Habits, Routines & Rituals
You can tame the CHAOS with minimal brainpower!
Systematically developing new habits, routines and rituals is a critical step in learning to be a Relaxed Leader. Likewise, critically evaluating existing habits and routines provides important building blocks for leaders-in-training.
In this Masterclass, I’ll attempt to (1) explain the core concepts involved; (2) ensure you understand their importance and why they work; and (3) provide you with the two elements you will need in order to build and improve your own habits, routines and rituals!
Part 1: Building a Solid Foundation
Our minds are already doing their best to bring order to the chaotic world around us. That’s why we easily develop habits – things we do with very little conscious thought – and repeat them over and over again. You get up in the morning and use the restroom. When you walk into the kitchen, you immediately brew a cup of coffee. These small habits develop over time and eventually don’t require any willpower and very little effort to do them. It’s a fundamental way our brains help take care of common tasks with minimal focus and energy.
Sometimes, a group of habits can naturally evolve into an organized series. You get out of bed, put on your slippers and robe, use the restroom, go to the kitchen a make a cup of coffee, go back to the bathroom and shave, shower, brush your teeth, floss… you get the picture. Chances are you’ll end up doing the same series of habits in the exact same order until you can do the entire series without thinking. This is called a routine; and routines go even further in creating a stable foundation from which to operate. If there are things that we have to accomplish each day, then it makes sense to do them in a way that requires the least amount of thought and no willpower. We don’t want to wear ourselves out on simple things!
Break a Routine and Chaos Returns!
We generally think of habits as developing on their own because our minds tend to create them for us subconsciously. Brain chemistry supports this process because we get a little shot of dopamine by completing even a simple task. Our brains learn to guide us to complete certain things without much thought. Once the little feeling of accomplishment no longer occurs upon completing the task, doing it has become a habit. Once it’s a habit, we feel a little discombobulated if we don’t complete it. If you’ve ever started doing a routine, completed a task differently for some reason, and then found yourself getting a bit confused – or skipping a certain task/habit completely – then you know what I’m talking about.
For example, when I’m getting ready to leave the house, I go into my office and do the exact same thing every time. I grab my phone from the charger and stick it in my back pocket. I step over to the cabinet and grab my wallet with my left hand and put it in my left pocket; my right hand puts my keys in my right pocket. My earbuds go in my breast pocket, my bracelet goes on my right wrist and my watch goes on my left wrist. It’s the same sequence every time and I don’t even think about it. Most of the time, I barely remember doing it.
One day, my son and I were heading out and, as we were driving away from the house, I noticed I wasn’t wearing my watch. How did that happen?! Thinking back, I realized that I had broken my routine. Instead of putting on the bracelet that I had been wearing, I picked out a different one before starting my routine. That caused me to walk past my phone on the charger. As I was grabbing my wallet, I thought about the phone and went back to the charger. By that point, my routine was shot. I had to think through every step while I was scrambling to grab stuff because we had to get on the road and my mind was already focusing on where we were going and what we’d be doing… and I forgot to grab my watch. I broke my routine and missed an important step!
Intention & Focus Turn Routines into Rituals
Routines can be very powerful but they can also be detrimental. It all depends upon how they evolved. Unintentionally string a bunch of bad habits together and the resulting routine is even worse. But bring intention and focus to a routine and you create something designed to be positive and good for you. We create rituals by adding focus and intention to the power of routines to achieve a certain outcome.
When we introduce positive rituals into our lives – rituals designed to move us towards our goals – we create a stable foundation for everything else we set out to do. Rituals help us complete many critical tasks without needing discipline or willpower. They allow us to harness the power of habits and routines using focus and intention. Rituals give us the boost we need to gain momentum. Rituals also let us spend our time and mental energy on complex matters that require more thought and creativity.
Part 2: Rituals are Critical to Success
I’ve said that systematically developing habits, routines and rituals is very important when learning to be a Relaxed Leader but it’s really important to understand why. If you don’t understand why these tools are important and why they work so well, then you won’t be committed to implementing what I’m sharing with you. All of this will just be more advice to file away in the back of your mind and try out someday. But “someday” isn’t a day of the week – it only exists in a mythical land where unicorns fart rainbows and ice cream helps you lose weight – so don’t count on it.
So pay attention to the WHY behind the WHAT and it will help you figure out HOW to take control of habits, routines, and rituals with life-changing results!
Rituals Reduce Uncertainty and Increase Our Control
Psychologists have studied superstitious rituals among professional athletes and discovered some amazing things. Skeptics can scoff at the superstitious rituals that many pro athletes have created (Michael Jordan wearing his North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game comes to mind) but science doesn’t scoff.
Studies show rituals definitely enhance players’ confidence, increase the effort they put forth, and ultimately improve their performance. Superstitious rituals impact players similarly to pre-performance routines, which increase attention, improve execution, raise confidence levels, and increase emotional stability. Social scientists and psychologists have even noted that many cultures use rituals before doing unknown or dangerous tasks.
If rituals increase our attention and improve execution of tasks, then it’s not surprising that our confidence goes up and we feel more emotionally stable. This explains why performing rituals with an intended outcome in mind helps us achieve those results. Even though science hasn’t proven a direct causal connection between ritual and desired outcome, it’s clear that rituals reduce uncertainty and make us feel much more in control of the situation.
Rituals create a virtuous cycle of success
One powerful characteristic of rituals is that they build upon their own success. I create a ritual using intention and focus, which improves my attention and execution. This builds my confidence, which stabilizes my emotions and allows me to be more attentive and execute even better. My confidence increases yet again and I’m even more emotionally stable, and the cycle continues. The more I perform my rituals, the more effective they can become. The more we use a ritual, the more effective it is because of this virtuous cycle of success.
