Think about an average day in your working life. Your work might be diverse and include a variety of activities, but, no matter how spontaneous you are, there are some things you will do every day without fail. Some of us enjoy getting a coffee from the same place every morning, while others always like to wake up with a shower.
Whatever your day looks like, rituals are proven to help shape your day and provide structure. You can also use them to improve your productivity or even make you feel more relaxed (1). When you know what to expect and when to expect it, your brain expends less energy and becomes more efficient, leaving more time for problem solving and creativity.
So, why is it that rituals benefit us, and how can we use them to our advantage?
In human civilisation, the use of rituals can be found across history and continents. Many religions recognise the importance of ritual and structure to organise daily life, and to mark important occasions. Athletes are also known for their interesting, repetitive quirks; Rafael Nadal brings two drink bottles with him to every tennis match, and places each of them in the same, specific position to help find his competitive mindset.
Rituals differ slightly from routines in that they have a meaningful intention behind them. When you need to complete something quickly or you have a goal to achieve without too much thinking, you are completing a routine task with little awareness behind it. You might be on autopilot and strive to get it done as quickly as possible.
When you are completing a ritual, you will likely be more aware of the intention behind it, feel internally motivated to complete the task and focus on how you are performing. Of course, we don’t need to pay this level of attention to everything we do, but awareness can help to make tasks more enjoyable and easier to complete.
Legendary tidying expert, Marie Kondo, brings ‘the magic of tidying up’ to our screens on Netflix, and the rituals she follows (such as thanking her home before beginning to tidy it) are rooted in the Shinto beliefs she was exposed to growing up. Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan and built upon ritual-based practices to create a connection between the Japan of today and its ancient past.
Creating rituals, particularly to help with the boring but essential tasks you would rather not do, can also reduce stress and anxiety levels. How often do you find yourself thinking about the mountain of emails you need to reply to? If you have a ritual in place for when you look over them and keep in mind why you are doing it, you save time and energy for crafting responses.
A great place to begin when establishing rituals for yourself is to target aspects of daily life which you find more challenging. Once you have picked an area to focus on, choose a time in your schedule to work on it. Like dealing with the ever-growing mass of unread emails, if you say to yourself when you are going to work on a task, and then allocate the time to do so, you are much more likely to succeed.
The next step is to make sure you include an intention behind completing the ritual. An intention could be to reduce your stress levels, or to ensure you are doing your job to the best of your ability. Understanding the purpose of a task is key, as you will then be able to see why it is beneficial for you, another colleague or your team, and you will naturally be more motivated to do it.
It is also good to make sure you include a reward for yourself once you complete the task, especially if you don’t enjoy doing it much. Your brain will then learn that completing this task results in an activity you enjoy afterwards, which will give you an incentive to tackle it in the first place.
When you are trying out new rituals, it is important not to overload yourself or to take it too far at the beginning. You want each ritual to become a habit, and once it becomes ingrained you will hardly have to think about it, which is the desired effect! However, if you try to do too much at the start, you are unlikely to keep your rituals going and lose interest altogether quite quickly. Aim to try out one new ritual each week, and see how you go from there.
A particularly good ritual to start your day with is to ensure you have a tidy workspace. Having a clean desk makes us work more productively and ready to tackle the other tasks ahead. Most of us wouldn’t consider allocating time for this every day, yet it can significantly reduce stress levels knowing that the space around you is organised. Minimising stress means more mental energy for unexpected problems or difficulties which might come your way during the course of the day.
It is important to mention that there is a spectrum of personality types, and, although there are those who prefer to plan their lives out a little more, and those who love to go with the flow, rituals can help everybody to flourish.
If you are more spontaneous, you can use rituals to facilitate your more creative and adventurous moments - it doesn’t need to be stifling. If you love order and like things organised, the chances are you’re already way ahead of us, but you might need help connecting with tasks on a more meaningful level.
In the week ahead, think about a new ritual you could include to make your time flow that little bit easier.