Why You Need More Rituals in Your Life

Without meaning to I’ve become an ardent fan of rituals. And I believe you should be, too. Before you go out and buy incense and beads understand I’m not talking religion here. We’re talking about the building blocks to building the meaning you want in your life.

This is not a religious practice, but it is a practice you do religiously. 

OK, let me back up.

In the TEDx talk that started this whole thing, I say that people should have rituals for themost important items in their lives. The ritual I described in the talk is my morning ritual. It involves reading, thinking, meditation and silence. That’s one of the times I pray but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that silence and mindfulness mediation have improved my focus, my thinking, my stress levels and my self-awareness. I used the word “ritual” because that’s what it felt like to me. I was stringing together a series of habits into a ritual.

There was a designated time I did this stuff.

There was a predetermined order I did this stuff.

There was an underlying purpose to why I did this stuff.

That ritual was born. In creating it I eliminated some of the barriers to creating and growing a habit. I didn’t have to think, “what next?” I didn’t have to wonder “how long?” I didn’t have to choose how long to do this each day. I really didn’t have to choose anything.

Many fledgling habits die because they don’t survive contact with real life. If every day you’re choosing when to work out or how you’re going to eat you’ll fail because deciding each day becomes exhausting which makes the work additionally tiring. A ritual let’s you focus on the actions you want to take. And not spend time and energy trying to figure out how to do the actions. Here’s a wonderful book on habits for more information.

When you think about it, you don’t want to create a habit. The habit is just the component to create lasting change. Lasting change doesn’t come from willpower or decisions (we’re just not that strong and too many crazy interruptions happen in real life).

Creating habits is a good thing but most of us have history that shows and proves that we’re pretty sucky at creating habits that stick.

That’s why a ritual will save your bacon. A ritual is an established or proscribed procedure for a religious or other rite. While I have many rituals in my life and I follow Jesus, I’m not a classically defined religious a person. In my world, a ritual isn’t automatically “religious.”

The key for us in this ritual thing is that it is an “established or prescribed” procedure. It’s a way of doing something. Most importantly, it’s your way of doing something. A ritual is a formalized routine. In my world I string habits into rituals because the more formalized the action the more I can stay on what I’m doing.

With rituals you’re greasing the groove for habits to stick and influence your life for good.

Remember, a ritual is just a way of doing something. You decide to do it the same way over and over again. Not because you have to do it that way. Not because it’s the only way to do it. Not even that it is the best way to do it. But because this way you choose strengthens the muscle memory, sense memory and pattern memory that make the ritual stronger than a habit.

Here’s a example of a ritual I use for travel.

I travel about half of the year. That’s a lot of airports, hotels and security lines. Travel can make you crazy even when things are going smoothly. And travel seldom goes smoothly. You’re usually a little sleep deprived. Often moving through unfamiliar surroundings. Typically you’re rushed, multi-tasking and trying to track various stimuli (Where’s the shortest TSA line? Have they changed the gate? Where’s the best coffee?). That leads to stress, strain and frustration.

Members of our team who travel with me have snickered at my travel ritual. I park in the same area of the parking garage at SeaTac. When I get to the terminal I stand under the same Arrivals/Departures sign to put my truck keys and parking ticket in the designated gear bag. I pull out the money clip that has my ID, cash and credit cards. I get my ID out and put the clip in a zippered pocket on the outside of my suitcase. I check the gate for the flight and then I’m ready to face the goons at TSA. I do not deviate from that ritual. Sometimes someone has to wait an extra minute while I do my ritual. But here’s the deal. Because of my ritual, I never have that frantic “where’s the parking ticket” moment. I’m never digging for my keys. I never have the “Oh crap, where’d my wallet go?” freakout. None of the minor adrenal surges that are part of travel. I can operate on autopilot while traveling because of my ritual.

In trying to find the right words to describe this, I stumbled on this blog which does a nice job of describing the power of rituals. They mention that a ritual is like a “system.” That makes sense to me. But in my mind a system is more robust and complicated than my rituals. Think about it how you want to but you need a ritual (or system) to make your most important habits stick and grow up into powerful influences in your life.

For more on habits and a decent deep dive into the science of habits, check out this book.

So what about you? Do you have rituals (or systems) that support your most important items in your life? I’d love to hear how it’s going.

Comment to: sthomas [at] wizardofads [dot] com