Rituals, Habits and Behaviour Change

I’m currently reading a book on rituals aptly called Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. It’s fascinating to peek into how famous creative people have built rituals into their work day to support their focus.

So what are rituals?
Rituals are symbolic behaviours done by choice and backed by practice. Any behaviour or set of behaviours that you do over again to support your work or personal objectives is a ritual. Rituals are like habits. Those who keep to rituals know they are important and key to cultivating a daily creative rhythm.
We all know about religious rituals, but what about your day to day work rituals. Do you appreciate the value of the workday rituals you already follow?
Here are some examples of a few people mentioned in the book:

  • Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) American author, poet and art collector — Wake at 10am, drink coffee, has a bath, does some writing, then heads outdoors to look at rocks and cows between writing some more. She was happy to write for half an hour a day, noting that a life time of writing would amount to a volume of work.
  • Haruki Murakami (b.1949) Japanese author — Wakes at 4am and works 5–6 hours straight. In the afternoon he saves for exercise, errands, reading and music. Every night he retires at 9pm. He sticks to this routine religiously.
  • Stephen King (b.1947) American author — Starts the day working at 8am and writes until 11:30am or until he reaches his goal of 2,000 words. The afternoon is reserved for naps, letter writing, reading, TV watching and family time.

These people and others use rituals to focus and ‘trick’ themselves to do the work. Also interesting to read is that they know their best time and worst times to work and use their time accordingly.

Do you know your best time of day to focus on a particular job? Do you know the time of day when you’re less effective too? Knowing this makes all the difference to achieving something productive. Use your quality time to achieve your ‘big ticket’ items and use your less effective thinking time to achieve the less significant (but still necessary), mindnumbing tasks.

Why rituals work
Rituals support habit and focus. Rituals support you to repeat habits and create new behaviour patterns over time. Daily rituals can support you to make new habits stick. You can move from doing something that might take a lot of effort, to it becoming almost automatic or done unconsciously . For example, if losing weight is a new habit you want to cultivate, your new ritual might be to eat meals from a smaller plate. The change to a smaller plate will limit the food you can put on it and done consistently will change the quantity of food you eat. It’s a subtle change but one that will support weight loss.

A habit you might already have is your exercise routine. Do you just do it, without thinking, just get up and go? With any task, keeping a routine is a good way to commit to the activity so you are less likely to weasel out of it. Routines support your practice. Practice support your goals.

The more you do something in an automatic way then the more ingrained the behaviour is or becomes. This is also interesting to note from your employees’ perspective. When they are so used to doing their work a certain way, and then you ask them to do it differently, they are likely to object or have a natural response to avoid the routine. Changing routine involves changing behaviour and is best done with the will of your people supporting the change.

How long does it take to form a habit?

In 2010, Philippa Lally undertook research that showed it took an average of 66 days to form a habit. This average is a bit misleading as for some it only took 18 days and at the other extreme it was 254 days. Where you fall in this range is unique to you. She found people would show an increase in the automaticity of the behaviour and then would hit a plateau. The results showed if you consistently kept up your ritual you were more likely to maintain that habit. However if you missed a sequence of days, then your habit would take longer to stick because you were not in automatic mode.

The moral

So remember, performing simple rituals is the best way to achieve a new, desirable habit. The smaller the initial change the easier it is to keep. Once you find you have achieved one habit you can then create another set of rituals to go the next step. It’s exactly like eating the elephant, one bite at a time.

Small changes in behaviour cascade into bigger changes over time.