The power of rituals: How to build meaningful habits

“You are what you repeatedly do.” — Aristotle

Our future is not shaped by big decisions or events, but by our daily habits. What you repeatedly do — your choices — defines who you become.

Rituals give us a sense of control. I’m not talking about religious ceremonies, esoteric chanting or obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Rather, the more practical and down-to-earth kind of ritual that makes us feel in charge.

Think about a job interview, a presentation in front of a large audience, or a first date. When facing uncertain situations, rituals help us focus, deal with anxiety, or feel more confident.

Rituals increase our performance by turning small, everyday acts into more significant ones. They add meaning and joy to our lives.

The Power of Rituals

Change requires more than a functional approach — no method will work if your heart is not into it. Rituals are symbolic enactments — we engage our emotions and move into action.

We turn to rituals when we are facing a situation where the outcome is important, uncertain or beyond our control, as Bronislaw Malinowski suggests.

The anthropologist discovered that Trobrianders practiced magical rituals when fishing in the open sea — they wanted to ensure safety. But didn’t exercise any ceremony when fishing in the inner lagoon, where they were no sharks.

We usually associate rituals with maintaining the status quo. In religion, for example, ceremonies create a sense of belonging and continuity. Repetition drives familiarity.

Though the nature of rituals is highly emotional, research shows they are more rational than we think.

“We see in every culture — and throughout history — that people who perform rituals report feeling better,” says behavioral scientist Michael Norton.

Rituals performed after a loss help us alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks reduce anxiety and increase confidence.

Studies by Michael I. Norton, Francesca Gino, and colleagues prove the multiple benefits of using rituals even among those who don’t believe in the efficacy of rituals.

Participants had to write about either the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship. Those who performed a ritual after suffering a loss reported feeling both more in control and less aggrieved.

Surprisingly, the majority of the mentioned rituals were neither religious nor communal. Rather, they were personal, private, and occasionally angry. “One woman wrote about gathering all the pictures of her and her ex-boyfriend, taking them to the park where they met, and tearing them up. She made a point of saying ‘even the ones where I looked good,’ which I loved.” — Norton shares.

Additional research suggests that practicing rituals mitigates grief caused by not only life-changing losses but also from more mundane ones (like losing the lottery).

The power of rituals goes even further — they can shape our self-perception.

Seeing Is Believing

“When you compete every week, when you play under pressure daily, you find your rituals to be 100 percent focused on what you’re doing.” — Rafael Nadal

Studies show that superstitious rituals are effective too — we don’t become luckier, but they boost our self-confidence.

People who received a “lucky golf ball” or someone told them “I’ll cross my fingers for you” performed much better compared to others who didn’t receive that stimuli. Superstitious rituals enhance people’s perceived abilities — they motivate greater effort and improved subsequent performance.

Sports psychologists know that pre-performance routines improve focus, execution, and confidence.

Rafael Nadal, one of the best tennis players in history, is full of quirks, rituals, and tics. While they may look like superstitious or obsessive-compulsive behavior, he insists they help him focus on his game. Before every serve, Nadal repeats the same sequence — butt scratch, shoulder, shoulder, nose, ear, nose, ear, right hand in pocket.

As anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff put it, “Not only is seeing believing, doing is believing.”

Tony Robbins believes that movement not only energizes us but changes our state of mind too. He gets himself in the zone before taking the stage — Robbins is known for bouncing on a trampoline to get his body “awake and alive.” The motivational speaker uses rituals to boost his energy so he can keep up with his vast audience.

Rituals kill procrastination — they reduce anxiety and help us launch our projects.

As Francesca Gino, the author of Sidetracked, explains, “If you engage in a ritual prior to a potentially high anxiety task, like singing in public or solving difficult math problems, you end up being calmer by the time you approach the task, and more confident.”

Daily rituals build a positive mindset and drive us it into action.

Rituals Create Emotional Connection

Habits are something that we do without thinking.

We all brush our teeth daily without thinking. That’s the benefit of habits, once we repeatedly do something, we get used to it — the behavior becomes automated. Rituals, on the contrary, are more meaningful — they increase mindfulness.

According to sociologist Robert Wuthnow, rituals are any actions or events that have symbolic meaning beyond their instrumental value.

You’d probably watched the folding of an American flag on a movie. This ritual is not about easy storage or showmanship — each of the 13 folds has a symbolic meaning. The first fold of the flag is a symbol of life. The second fold is a symbol of our belief in eternal life. The third fold is made in honor of the veteran departing rank. And so on.

A ritual is like a celebration — it involves our emotions and full attention.

Rituals are ultra-specific step-by-step instructions that are easily repeatable and help you get a specific outcome. A ritual is something done to prepare for action; a habit is something done repeatedly for the purpose of performing the action itself.

