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From habits to rituals: how an intentional routine can make you “happy”

Transform your habits into rituals to open up to life, nurture your creativity and find greater balance.
Stefania Montagna

Stefania Montagna

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Are habits the path to fullfilment and happiness?

Can the simple fact of controlling your habits actually change the way you relate to life?

Maybe not, but when habits assume a layer of significance—turning into sacred rituals—the difference might be tangible.

Many people assume that those who are too routinary are control freaks

“I know you don’t like to see your routine disrupted”, my sister told me recently on the phone.

“I, on the other hand, like to let myself be carried by events that are unfolding”, she added.

Here lies the great misunderstanding.

Cause living by an intentional routine organised around sacred moments is not in contradiction to letting life unfold.

But if you agree with my sister, you must first shift your focus: from routine=controling to ritual=balancing.

This can translate to having an easier time embracing your routine. In turn, you might find yourself feeling “happier”—in the etymological sense of the word, i.e. more ready to let life happen to you.

The post that follows is broken down into the following sections:

  • 5 key factors to consider when launching into a new habit
  • The difference between habits and rituals
  • Turning habit into rituals, or how to reestablish our creative power
  • Rituals as activities with a beginning and an end

5 key factors to consider before launching into a new habit

Photo by Gustavo Torres on Unsplash

1. Accumulation versus elimination: add a habit or strike one off

Do you have space in your life for a new habit or a new routine?

Though it may sound counterintuitive, it may be worth establishing priorities first.

Often, a new habit is enough to kick a bad one away. You may find, for example, that waking up at 5 a.m. to work-out is enough to get you to stop watching series until late. But what if you find yourself still doing both? In the long run, you might be putting your health at strain.

Ask yourself, “What am I willing to give up, even if just temporarily, for the benefit of giving this habit a try?

Another way to look at accumulation vs. elimination is spicing things up. Could you mix up your new habit with a similar habit you had before? For example, if trying to get off sugar, a baby step can be to substitute white sugar with another sweetener (Ex. syrup or coconut sugar). You can start by using regular sugar one day, and the alternative on another day. This is a form of accumulation, but also of diversification.

2. Habits and rituals as a source of balance

Have you ever stopped to wonder how much of your time is spent in the mental realms vs. the physical, emotional, and spiritual?

If all of your habits and endeavors are about thinking, learning, and reasoning, you might be speeding up your learning curve, but you might also be depleting the well just as fast.

Thinking of a new habit as a source of balance goes a long way towards making it easier to implement.

For instance, taking a walk or exercising in the middle of the day might not feel like a productivity enhancer. And yet, when you do so, all of your tangled thoughts get a chance to re-organize themselves in new patterns. This is what Edward De Bono calls an “Insight.” And that’s definitely good news for your productivity! (Wanna read further? Check out Lateral Thinking by Edward De Bono)

Furthermore, intentionally establishing your habits to achieve greater balance will make you more resilient, because resilience, as I discussed here, is intimately linked to the cyclical nature of life.

3. Space —Habits, routine, practice: finding the sweet spot between procrastination and creativity.

Nothing kills a good habit faster than yearning for a result. Yet, not only should results not be the point of a great habit, but being too attached to an outcome prevents you from going into that very space that nurturing that habit should lead you to, i.e. the one in which you allow yourself to dance—unabridged—with uncertainty.

There is a difference between devoting yourself to a habit because of intrinsic motivation or in an attempt to pursue an outer goal.

An outer goal is fleeting. Not so your intrinsic motivation, especially if you are able to nurture it daily. (Refer to the difference between habits and rituals below for more insights.)

Being too attached to the outcome prevents that very process that leads to the outcome itself: the ability to let go. If you’re trying to get hydrated, drinking 2 liters of water every day will do, but drinking 5 liters in an hour might lead you straight to your deathbed.

According to Adam Grant, it’s in the sweet spot between procrastination and creativity that original ideas are found. It’s only by showing up regularly (And knowing when to let go), that one can allow the new ideas to emerge.

As someone said,

What creates music is more than the notes. It’s the space between those notes.

4. Friction: Time, space, and equipment

As James Clear advises in Atomic Habits, if you want to make it easier for yourself to be consistent with your habit, you should make it as frictionless as possible.

This means:

  • Having whatever equipment you need ready for you to engage in your habit ahead of time, AND
  • Have a clear schedule of when and how it’s going to happen.

Better yet: write it down.

