How to Transform Daily Habits into Life-Changing Rituals
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How to Transform Daily Habits into Life-Changing Rituals

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How to Transform Daily Habits into Life-Changing Rituals

Michael Norton is the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He has studied human behavior as it relates to love and inequality, time and money, and happiness and grief. He is the coauthor—with Elizabeth Dunn—of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending. In 2012, he was selected by Wired magazine as one of “50 People Who Will Change the World.” His TEDx talk, How to Buy Happiness, has been viewed nearly 4.5 million times. He is a frequent contributor to such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Scientific American.

Below, Michael shares five key insights from his new book, The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions. Listen to the audio version—read by Michael himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

The Ritual Effect Michael Norton Next Big Idea Club

1. Habits are black and white, but rituals can be technicolor.

Think of your routine before you go to bed at night or when you wake up in the morning. Do you shower first and then brush your teeth? Or do you brush your teeth and then shower? About half of people shower and then brush their teeth, and the other half brush their teeth and then shower. There’s also a tiny percentage of people who do both at the same time, but most do one and then the other.

Now think of which order you prefer and then imagine you suddenly have to switch and do the opposite. Think for a moment about how doing the opposite makes you feel. We find that about half of people say they don’t care. The other half of people say they would rather not, that it would feel weird or off.

This is the very beginning of the distinction between habits and rituals. If you’re somebody who brushes your teeth and showers and you don’t care what order it is, those are habits for you. They’re things that you need to get done; you do them every day, but there’s not a lot of emotion involved. But if something about changing the order bothered you even a little bit, if it gave you kind of a funny feeling in your stomach, that task is moving toward becoming a ritual.

“Even the simplest actions can go from being something boring and mundane to something emotional and interesting.”

A ritual doesn’t always involve people in robes with candles. Rituals can be the order in which you do what matters to you and gives you emotions. When you do it your way, you feel ready to start the day. If your ritual gets disrupted or you do it in a different order, you feel off or weird. That is why habits can be black and white. Habits are things we get done, and crossing them off the list is no big deal. Rituals are technicolor; they fill us with emotion and meaning. They matter to us in a way that our mere habits do not. That means that even the simplest actions can go from being something boring and mundane to something emotional and interesting.

For some people, it can be how they tie their shoes in the morning. Many people just tie their shoes. But some people always go left shoe first, always double knot, and then do the right shoe. We can use these little tiny rituals or behaviors, and turn them into things that are more emotional and more meaningful. We can go from a black-and-white habit and move to a ritual to give our lives a bit more technicolor.

2. Rituals can be much more DIY than we often think.

When I say the word ritual, the first thing that comes to mind for most people are traditional, established, often religious rituals with a long history. They have been done a certain way for hundreds or even thousands of years, and they will be done this way in the future. Those rituals can be incredibly meaningful for people. They are a deep expression of their faith or culture. They are really important for how we make meaning in our lives.

At the same time, our research found that people are often also freelancing; they’re DIYing their own rituals. Rituals come up in quirky and interesting ways. If you ask people to think of a loved one who passed away, what did they do after their death? Normally, there is a funeral. Often, they follow the practices of a faith that is incredibly important and meaningful. But they can also do something small to honor the person that was specific to them.

One woman in our research said she washed her husband’s car the way he used to when he was alive. Her husband had a favorite car that he took care of, and she decided every week to continue to wash it how he had. There’s no 2,000-year-old text about washing cars as an expression of grief. But this woman came up with this very specific action in order to try to help her with her grief.

Time and again, across all domains, people are honoring the cherished religious and cultural rituals that they’ve grown up with while also devising their own. One couple said they clink their forks three times before they eat. No book says to clink your fork three times before you eat, but people are freelancing their own rituals all the time. Whether we are at work or with our families, we have more flexibility than we might’ve thought to devise our own rituals and have them become meaningful for us.

3. Food can be more than just food.

One of the primary things rituals can do is enhance otherwise boring or mundane experiences and turn them into something special, emotional, and meaningful. Have you ever been sitting at a table and someone brings over a cake and then they stick wax candles in it? They then light the candles on fire, wax drips all over the cake, and everyone sings a tuneless song where each person is singing in a different key. You then blow the candles out, blowing germs all over the cake, and everybody eats it. Of course, most people have done that.

Put like that, a birthday can seem like an odd thing some cultures have decided to do with cake. Of course, it’s not just a cake; it’s a birthday cake. Even the number of candles on the cake comes to have meaning to signify that we’re moving from this age to the next age. Cake is delicious, but it’s just a cake until we build a birthday into it. It shows how much we love the person who we’re celebrating.

“Cake is delicious, but it’s just a cake until we build a birthday into it.”

