Do you ever wonder what your day needs to look like so you can thrive in every aspect of your life despite the stress, challenges, and setbacks?
Do you ever wonder what it takes to live the kind of life you really want to live in a permanent state of bliss?
My answer is it is all about RITUALS.
RITUALS & THE BRAIN
Rituals are what I call transforming magical thinking into “magic reality.”
From my exploration of the brain as a physician with hundreds of patients exposed to high doses of mental and physical challenges, there is one thing I can say with confidence: reframing your everyday life routines can create a dramatic change in your brain and correspondingly in your sense of perspective.
Reframing your life with rituals, it is like putting your brain in order. As a result, you can see clearly what you need and what you don’t, and what you want to prioritize. Over time you will learn to surround yourself by the things and people that can nurture you and make you thrive. Ultimately, you will evolve.
This will happen because the brain likes patterns.
The fundamental function of the brains of all animals is to integrate information gathered from the environment and then generate adaptive responses that we call behaviors. In neuroscience, this is called pattern processing. I like to call it “brain taming.”
This capacity to identify and create patterns is a function of our nervous system that played a fundamental role in the evolution of the human brain in association with the expansion of the cerebral cortex, particularly of the prefrontal cortex, the area of our brain where the high cognitive functions happen.
Throughout our evolution and history, specific patterns, real or imagined, have been reinforced by experience, emotions, religions, and society.
Compared to lower species, the human brain is particularly advanced in its ability to recognize and create new patterns. This function gets better with practice: the more we are exposed to a particular activity the more familiar we become with the patterns, and the more and faster our brains generate solutions to the problem we are trying to solve.
Think about the way we learned to stand on two feet. We really wanted to reach for that banana on the tree and we ended up seeing that it was convenient to stand up for a lot of other things like hunting and running from predators.
RITUALS & SELF-CARE
When you apply this to the science of self-care this idea of patterns translates in what I called the rituals of wellbeing.
In its everyday life use, people use the word ‘rituals’ interchangeably with routines or habits. But there is an important difference: rituals make meaning, the other two don’t.
So what is a ritual?
A ritual is an act done in a particular situation and in the same way each time, that has symbolism and meaning.
That is why I like to define rituals as “habits with a meaning.”
I think of rituals as a powerful tool to frame the space between our thoughts and actions.
A ritual also has a purpose. The purpose of a ritual can vary. It could help us to transition from one stage in life to another like entering the world as an adult, changing job or career, becoming a mother, entering menopause. It could solidify our belonging in a community or a group, like being a SoulCycle member. Rituals help us carve special moments; spark meaning in what could be repetitive, everyday lives; help the brain cope better with transitions and strong emotions, and detox the mind from stressful thinking and toxic behaviors that cause stress.
Rituals can be with a small letter “r” when they are nimble, casual, and interpersonal. Think of your family’s Sunday morning breakfast, or your obsessive coffee ritual.
Or rituals can be with a capital letter “R”. These rituals are majestic. Religious rituals or sports events are in this category.
Either way, rituals help people create a sense of familiarity with life dynamics.
Often people engage in rituals with the intention of achieving the desired outcome, from reducing their anxiety to boosting their confidence, or from alleviating grief to performing well in a competition – or even making it rain… 😉
I believe that individuals can also use rituals to transform stressful experiences into empowering ones and rewrite their life story to evolve towards more resilient and mentally strong human beings.
Recent findings suggest that rituals can have an impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Research in sport psychology, for example, proved the performance benefits of pre-performance routines and rituals, from improving attention and execution to increasing emotional stability and confidence.
HOW TO… RITUALS
What do you need to develop an empowering ritual?
First, you need a structure for your ritual to provide your mind with the type of commitment it needs to create things that matter.
Without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing every time you practice your ritual, which will unnecessarily drain your willpower reserves.
Instead, your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating so that you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what you need at the moment.
There are many different ways to integrate rituals into your schedule, and it is therefore, worth taking the time to find an approach that makes sense for you.
Here are some ideas for structure:
- The bad habit replacement structure: where you replace a bad habit that tends to sabotage you with your ritual.
- The bimodal structure: where you define a stretch goal to pursuit your ritual and leave the rest open. For example, in a week, you might dedicate a four-day weekend to your ritual and the rest to open time.
- The rhythmic structure: where you keep a calendar where you cross out the date on the calendar with a big red X when you perform your ritual. After a few days, you’ll have a chain that will grow longer every day and your only job is to not break the chain.
- The methodic structure: where you will switch into your ritual and practice it any time you could find some free time.
Once you decided on your structure, keep in mind that finding a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it in trial and error mode at the beginning. I assure you that the effort is worth it and the impact can be significant.
The second step is to decide which method you will use to design your ritual.
You can make a list of all rituals in your life to discover what you care and value most and which one will stick.
You can map your routines and look for sweet spots. These are low-emotion or high-emotion points, where you want to capitalize on a great thing that’s happening or you want to intervene to make a bad situation better.