It’s important to note that the intention of producing the result appears to be the key. That’s why I’ve been saying that rituals are created by taking a routine and adding focus and intention. In fact, bringing “intention” to even simple, everyday rituals makes them surprisingly effective.
Part 3: Creating Intent and Focus
Habits are the building blocks of routines. It’s likely you have plenty of routines that have developed on their own as you’ve just unintentionally strung together groupings of habits. If a routine is made up of good habits, then the results of the routine should be good but that doesn’t mean it’s a “good routine.” A good routine is one that’s built with good habits that are organized for ease and efficiency. Of course, if you’re going to reorganize the habits in a routine to make it easy and efficient, then why not go a step further and turn it into a ritual?
Intent and focus are the two factors that turn habits and routines into full-fledged rituals. Intent can be tricky to understand though because we want it be specific in nature but general in its impact. Obviously, the habits that are pulled together and organized into a ritual are always the same, but the overall purpose of the ritual should be specific while having a broad impact in our lives.
This is important because Relaxed Leaders are often called upon to do a multitude of activities, so our main rituals shouldn’t be tied to specific tasks. Specific, repetitive tasks should be handled by standardized processes or routines, while we use our intent and focus to amp up our rituals to the highest levels of effectiveness.
Determine What You Intend
Developing a ritual for effectiveness requires that we have a clear goal in mind. It’s about clearly intending a certain outcome; but again, that outcome must be specific while having a broad impact. It’s generally easier to start with the outcome in mind and then create the ritual, otherwise we tend to force-fit a purpose onto it. This doesn’t have to take a lot of time but we do need to put some real thought into it. We have to ask ourselves, what is our clear intent? What is the goal of the ritual we are going to develop?
The intent can be a bit broad but it needs to be clear. “Starting the day right” might seem like a good purpose for a morning ritual but it’s actually too broad and unclear. A better purpose/intent might be “starting the day rested, fueled and energized.” It’s broad enough to be a ritual (a series of habits) but clear enough to be effective. “Rested” means we go to bed at a decent time and get enough hours of quality sleep. “Fueled” means we eat and drink the right things. “Energized” means we include exercise and/or meditation to help get our mind and body ready for the day.
Use Focus to Improve Effectiveness
When I talk about “focus,” I’m not talking about the state of “flow” that is lauded by so many productivity gurus. It’s certainly possible that a perfect ritual of the right type can get you into a state of flow but frankly that’s out of reach for many of us. Besides, it’s not necessary. The kind of focus I’m talking about is something you can do rather easily on your own.
In order to achieve laser-like focus on your ritual, simply eliminate as many distractions as possible. Put your phone on airplane mode. Don’t check your computer. Leave the TV off. Don’t turn on talk radio and avoid podcasts. All of these things will send your mind off in other directions, which will undermine the effectiveness of your ritual. You absolutely must focus on the tasks at hand!
Psychologists have done plenty of research into “will power” and the consensus seems to be that we have a finite amount of will power each day. It’s not quite like a video game – we don’t lose a “will power point” every time we make a decision – but there is a mental toll for every decision we make throughout the day.
Habits and routines take very little will power because they’re simply things that we do. We don’t spend time weighing the pros and cons or considering various options. We just do them. But bringing intention and focus to the creation of a powerful ritual does take will power. And once it’s created, you’ll still need to use will power to keep doing it, day in and day out.
I’ve read plenty of productivity gurus who cite the 30-day rule, which is the belief that it takes a month of repetition in order to lock in a habit to where it doesn’t require any will power to do it. Presumably, the same is true for a grouping of habits – a ritual or a routine – which sure seems doable! Unfortunately, I haven’t found where that has been proven to the point where I’d consider adding it to my “relaxed rules.” Good habits, good routines, and good rituals will get easier to do as we do them more often; but they all take some level of consistent, conscious thought in order to maintain.
Think about it: People who bite their nails will often suddenly realize that they’re doing it. They don’t remember starting it and they certainly didn’t think about it and choose to do it. On the other hand, no one ever suddenly realizes that they’re doing squats at the gym! “Oh, geez! How did I get here?” Nope. Good habits just don’t work that way (which I’ll write more about in my next post on why good habits are often so hard to keep).
Repetition is Required for Rituals
Habits are the building blocks for both routines and rituals – and habits are things we do without the necessity of will power. That doesn’t necessarily mean we do them without thinking. Yes, many of our habits are mindless and we don’t realize we’re doing them, but the most valuable things we do come from intention and are executed with focus.
When building a ritual, repetition is important so that we can begin without thinking. Getting up and immediately putting on our workout clothes can be done without requiring will power – because it’s simply what we do every morning – which makes it extremely easy to hop on the treadmill or hit the weights. After that, doing your workout with intention and focus will make it much more effective and doesn’t require much additional will power.
Once repetition makes a ritual easy to begin, you’ll have more energy to put towards keeping in mind your intention and maintaining a laser focus on what it is you’re doing – and remembering what the impact will be on your quest to be an excellent Relaxed Leader!
What comes next?
As I said in the beginning of this post, systematically developing new habits, routines and rituals is a critical step in learning to be a Relaxed Leader. Throughout this month, I’ll expand on the ideas I presented here and give you things to try in order to start creating and evaluating your own habits, routines, and rituals.
I’ll also venture off on some tangents to talk about a couple great habits to develop, the perils of going “all in” on rituals, weird habits some self-styled gurus swear by, and why I hate morning people. I’ll even talk about what might be the most detrimental habit I see in politics today – and why it might mean our democracy is doomed.
So stay tuned! It’s going to be an interesting month!