Making Rituals Work For You

When starting something new, we tend to have strong intentions about what we want to accomplish and how.

Whether it’s waking up earlier to get to the gym before work, setting aside a few hours a day for writing or pursuing a passion project, or unwinding at the end of the day without screen time, we all have experience setting goals. However, it’s often harder than we think to turn our goals and intentions into real change.

Creating rituals is one way to help you (and your brain) adopt and stick to new behaviors. In the last decade or so, scientists have proven that the brain can literally be rewired thanks to neuroplasticity, the ability to change structure and function in response to behaviors, experiences, and emotions. But new pathways (in this case, new rituals) cannot “overpower” existing pathways (our old, bad habits) overnight. Change takes time. 

So, where should you start?

Identify the Right Rituals

The key to create lasting change starts with picking the right thing to change in the first place. In other words, not all change is created equal. Some changes will deliver a cascade of related positive benefits, while others may be more self-contained. Once you’ve identified the change you want to make, leverage information about the science of habit formation to “hack” your brain into systemic change.

New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg demonstrates how reaching goals and achieving success can be as simple as understanding how habits work and implementing changes into your existing routine. In his book, The Power of Habit, Duhigg breaks down the habit loop, a three-part loop that forms the foundation of a habit: cue, routine, and reward. Understanding this cycle, along with your cravings, can simplify the process of change. 

Essentially, to form a habit you should: 

  1. Identify your routine (the behavior you want to change): this “keystone” behavior should be associated with the larger change you are working to create. 
  2. Experiment with different rewards to determine what you are craving: the key is to understand the craving that your existing behavior satisfies. The new behavior needs to address the old craving and provide the new benefits you are seeking to change. In some cases, the natural outcome of the new behavior accomplishes both. Other times, you have to set up additional rewards for yourself to drive change. 
  3. Isolate the cue (the signal that triggers your current habit): most cues are one of five types: (1) location, (2) time, (3) emotional state, (4) other people, or (5) preceding event. Keep a log of the behavior you are seeking to change to identify the trigger, and then use that trigger to become the beginning of the new behavior you want to create. You don’t need to remove the cues—you only need to change what you do after the cue.
  4. Create a plan to help you implement an intended habit. Write down your new plan, including the rewards. It’s another way to frame your intentions and increase the likelihood that you will stick with them. To take it a step farther, keep a log to track your cues and behavior loops. Logging your wins becomes another reward!

When You Get Stuck

It’s NORMAL to find that certain rituals don’t necessarily work for you. If a ritual doesn’t work, it isn’t because you failed. It could mean that something else is more important, you haven’t identified the right cue for your new routine yet, or you don’t have a good enough reward system for the new behavior. Rather than dwell on what isn’t working or trying to force yourself into a ritual that isn’t a good fit, focus on making choices that will make the ritual work most effectively for you! 

If you are stuck, consider the following: 

Form Productive Rituals

The key to making a ritual work for you is to anticipate the reward and stay focused on it. Tying this reward to the triggers already in your environment is the key to designing effective rituals. By creating rituals for yourself, you’ll be more productive and focused on your work, which benefits both you and your team.