5. Function: the purpose behind your new habit

What truly drives the purpose behind this new habit? Can you bring the idea of excellence into your purpose?

“In sports, excellence is necessary, because it is not enough to be great. One has to be better than everybody else”.

Julio Velasco, Argentinian-Italian Volleyball coach

What we tend to overlook is that excellence is a driver of flow.

We can understand this better by looking at children. A child playing and having fun doesn’t look like someone who’s taking a shortcut.

A child who’s having fun is deeply focussed. She’s only “having fun” as long as she’s in the flow, “succeeding at that which she’s trying to do”.

Can you shift your focus from achieving the end goal to succeeding at your task for today?

Can you do it with the outmost concentration?

What if you focused on excelling just at this one task?

Habits and rituals: similarities and differences

Photo by Lala Azizli on Unsplash

Many hail “Habits”—that which you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it—as the ultimate pathway to self-improvement. Yet, habits are hard to uphold.

“The greatest threat to success is not failure, but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty.”

James Clear

It is inherent in this understanding of habits that a habit doesn’t bring joy because it doesn’t bring novelty, excitement, and dopamine. Stop and think for a second. Are all of your habits things you feel “you must do” in order to become somehow “better”? What if you started to think of your habits as “rituals”?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a ritual is a set of fixed actions, and sometimes words, performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony.

Etymologically, there is a vast difference between a habit and a ritual. The former is something “you have”, a condition you maintain. The latter is “something that counts”, something that has ceremonial or religious relevance.

If you have a habit, or are trying to cultivate a habit, make it count: turn it into a ritual.

In this sense, the difference between habit and ritual can be boiled down to a tiny leap: a ritual is a habit performed with intention, i.e. with our attention turned towards.

Turning Habits into Rituals: the pathway to reestablish our creative power

Photo by Federico Beccari on Unsplash

“Like a house gives us stability in space, rituals give us stability, connection and intimacy in time”.

Astrid Brinck

Rituals allow us to reconnect to the elements: to the cycles of nature and the cycles of life.

I could be waking up at 5 every morning to train for a marathon, hoping to see that today I am running a bit faster than yesterday. That’s a habit.

The moment I recognize that waking up at 5 a.m. every day reconnects me with my body and my life in a way that waking up later does not, then I am knee-deep in a ritual—in contemplation of a habit that is serving a greater purpose than that of achieving a goal.

A ritual, in fact, is about relationship rather than achievement.

Ritual as feeling through creative action

As suggested by Aboriginal culture, rituals and ceremonies are a time to “articulate feelings through creative action.”

Let’s break this down further.

On the one hand, there’s the sense of nurturing a habit. For example, you might brush your teeth, hoping this will prevent gingivitis and caries.

On the other, there’s the act of reclaiming your relationship to your own body. By brushing your teeth, you may honor the function of teeth and the miracle of eating every day. You may think of teeth as a source of alignment, knowing they ensure your spine stays upright.

Both habits and rituals serve a purpose: a habit makes a certain action easier, smoother.

A ritual, however, facilitates our reconnection to our sense of creative power.

This is of special importance at times when we feel powerless, whether it’s because we’re in the wake of natural catastrophes or enmeshed in human conflict.

To turn a habit into a ritual focus on how the habit is helping you to reconnect: to yourself, to others, to life.

Rituals as activities with a beginning and end

Why the success of the Pomodoro method?

This technique, consisting of short sprints of deep work time alternating with breaks, is all about ritualizing work.

While it doesn’t expressly say so, by adding an act of initiation, culmination, and completion (The break after the 25 minutes), this approach makes working on a task no longer an infinite endeavor, but one that follows a cycle.

In so doing, it offers us a rhythm: a frame to allow our ideas to flourish, blossom, and die (Or rest), even if it is only during that short time that elapses during our five-minutes break.

Even more powerfully, the Pomodoro method forces a recognition: what will we work on during the next 25 minutes? What are we going to begin and end? By narrowing our focus, it helps us to tune in.

Now our effort is more than a task: it is an opportunity to complete that towards which we set our intention. It lifts our practice from “doing” to “being”, from “repetitive” to “unique”, from “menial” to “purposeful”.

And that’s the power of rituals: to bring a purpose into each and every one of our acts.

Turning the lens on you

What meaning do you associate with the rituals in your life? What habit(s) can you turn into a ritual? Has developing a certain ritual helped you to change in some way? If so, how? Let me know in the comments!


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