Another great example of a common ritual is having liquid in a glass, and before you drink it, everyone lifts their liquid in the glass and clinks them together. Then someone says a one- or two-word phrase like, “Cheers” or “Slàinte.” Why are we clinking glasses together at the risk of spilling liquid? Because, again, we’re taking the alcohol or whatever else we have in our cup and turning it into something more than just liquid. We’re not just hydrating. When we do things like this, we’re creating meaning and bonding ourselves together.

Similarly, families could just sit down at dinner to inhale calories and then leave, but that’s not often what families do. Every family dinner scenario has its own little quirks, its own little practices. They might start dinner by expressing something that they’re grateful for. Again, it’s a chance for the meal and the food to do something more for us than just be a meal or food. We can turn them into something that gives food more emotional resonance.

4. There are four lessons with relationship rituals.

We discovered four elements of relationship rituals that determine what role they end up playing with our loved ones and with our marriages. Marriage or a long-term partnership is an expression of commitment. You have been together for a while, and you intend to stay together. We put rings on each other’s fingers to symbolize that commitment. The ring finger is literally called the ring finger because we put rings on it as an expression of our love. But how else do we show commitment to each other than by signing paperwork and having ceremonies? Couples can do small rituals, like the couple that clinks forks three times every time before they eat as their ritual. It’s their way of saying they have been doing it for years and will keep doing it for years.

The second lesson of relationship rituals focuses on the importance of exclusivity. That couple mentioned before clinks their forks together three times, unlike other couples. It’s a way of distinguishing this relationship from previous or future ones. When people learn that their little relationship rituals have been recycled, they can be furious. Your ex can date other people, get married, and even have a family. They are not allowed to reuse the clinking forks three times. That is something that fills us with rage. This shows how important these little rituals are in expressing our love for each other.

The third lesson is that rituals are very different from routines. Some couples take the same exact actions and turn them into a ritual. One example of this is when shopping for food every week. Some couples say it’s drudgery. Other couples, however, use their weekly shop to wander around the store, trying to find the right ingredients to make a new meal together as their special weekly ritual. In the end, they’re just putting food in their cart, taking it home, and eating it. But through this ritual, the couple has moved it from mundane or boring to something exciting. It becomes an expression of their commitment to each other.

The final lesson of relationship rituals is that it’s important that we agree on them. One of the saddest findings in our research is when couples do not agree on whether they have a ritual or not. When asked, very often, both people say yes, and sometimes both people say no. But in a small minority of couples, one person says yes, and the other says no. One says they go to the store, pick out food for their meal, and say it’s very important and emotional. The other person says they just go shopping. Those couples who disagree are no happier than couples who agree that they have no ritual at all. Agreeing with our partner turns out to be very important in unlocking the potential benefits of relationship rituals for our sense of commitment and relationship satisfaction.

5. Rituals do a lot of work for us at work.

When I started studying rituals, I thought more about the everyday rituals that we do for ourselves or that we do with romantic partners and families. However, rituals can play an important role not just in our personal lives but in our professional lives. Many people report that rituals scaffold their entire day at work.

We started to examine the role that rituals can play at work. From the very beginning in the morning, when people are getting up and getting ready, they need to do something to transition from their self at home—which could be a dad, a husband, a roommate, a friend—to their professional self. Of course, one thing that people turn to is ritual.

“People also often use rituals to say goodbye to work so they can return as their home-selves at night.”

People told us all kinds of things they do before they leave the house in the morning. This included brushing their teeth first and then showering, or whatever it took to make them feel ready to go. When they get to work, they often do something the first moment they sit at their desks. For some people it’s coffee first, then email, then chat with a coworker. That is the way that they help themselves move from home self to work self.

During the day at work, you might have a ritual before a big meeting or presentation you’re anxious about. Professional athletes engage in all kinds of interesting pre-performance rituals, but we often do our own before these big, stressful moments. A common ritual for many is going to the bathroom at work and talking to yourself. You might say things like, “You’ve got this,” or “You can do this.” We turn to rituals in these very stressful moments.

We also see the role of rituals in our teams at work. Some teams just show up to work. Other teams may do something special every week that’s unique to them. One team of five members explained that each person gets lunch for everyone else on a different day of the week. They also have lunch together every day, no matter what. By doing this, they have moved from just a collection of strangers into a team. They then find more meaning in their work.

People also often use rituals to say goodbye to work so they can return as their home-selves at night. That way, they can be present with their loved one as a dad, husband, partner, or friend. Working in an emergency room can be a very difficult job to leave behind at the end of the day. Many emergency room workers told us they engage in some kind of ritual upon going home. One nurse said they would take a shower and feel the day’s stress washing off. As the water circled down the drain, they were able to leave work behind. We use rituals at work to try to help us get through stressful days. They also help us ensure we can be ourselves at home.

To listen to the audio version read by author Michael Norton, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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