join me? Your comments will complete the circle of innovation. Tell me the ideas that resonate or infuriate you. Your thoughts matter. That is the greatest lesson. And the finest gift – your attention and your ideas.

With these images in mind, I am beginning a 30-day challenge. Each day, I create a list of tasks that will accomplish these goals, and work on MIT’s first. At the end of 30 days, I should have Number 3 completed (or failed miserably), and the other two underway.

Let’s get going!