My last column was about about time in the large. My main message was that it is difficult to plan the big things in life far in advance, but that it was nonetheless important to adopt a ritual of planning. In this installment I invite you to examine shorter cycles of time, and a discipline of time on an everyday basis. If your career is the journey, rituals and routines are the disciplines that keep the ship in shape.
We follow routines because, though sometimes small, they can be essential to our long-term goals. Not brushing your teeth isn’t a big deal but in the long term could lead to losing your teeth, a subsequent poor diet, and eventually, death. Routines are those things we should do almost without thinking. Good routines become a matter of habit. Rituals are those routines that we elevate and celebrate as having social relevance.
Cycles go hand-in-hand with routines and rituals. In The Dance of Life (Peter Smith Publications, 1996), Edward Hall notes that cycles are one of the most powerful organizing principles of human behavior. You brush your teeth according to established cycles: it’s a routine. What are the rituals and routines of a good career? Here are some that are close to me.
Taking stock. In the previous column we talked about updating your direction by reviewing the what's on your plate. Making a routine out of this will increase the chance that it happens. Ritualizing this time celebrates the value of the activity in its own right and may help you gain the support or approval of others. I take an annual celebrated week in the Nordic woods to do this.
Meet with your colleagues. Whether it means just going to work, or the morning standup, or an annual conference, give your colleagues an expectation of seeing you regularly. This is the Fox’s most endearing advice to The Little Prince (Gallimard Press, 1946).
Appreciating others. Write holiday cards. Appreciate your customers and clients, co-workers, and boss. Appreciate colleagues on their birthday.
Take time off. Take time to do nothing and to find rhythms of relaxation. Too many of you who are reading this forget to stop working on weekends. Take some weeks away from the job on an annual cycle. Celebrate annual holidays.
Practice. Give yourself time to refine your talents, both professional and personal. You advance by practice, not by accident.
Write. Writing is crucial to an engineering career. Write regularly. Software great and poet Richard Gabriel taught me to write ritually every morning, exhorting me to write something every day. (I happen to not do it in the morning, but otherwise agree with him.) A diary, technical papers, letters, poetry, a ‘blog: find something to write.
Read. The rapidly arising advances in your field won’t walk up and bite you in the bottom. And no, I don’t mean reading what the dogs write on the Internet. Read good books, good journals, and carefully read the letters of your friends.
Change job or career. As described in the previous article, it’s hard to plan as far ahead as the time between career changes. However, there seem to be cycles even on long time scales. What Color is your Parachute (Ten Speed Press, 2010) describes seven-year cycles. Keep an awareness of these cycles in the back of your mind. You may note they correlate to “interesting times” in your life.
Remember: it’s not just doing these things that’s important. What’s important is to make them routine. The familiar lays a firm foundation for the unexpected.