One of my heroes from history is John Muir. He was an incredibly deep and intelligent man but lived simply. I always associate intelligence with complexity, but I’ve noticed that some very smart people live very simple, straightforward lives. Warren Buffett also comes to mind. “Keeping it simple” gives them depth and the ability to create lasting legacies and impressions because their actions or messages are repeated often and with focused attention.
Muir would stick a biscuit in his pocket and leave his East Bay home, often for weeks at a time. He did not bring along extra water bottles or any special equipment, and explored California on foot, absorbing the experience without any filters or distractions. Through focus and repetition, visiting Yosemite and other places over and over, he knew the land “at his marrow.”
We have all crammed for tests and learned things superficially, only to forget them in 24-48 hours, but through mindful repetition, we learn things at the marrow, for example, childhood prayers.
Being intelligent and spending so much time alone, Muir needed more than the trees and the occasional animal to commune with, and so when he rested, he read. The two books Muir would take with him on his hikes were a volume of Shakespeare and the Bible, so I thought I’d dip into the Bible.
The New Testament of the Bible clearly shows the power of repetition. In the Book of John, for example, similar or nearly identical phrases are repeated over and over between the dramatic elements of miracles and crucifixion. The repetition annoyed me at first–it seemed like so much padding–but then I realized it was probably used to give a poetic, rhythmic quality to the text, making it easier to memorize and hammering home the message.
We can use the example of Muir repeating the physical exercise of visiting Yosemite over and over with focused attention and the example of the written or spoken repetition of spiritual texts, chants and slogans to help us create order in our lives. When you identify something important that you want to learn or achieve, such as how to bake bread or writing a business plan, start by narrowing the focus. Turn off as much outside noise as possible. Then repeat the behavior with mindfulness as often as possible.
When you work on a project, try repeating behaviors that have been successful for you in the past. If you sit at a desk or table, have your computer charged and ready. Have a fresh pad of paper and several working pens. Have good task lighting set up. Consider anything that would distract, anything you might need to not have to get up from your project (like a bottle of water or a fresh cup of coffee or a cord to charge a device). Repeating a ritual that prepares you for work will help you quickly shift into the work mindset and focus.
To learn something new or develop a good habit, you should repeat the habit daily for at least 30 days. If you’re learning to bake bread, that’s a lot of bread, so have a plan for distributing the goods. My mother was a master baker when I was growing up, but then she went to work and didn’t bake for something like 10 years when she was establishing her business. When she attempted to bake a pie the first time after such a long break, it did not turn out well and she was shocked. Although she had at one time had pie baking practically built into her genetic code, after not repeating the skill over such a long period, she nearly lost it.
The good news is, when you have ingrained a skill or habit “at the marrow,” deep into your knowledge and muscle memory banks, you never lose it completely, and the skill or practice will come back much faster than when you learned it the first time. I’m happy to say once my Mom got her baking groove back, my family enjoyed perfectly baked pies for many years until we all decided to eliminate sugar and flour from our diets and she got big time into hiking.
So set your goal, put your gluten- and sugar-free biscuit into your pocket and venture out to repeat the behaviors and skills that will take you in a positive direction.