Are you feeling scattered or unfocused? Adding a ritual or two to your day may be just the ticket to snap out of it.
“Rituals are habits that are part of our day-to-day activities that lead to desired outcomes,” says Melissa Gratias, who has a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology and is the vice president at Sandler Training. Gratias says she’s seen the professionals with whom she works helped these specific habits help people in a variety of ways.
Workplace wellness and positive psychology expert Michelle McQuaid says that rituals “shape the way our brains are feeling, thinking and acting.” Rituals signal to us that it’s time for a specific mindset or activity. They act as triggers to more effortlessly get us ready for what we need to do. Creating a morning strengths-focused ritual has changed the way she works, she says. In doing so, she incorporates her strengths, such as curiosity and gratitude, into her day, which makes her feel more rewarded overall. That may be reading something new for 10 minutes every morning or creating gratitude lists and thanking people. The key to the ritual is that it is rewarding and enriching, she says.
“Rituals and the way they make us feel, actually set our brains up for the day about whether we’re going to be in this more expanded thinking space or much more narrow thinking space and the consequences that can have on our performance,” McQuaid says.
Rituals can also frame your day, Gratias says. When you have that first-thing ritual of sitting with your coffee, reading, or meditating for 10 minutes, it can help you feel grounded and ready to tackle what’s ahead. Similarly, a closing ritual, where you close out the work you’re doing for the day, review what’s coming up, and get yourself organized for the following day helps you sharpen your focus on those specific areas. It makes it easier for many people to let go of the workday instead of bringing it home with them, since you’re receiving a clear signal that you’re done.
“It’s like the industrial age where people had time clocks. They would walk to the door, pick up their time card, insert it into the clock and hear the very satisfying ‘ching’ that was an audible and visual cue that the workday was over,” she says.
But rituals can—and should—be incorporated into your workday to address specific needs, too, says McQuaid. You can intentionally use rituals to improve performance. When you think about combining them as combinations of small habits, you can suddenly find ways to integrate the things you want to incorporate into your day, she says.
As an example of how it works, let’s say you have a 3 p.m. coffee habit that’s making it hard for you to sleep at night. The walk to the coffee shop—or even the coffee maker—then drinking the coffee itself is a form of ritual. Instead, think of another way to satisfy that cue-retain-reward chain. The cue is probably going to be that mid-afternoon period where you’re usually craving coffee. Part of the ritual is getting up from your desk. Another part is the process of preparing the coffee. There may be some socializing the goes on as a part of it.
Recognize the components and rework your ritual in a satisfying way that becomes an effortless habit over time, she says. In this case, it might be just switching to decaf or replacing your coffee a walk or other method of reinvigorating yourself.
Then, McQuaid suggests thinking about incorporating the same cue-retain-reward pattern into behaviors you want to cultivate. Look at the types of rituals that can help you focus before a presentation so you’re at the top of your game. That might mean finding five minutes in a room by yourself to write down three key goals for the presentation, breathe deeply, and use affirmations to get yourself in the right mindset.
Gratias says rituals don’t have to be solitary experiences, either. Sometimes, rituals can include an assistant or small group of team members who have a shared way of starting the day and getting focused on what needs to be done. The key is to create that chain of activities that grounds you and gets you in the mindset necessary help you be more effective. People who drown in paper may need to create regular purging rituals. People who can’t let work go may need closing rituals. You may also need quarterly or annual rituals to help you stay on top of longer-term goals.
“People are unique and everyone will have different ways of focusing. I have some clients that need to have music on or a particular song. Some people need to have complete quiet. There are people who arrive at work 15 minutes early because they know that’s before the boss arrives and that’s the only quiet time they’ll have all day,” Gratias says. We all need to assess our situations and needs, and create rituals that help us be better, she adds.