Automated versus mindful acts: Habits develop without us knowing it — after various repetitions, our brain switches to automatic mode. Rituals, on the other hand, are done with deliberate intention and focus. A ritual requires intent and engagement.

Maya Angelou rented a hotel room and removed all possible distractions such as photographs, books or TV. She started working every day at 7 AM sharp. Armed with a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards, legal pads, a thesaurus, and the Bible, she spent hours writing in this carefully designed environment.

Singular versus multiple focused: A habit usually involves one specific action that you do over and over again. Flossing your teeth is a habit. Or drinking water once you wake up. Rituals involve different elements and activities — they include multiple habits.

Mark Twain got into his study early in the morning and remained there until 5 PM. He always skipped lunch, and no one dared to interrupt him — they would blow a horn if they’ve ever needed him. After dinner, he would read that day’s work to his family.

Action-oriented versus system-oriented: A habit is an action that you started at some point, and now continue doing without thinking — it’s action-oriented. A ritual is a sequence of activities — it’s performed in a particular place and according to set progression.

A ritual must have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Take rites of passage as an example. They have three clear phases: separation, transition, and incorporation.

In the first stage, the initiates are separated from their old identities. The second stage is full of ambiguity — they are transitioning from their old identities, but have not yet acquired a new one. In the final stage, the initiates are symbolically incorporated in the new community.

Rituals are habits that have become sacred because these carry a deep meaning to those involved.

How to build more meaningful habits:

1. Rituals increase appreciation

Rituals turn the ordinary into something meaningful.

Toasting before we drink is a common ritual. It doesn’t affect the quality of what we drink, but it makes it taste better. Rituals create a more positive mindset but also increase our attention — we learn to appreciate the whole experience.

Ever feel that you aren’t stopping to enjoy the small things in your life? Build a ritual that can bring together what you enjoy and love with what you have to do.

Rituals increase awareness and appreciation in our daily lives — we stop living on autopilot.

2. Rituals transform the mundane

It’s necessary to create a special space and practice to protect what matters to us. Whether it’s taking a bath, reading a book, practicing meditation or just winding down listening to music, our personal time is precious.

Benjamin Franklin took time to reflect twice every day. Warren Buffett spends 80% of his day reading because it builds up his knowledge “like compound interest.” Sheryl Sandberg feels guilty for leaving the Facebook office when there’s light out, but she promised herself she’d always be home by 6 PM to have dinner with her children.

Frustrated for never having the right moment to do what you want? Design a ritual that will help you protect the space, time, and energy to take care of yourself.

Rituals turn ordinary experiences into sacred ones.

3. Rituals help celebrate life

We are usually so busy that we miss noticing the good things in our lives. Rituals provide an emotional and rewarding way to celebrate good news — no matter how small or big.

Camino Information Services buys an Angry Bird desk plush toy for every new hire — people pick one to fit their personality. Taboola has a sales bell they ring every time they close a new contract. The 6px team has gamified its workflow to encourage completing tasks and create enjoyable conversation — they add a word to a hashtag after completing a significant task. Everyone keeps building from there.

Do you feel like you do not appreciate progress? Create a ritual to remind yourself to celebrate small victories.

Rituals are not obsessive behavior, but a way of celebrating life.

4. Rituals build a stronger community

We cannot change the world alone. Collective rituals are as important as individual ones.

The human megaphone used by Occupy Wall Street protesters was more than an ingenious solution to NYC restrictions to electric ones. It became a ritual for participants to publicly live their values of do-it-yourself sufficiency and collectivity.

Frustrated with people not collaborating? Design a ritual to reinforce the emotional connection between your team — rituals are much more effective than words.

Rituals bring people together around a shared experience.

5. Rituals help us jump into action

A good ritual creates an emotional connection with our tasks. Work doesn’t feel like work, but something more interesting.

Stephen King writes every day of the year — no matter his birthday or holidays. No surprise, he is one of the most prolific authors ever. Ernest Heming followed a strict writing regimen: “done by noon, drunk by three.” He wrote furiously and kept count of how many words he achieved every day. Joan Didion holds her books close to her heart — literally. When she’s about to finish one, she’ll sleep beside it in the same room.

Tired of experimenting with productivity hacks? Build your own ritual. Create an experience that is true to who you are and will create excitement.

Rituals are anything but passive — they move you into action.

Rituals are personal — find and design an experience that fits your emotions and needs, not someone else’s.

Rituals help you enjoy the journey and provide a sense of purpose to your life. They offer a sense of renewal — a time-out from your everyday routine.

Rituals are evolving daily practices. What works today, might not be so effective tomorrow. A ritual is not the destination, but the journey.

Gustavo Razzetti is a change instigator who helps people and organizations create positive change. Author, Consultant, and Speaker on team development and cultural transformation.