What does the word “ritual” make you think of? Dancing around a fire in the woods? Ceremonies performed by a priest in church? Washing your hands? A topic discussed in the Harvard Business Review and Scientific American? As a matter of fact, the best answer is “all of the above”.
What Is Ritual?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the simple definition of ritual is “a formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way” and “an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.” So anything done regularly could be a ritual, but why does it matter? Studies have shown that there are several benefits to personal ritual.
Good Luck—Or at Least a Positive Frame of Mind
Michael Jordan is sometimes referred to as the greatest athlete of all time, and even if you don’t agree with that, you can’t argue that he wouldn’t make the short list. Throughout his record-breaking stint with the Chicago Bulls, did you know he wore his University of North Carolina shorts underneath his uniform in every game? He believed that gave him luck.
Did it really? We can’t say. Chances are, incredible talent and massive hard work were the true keys to his success, but his simple ritual for good luck affected his experience and his mindset, which are both key to superior performance in sports and in any other endeavor.
Luck may or may not have anything to do with success, but believing you are unlucky or destined to fail is all it takes to guarantee failure. Any ritual that puts you in a positive frame of mind or clears negativity will have benefits. Prayer and meditation are ancient rituals that can be powerful tools for doing both, but if those aren’t your thing, try one of these simple practices to start each day, or before taking on a challenging task:
Play motivational music—and sing along: Whatever your taste in music, find a piece that makes you feel energized. Play it at home while you get ready for the day or in the car if you drive to work. Singing along with it can work even better because it is a way of participating in the positive energy, rather than just taking it in.
Write down your priorities for the day: You may want to include major “to-do” accomplishments, but be sure to include your personal priorities, like showing support for people you love or being true to your values. Making this a daily ritual will help to keep those priorities in mind, even when your day is hectic and your calendar is full.
Set an intention for the day: Another simple ritual that can be very powerful is setting an intention for the day before you leave the house in the morning. This can be part of a larger system that includes either a series of things to practice, like a book of daily lessons, or a great big goal that you choose one small aspect of to focus on, such as a goal of living a healthy lifestyle, and setting an intention to base all of that day’s food choices on nutrition rather than flavor.
Another popular way to choose an intention (or lesson) for the day is to take a random selection from an inspirational resource. A traditional way this is done is taking a sacred text from your religion and opening it to a random verse, but you can do it with any source of wisdom that works for you, from tarot cards to the biography of your favorite sports hero. (If your random selection doesn’t mean anything to you, just try again!)
Increased Focus and Efficiency
Rituals can also be practical ways to make daily life more manageable. When you come home from work, putting your keys in the same place will save time when you need them next, and also prevent the potential stress of being late and not being able to find them; it also offers the opportunity to create a simple ritual that makes arriving home a distinct end to your work day, or whatever you were just doing.
Similarly, washing your hands when you come home is a highly recommended practice for eliminating germs, but it’s also a perfect opportunity to create a ritual of switching gears and consciously leaving work behind and focusing on your family and personal interests.
Studies have found that one of the benefits of rituals is that they increase focus. One particular ritual that is recommended by experts from many different fields is decluttering your desk or whatever space you use for doing your work. Getting yesterday’s mess out of your way helps your mind be present and ready for a fresh start, as every piece of unfinished business is a potential distraction from the work you are choosing to do at any given time.
Gratitude and a Sense of the Sacred
Gratitude has gotten a lot of press in the past few years, and with good reason. Studies have shown that people who practice gratitude regularly are healthier, happier, more generous and compassionate, and experience less loneliness than others. Gratitude goes much deeper than saying “thanks,” and rituals can make it a way of life, rather than something to think about occasionally. Here are a couple of suggestions:
Write a Gratitude Journal: Any kind of notebook will do, and all you have to do is pick a time each day (usually upon rising, before leaving the house, or before bed) and write a few things you are thankful for, or great things that happened that day. Some days are better than others, and by making it a daily ritual, you may have to really give it some thought on some days, but that action will strengthen your appreciation for what you have.
Respond to negative thoughts by finding the good: When you are annoyed or frustrated, make a point of acknowledging the good in the situation. Is there something you can learn? A skill you can develop because of it?
What can you be thankful for? A great example is being stuck in a traffic jam. We’ve all been there and it’s totally frustrating, right? But what a great opportunity to be mindful that you weren’t in an accident, that you are safe, that you have a car that runs… it’s just costing you a little time. That kind of perspective shift makes a world of difference in how you experience the ups and downs of life, and gratitude rituals make it easier to achieve.
Rituals can also power up your sense of wonder because they enhance your focus as well. Next time you go to the beach, take a moment to appreciate the sand, water, sun, surf, maybe even the seagulls, and perform a ritual to acknowledge the experience. You can bow three times and turn summersaults if that fits your personality, but for something subtler, how about drawing a symbol in the sand? It doesn’t matter what the symbol is, as long as it means something to you.
We’d love to hear about your own rituals. Do you have something that you do every day to help you stay on track? Share it in the comments below, it may be just what someone else needs.