Habits over rituals

Gretchen Eng


February 1, 2021

I’ve been really into the idea of habits lately.

What started as predictable January self-betterment snowballed into a month-long fixation, aided by this episode of Hidden Brain and a week-long dalliance with the Noom app. I guess I’ve decided to solve the zeitgeisty feeling of helplessness by structuring my endless ‘free time’.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to train myself into more productive behavior. Before the pandemic, my attempts looked like ten or more to-do lists housed in unsaved Microsoft Word docs on my desktop.  Because of this, I’ve learned I’m the sort of person who will first prioritize activities that are socially incentivized, meaning they’ll result in getting to hang out with people I like OR said project will improve someone’s social impression of me. Any effort that serves my own self-interest is always much farther down on said to-do lists. I feel like many improvisers have this in common, and I’m always pettily frustrated upon meeting someone who is both a generous teammate and also invested in their own storytelling/videography/TikTok persona/whatever. I wish I could do that.

Though I’m not always generative, I am always self-concerned. I try to control how people think of me, despite however many times Jacqueline (my therapist) tells me it’s impossible. Therefore, I think most habits I successfully maintain from day to day are geared towards maintaining how I’m perceived: religious adherence to skin care, self-flagellating exercise, and a Pavlovian tendency to check Instagram first thing in the morning. It’s embarrassing to write all of this, especially because one of the things I’d rather you think about me is that I lead a c’est la vie, water-drinking sort of lifestyle. Not that you would ever believe it.

I’m also really big on rituals, or traditions, whatever you want to call them. This is nothing new. Rituals are my control-freak, first-born-child way of insisting that everyone do the same thing- and like it. A Devil’s Daughter teammate once gave me the nickname “General Christmas” because of my militaristic approach to the holiday season. My family is required to sit quietly in the living room and listen to me read The Gift of the Magi aloud, there are only a few acceptable places to pause It’s a Wonderful Life, and we put out precisely NINE carrots on Christmas Eve, even if my poor father will put them right back in the fridge after we’ve gone to bed.

No matter what the tea ads in my revolving queue of NPR podcasts say, I’ve never thought of rituals as something you do by yourself. I don’t greet the dawn while sipping Earl Grey, I drink black coffee as fast as possible while staring at my inbox containing 5,000 unread emails. Rituals are things you do with other people; you have a communally agreed upon choreography in the hopes that you can all get on the same page about something. I think there’s even an unsaid pact between participants that their presence in a ritual indicates their fondness for one another. Or at least, a begrudging but loving complicity, like a kid home from college being dragged by their parents to church.

How fortunate to land on a team that seems to embrace the “power of ritual” as much as Devil’s Daughter does (and not in the exploitive and exclusionary Del-Close sense of the phrase). During car trips, on stage, in stairwells, we have a strict adherence to our own traditions. Whether welcoming a new member, which involves teaching them our own painfully complex, Creed-inspired version of Zip Zap Zop (“Scott Stapp Zop”), or touching all the doorknobs in the near vicinity 50 times each before we perform, our rituals feel like the living manifestation of inside-jokes. It gives someone like me untold amounts of joy to be in a socialistic friendship circle of talented individuals all pulling in the same direction. It’s the one place where I don’t always feel like the lame kid at the sleepover or the demanding big sister (well… maybe not 100% of the time). Contrary to the performing aspect of what we do, I feel like Devil’s Daughter grants me a vacation from worrying about how I present myself.

But… we don’t get to be in the same room anymore. There’s no van we can safely pile into, no stages to share, not even a guaranteed physical place to perform on the other side of the pandemic. Almost everything about our practical identity as a team has changed, including what our rituals look like. I know I’m not alone in darkly thinking the question, “will we ever perform together again?” There’s been a seismic exodus of talent from Chicago over the last few months, and for someone who just wants to return to the traditional happy place of being together, it’s a scary time.

And yet, we’re doing okay! I don’t think it’s too self-congratulatory to say we took an uncertain situation and made it work for us in ways that are exciting and true to the spirit of this team. How? Devil’s Daughter has always relied on the rotating willpower and efforts of a few members at a time, but as anyone who schedules rehearsal space for their indie team knows… that model doesn’t last forever. I’ve had so many students at the start of their journey ask me how to set their team up for success and my answers have always varied widely. But I now feel confident in telling you this; establish good habits in which everyone can participate. Set regular times for rehearsing, catching-up, and having those important talks about comfort level, artistry, and commitment.

Devil’s Daughter agreed to a Tuesday night, 10:30pm show for years (thinking about that makes me yawn) just like we agreed to a weekly Sunday evening rehearsal from the start. We didn’t perform the Harold because it’s the ritualistically perfect incarnation of long-form improv; we just made a habit of practicing it twice a week and it worked for us. Nowadays, these habits look like our Tuesday night virtual “business meetings,” happy hours, and deadlines to respect our teammates’ workflow. We also agree to habitually reexamine our team’s work and make sure it’s aligned with our shared values of creativity and community. I’m shocked to realize that these habits are not just sustainable - I actually like them just as much as the “rituals” that came with so many intricate, setting-dependent bits and behaviors. In this collaborative art form, habits are an egalitarian way to sustain agreement when you’re offstage and, if anything, my love for my teammates has only increased since last March.

Conversely, maybe I can start to apply my ritualistic tendencies on more of a personal level and give my poor family and loved ones a break. If I can approach those habits that are harder to cultivate (drinking water, meditating, and maybe even doing something generative, like creative writing) as spiritual pacts with myself rather than to-do list items, I think I’ll make Jacqueline proud at the very least. And the irony of dedicating myself to mindful self-practices just so I can win the approval of my therapist is not lost on me, don’t worry. If you're reading this, I love you Jacqueline. See you Tuesday morning.

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