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“The Inflexible Routines”

Tennis Ball at Sunset [1]
iStockphoto: 33ft


I was withdrawing deeper into myself, isolating myself from my surroundings, settling into the routines—the inflexible routines—I have before each match and that continue right up to the start of play.

3 July Rafa cover on same page as Jo Rowling cover [2]This is from Rafael Nadal’s [3] sometimes surprisingly candid book, Rafa [2], written with John Carlin [4]. Listen for that light, self-effacing Majorcan accent, our Mediterranean catch of the day, emphasis mine:

I repeat the sequence, every time, before a match begins, and at every break between games, until a match is over. A sip from one bottle, and then from another. And then I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.

Were you moved by our colleague Robin LaFevers’ [5] recent Writer Unboxed [6]piece? Her 3-D piece. On Discipline, Dedication, and Devotion [7].

I was moved. Because she used the Oxford comma in her headline. I may ask for her hand in marriage.

I was also moved, you’ll be relieved to know, for two other reasons:

  1. LaFevers named some of the more elusive, soul-centered elements of our work. They have to do with willpower.
  2. She did it without getting maudlin. Not a single verse of Kumbaya.

[pullquote]It’s about giving free rein to your obsessive and personal tics and possibly unsavory interests. —Robin LaFevers, On Discipline, Dedication, and Devotion [7][/pullquote]

Earlier this month in New York, it was borderline unsavory when some of the commentators at the US Open [8] chuckled at how Nadal refuses to step on a line on the court between points. He always steps over the lines, not on them. Chuckle all you want. He has some $60 million in prize money. Makes you want to step right over some lines, no?

Watch Nadal play for 20 minutes and you’ll be familiar with that trademark series of fast moves he makes at the baseline before each point. Personal tics on parade. He plucks the left shoulder of his shirt. Then the right shoulder. His shorts get a tug. The sweat is wiped off his nose. His hair is pushed back over his left ear. His nose gets another swipe. His hair is pushed back over his right ear. Only after all this will he play a point. Every time. Same moves. In the same order.

Greg Garber at ESPN [9] has written that Nadal looks like a baseball manager sending signals. I think it looks more like he’s genuflecting. Those moves are prayer.

What’s going on out there on the tennis court is a lot like what LaFevers is saying might need to happen at our desks.

She writes about discipline:

You practice discipline for so long that it carves a niche in your life that only writing will fill.

And dedication:

If discipline is the stick, then dedication is a voluntary willingness and desire to reach for the carrot without the threat of that stick.

And devotion:

When we are devoted to something, there simply are few things on earth we’d rather do or spend our time with.

[pullquote]I ate what I always eat. Pasta—no sauce, nothing that could possibly cause indigestion—with olive oil and salt, and a straight, simple piece of fish. To drink: water. — Rafael Nadal, Rafa [2][/pullquote]

Isn’t it odd how impatient we can be with our own “inflexible routines”? As if there’s something wrong with the habits we create around the work that means the most to us. What if the so-called ruts are where we’re safe enough to do the great work?

Everything Nadal describes is part of a routine.

As you may know, he won the US Open this year, after being sidelined by serious injuries—he had to watch last year’s tournament on television during a seven-month hiatus. He has had what S.L. Price at Sports Illustrated [10] calls an “unbelievable comeback year.” He looks stronger than ever, and on hard court, not just on his native clay.

What Nadal shows us about discipline, dedication, and devotion, is that these three dimensions of focused endeavor don’t hold still in a neat progression for us. When you lose a set, it might just be the discipline of those “inflexible routines” that makes you rededicate yourself to turning the match around.

Did you notice how many of the comments following LaFevers’ post here at Writer Unboxed seemed to be about which of these components should come first?

Three excerpts:

No one questioned how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, fortunately.

But what if discipline, dedication, and devotion all shift around us simultaneously?

Then we must shift between and within them. LaFevers writes:

Dedication is the point you reach where you understand that a hard day writing is far more satisfying and rewarding than a hard day at just about anything else. It is also about creating your identity as a writer, seeing what marvelous things you can do with those newly built muscles.

Willpower - white cover - by Baumeister and Tierney [11]Nadal’s devotion plays out its imperative. After winning the Open and beating Novak Djokovic [12] for the 22nd time, he lies on the court, face covered, seconds ticking away, a long time for network television and 23,000 fans and the queen of Spain to wait. But they do. Until his discipline ends the indulgence and stands him back up again.

Nadal writes:

The secret lies in being able to do what you know you can do when you most need it.

LaFevers writes:

Writing should draw us in, either the challenge of it, the puzzle of it, the marvel of it, or simply to have accomplished it.

And somewhere between a tennis court and a keyboard, these two folks are saying the same things to us.

Studies described by Baumeister and Tierney [13] in their book Willpower [11] tell us that discipline is weakened by fatigue from too many small decisions, too many niggling details—dithering over what to wear, when to eat, whether to work out.

The theory here would be that Nadal, 27, is preserving his best disciplinary energy, in part by not making decisions, not questioning the tics or what he’s going to eat or whether he should step on the lines.

“Don’t get into a rut.” What if that’s just an old husband’s tale?

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh [14]
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Not to put words into LaFevers’ or Nadal’s mouths, I’m the one stressing structure here. And not even I would argue that allegiance to an overly strict construct makes any sense.

But when you hear talk about the “joyous chaos” in which creative types are supposed to revel, you’re hearing from people who aren’t creative. The discipline reflected in a few “inflexible routines” can anchor dedication and devotion. I’ve seen a lot of chaos. Little of it has been joyous.

I say step over the lines if you need to.

Go through your obsessive litany of preparation. That silliness may turn sacred any time now.

“Place yourself” in your work. Call down the order you seek in your mind.


There is a subtle re-shifting back from form to content, and the story is the thing. The story becoming the most important thing—the characters, the truth, the world—are all more important to you than your publishing contract, critical acclaim, or sales figures.


For all the passion and work I had invested for so long in trying to make myself as good a tennis player as I could be, this was truly something I had never imagined…I understood that I had made the impossible possible. I was, for that brief moment, on top of the world.

What do you think? Have we put too much emphasis on this “get out of that rut!” business? Is it possible that the repetitive dependability of “the inflexible routines,” even our little tics, may be what we need more, not less? How much routine comes into play in your work? 


About Porter Anderson [15]

@Porter_Anderson [16] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [17], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [18] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [19]