Or you can use my science-based method to guide you through the process of creating a new ritual for yourself.
So, after you picked your structure and you chose your method you need to take care of your allies and enemies.
The allies of rituals are
- Your Motivation: meaning the value you give to your ritual. Ask yourself: How would I like my life to change? What specific goals would I like to achieve? How would I like to feel after each ritual I partake in?
- Action: you need to take action and start somewhere. Focus on progress and not perfection!
- Self-discipline: set a strong structure to support the repetition of your ritual especially in the initial phase. Science shows that there is a point at which the behavior becomes automatic. You just have to commit to practice long enough to reach that sweet spot!
- Simplicity: your ritual must keep your life simple and balanced. There is no point overcomplicating your rituals. The rituals you build must be simple, fun and straightforward.
- Consistency: meaning that you need a system to follow through. The first step is learning how to do the ritual and understand how the ritual works. But consistency is step two: turning your ritual into a habit, committing to the practice, showing up and doing it again and again until you’re good at it, and until is part of who you are and what you do.
Likewise, there are enemies of rituals that can limit your efforts.
1. The first one to watch out for is Ego Depletion. I first learned about ego depletion in Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. In this book, the authors describe ego depletion as “a person’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions.” We all have limited willpower. Simply put, our willpower is like a muscle. It weakens throughout the day because of constant use. So, like any muscle, it’s easy to be exhausted. Once it’s gone, it becomes very difficult to focus and resist temptations. More than 80 scientific studies have examined the phenomenon of willpower and have found that when we use willpower strategically and mindfully, it gets stronger. So like a muscle: it fatigues, and yet gets stronger with consistent use. In this sense, the most important strategy to understand is that the quantity of what you do matters far less than the consistency with which you do it. Or better said with the words of the actor, martial artist and great philosopher Bruce Lee “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”.
2. The second enemy of your rituals is the lack of clarity of your goals. If you want to change or improve something in your life, don’t be vague about it. The subconscious brain is a very precise machine so setting a vague goal creates a lack of self-accountability. It’s good to have a little bit of pressure!
3. The third enemy of a ritual is to rely on your emotions as your motivation for taking action. Going back to the muscle analogy, motivation is like adrenaline, in that it can overcome weakness in a flash. But if you use your emotions to spark your motivation to take action it is scientifically improbable that you will succeed. A ritual is by definition emotionless because is automatic and subconscious. So make sure you don’t you mix up motivation (your meaning) with your reason to act (your emotions). Your motivation to change a behavior is an absolute that you should not question every time you need to start your ritual. Your emotional state instead is often fluctuating. The secret of super athletes isn’t that they are “super excited” to train in their sport. The thing that really sets them apart is how they’re able to train when they’re bored out of their minds or tired. Emotions are for the sprinter, but for a ritual to succeed in changing your behavior, you need to think like a marathoner. This relies on the concept of the pain-pleasure principle which is the ability to avoid the comfort of instant gratification and instead, delay gratification in order to gain significant long-term pleasure and rewards.
4. The last enemy of a ritual is giving up before the behavior takes hold. The whole idea of a behavioral change is to have that change last for the rest of your life. Once the new habit or mindset is set, it’s much easier to maintain it as it has become that behavior that is “accepted” consciously and subconsciously. You need a strategy that can take you to the point of making that new behavior a habit, however long that takes. Since that point varies so much, you really need a strategy that can work ideally forever.
THE SECRET TO SUCCESS
I have discovered two amazing strategies that you can use to ensure you set yourself up to success.
1. The first strategy goes back to simplicity: only develop one ritual at a time. Nobody has the willpower to form multiple habits in a single period of time. The easier solution is to focus on a single action every 4 weeks. Make the commitment to start a new habit every 30 days. It helps to track your new ritual with a journal.
2. The second strategy is to develop mini rituals. An example of which is the one push-up a day mini habit: it’s better to do one push-up every day than to do ten push-ups once a week. Mini rituals are structured to avoid and fight all four enemies that you learned about above: you won’t have a problem with your willpower strength. Since you can always reach your target, and you’re doing it every day. Second, mini rituals are specific. Let’s say you want to start having a daily journal, You’ll say, “I’m going to write 50 words every day.” This holds you accountable, and it’s with a goal you can crush! Mini rituals are so tiny that it’s not worth it to bother with unreliable emotional fluctuations when you can simply force yourself to do it. And finally mini rituals are “too small to fail,” so you can do mini habits forever! This is why I and many successful people have had such profound success with this strategy.
Last but not least, you will need to decide how you will measure your progress. There are many ways of tracking the progress of a ritual and I will share more details in blogs that will follow. However, I will not just stop there. I will provide you with very specific rituals you can adopt in your life.
And you can also learn all about my 4 rituals to change your life and rewire your brain by downloading my free audio-training.
In the audio-training, I walk you through four super-powerful science-based rituals that can teach you how to incorporate a ritual in your life and change forever your brain, your mind, your heart, and your body.
See you next time!