We are, therefore we think. There’s a lot to be said about mind over matter, but most of the time it’s our habits that define us. So if you want to change how you live your life, you need to change how you live your days.
What are your rituals?
Rituals are habits with consistent triggers. You check your phone first in the morning because you’re groggy and laughing at the pictures your cousin posts helps you wake up. You flip on the TV after work because you want to turn your brain off for a while. You walk all the way to the other coffee shop during lunch, because you need a breath of fresh air.
Rituals aren’t inherently good or bad. Some people like to define them as ‘ritualized intentions,’ while I like to see them as ‘big twitches,’ to borrow Anthony Ongaro’s favorite phrase. They’re things that you do consistently and automatically, but to some degree consciously.
How can you build them?
If you’re big into habit building, you’re probably familiar with The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and the three R’s of habits. If you’re not, I’d recommend checking out James Clear’s summary of the idea.
Just as habits are build on Reminders, Routines, and Rewards (and alliteration), so are rituals. They’re just longer, as we mentioned before, and are often used to bookend our days. Morning whiskey, evening coffee, lunch break arguments with the pigeons in the courtyard; ostensibly restorative things that, no matter how effective they are at keeping you emotionally and psychologically anesthetized, might be due for some renovation.
I’m big on ritual, because it helps me get into (and out of) my productive mindset. By beginning and ending my work in a specific way each day, it helps me maintain the focus I need to do my (occasionally long and grueling) day job. Rather than relying on stimulants or media to keep myself comfortable, I rely on rituals to keep my head in the game.
Duhigg’s approach is a solid one: use or re-purpose the things that trigger your unconscious rituals (your ‘reminders’) for new habits and practices. You know how your mornings cascade from one mind-numbing distraction to another? Pick that apart — what starts it? Find the things that you do every day, (get up, take a shower, eat breakfast, etc) and use them as starting points for new or better rituals. Attach intentions to them, add in a morning walk or a stretching routine; take what you already do, and make it better.
Start with small habits; don’t try to launch into full-blown morning routines without time and preparation. When you wake up first-thing and grab your phone, open up NPR One instead of Reddit. Get your feet on the floor and move a bit, instead of sitting and scrolling, and then continue with your usual morning. As you get comfortable with these new habits, add more. Over time you’ll be able to string these individually-beneficial things into rituals that can change your day.
Hard Reprogramming vs Soft Reprogramming
There are two ways to hack your brain, and understanding both of them is important to building long-lasting rituals. I will always recommend you try to use the second of these two options, as I’ve found that doing things the ‘hard’ way doesn’t work well for me.
Hard Reprogramming is when you use an external block to keep you from doing something. You install an app, download an extension, or physically prevent yourself from interacting with whatever you have a habit of messing with. You don’t do anything with the trigger or the reward, but instead try to cut the routine itself out of your life.
Soft Reprogramming, on the other hand, is essentially built on the foundation of what we’ve already described. Rather than attacking the habit or the vice itself, you change how it fits into your life by reassigning its triggers or creating new sources for its reward.
If you’re reading this article about rituals and think it’s still a faff, look at it in the light of the hard/soft dichotomy. It’s your call for what kind of reprogramming to use. Some people can will their distractions away, some people can’t. But the point of building rituals into your day isn’t just to surgically remove something bad from your life; the idea is to produce long term changes in your stress levels and productivity.
No matter what route you take to tackle your rituals, though, it starts with honesty. Take the time to sit down, reflect on what you truly do with your time, and identify if the time you spend is spent in a way that you agree with. There might only be a handful of small things that you can identify offhand, but they may be a part of a larger string of unproductiveness that needs to change. If you’re not honest with yourself, it won’t matter how much hard programming you set up; your rituals won’t change.