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Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it. Slowly your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments.

The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

Program Your Own Algorithms

Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them like computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result. Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

By forming rituals you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

How to Form a Ritual

I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

  1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
  2. Commit to follow your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
  3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy–the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail, you’ll have to decide.
  4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first thirty day trial can make your ritual more useful.

Ways to Use a Ritual

Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

  1. Waking Up. Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterwards. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution was to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I decided to sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.
  2. Web Usage. How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly efficient ritual, I was able to cut of 75% of my web time without losing any communication.
  3. Reading. How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.
  4. Friendliness. Rituals can also help in communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.
  5. Working. One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.
  6. Going to the gym. If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.
  7. Exercise. Even within your workout you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of a doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.
  8. Sleeping. Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning it will help if you remove the insomnia.
  9. Weekly Reviews. The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now I narrow my focus towards specific plans, ideas and measurements.

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