Just like every other writer covering topics around productivity and time management, routines are my bread and butter. I know readers love to click on stories about the daily routines of the rich and famous, and columns offering suggestions for routines for greater success always get a great response.
But perhaps all this time I've been missing a trick. In a recent article for Vox Terry Nguyen argues that we all should focus less on routines, and more on rituals.
What's the difference between a routine and a ritual?
What's the difference? Nguyen consults a wide variety of experts from religious scholars to self-help authors to dig into the distinction. While both rituals and routines are a series of stereotypical actions you consistently repeat. What sets them apart is your aim in taking that action.
Routine, she writes, "implies a rigid sense of structure, with time management and productivity prioritized. A person might rely on routine for the sake of accomplishment -- an ideal tied to capitalist ideals of labor and production -- rather than personal enjoyment or spiritual fulfillment."
Rituals, on the other hand, "shouldn't be reduced to just mechanistic habits," and "can facilitate the 'disciplined transformation of the practitioner,'" in the words of one scholar of Zen Buddhism. Rituals need not be religious in any way, but they "often have an intention," according to artist Kate Southworth.
In short, routines are about getting things done faster or more efficiently. They're about raw output. Rituals aren't about how much you do of something, they're about changing how you do it. Or, ideally, even about changing you in some small, positive way.
If this sounds a little like hocus pocus to you, be aware that science agrees with Nguyen and her interviewees. Even small, completely personal, secular rituals have been shown to have large effects on people's moods and mindsets by psychology researchers. Burning up that photo of your ex or a list of your fears really might help you move forward, in other words.
And some of the most hard-nosed business people in the world apparently understand the distinction between rituals and routines too. One founder of a $100 million company has spoken about how he treats hanging up the laundry every morning "as a kind of meditation." Who knows, maybe a similar thinking is behind both Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos's public claim that they still regularly do their own dishes.
9 rituals to try yourself
All of this evidence points to the fact that being intentional about how your daily actions affect your mindset can be incredibly powerful, more powerful than simply setting yourself a rigid daily routine. Getting up at a certain time is great if it works for you, but you might get even more done if you instead figure out a morning ritual that brings joy, creativity, and gratitude into the rest of your day.
What do effective rituals look like? Everyone from meditation teachers to media personalities have offered suggestions, a few of which I've listed below:
An evening writing and reflection ritual like #startandendhappy
Ashton Kutcher's short morning intention-setting ritual
A savoring ritual -- monotask and really enjoy life's small pleasures
A starting ritual to get you in the right frame of mind for deep work (as Nguyen points out, many artists swear by this type of ritual)
Turn everyday chores into a moment of mindfulness by treating them as a ritual
A luck ritual to get you pumped up before big challenges (favored by many sports stars)
The work-from-home "commute," or a ritual to transition from a home to work mindset
Or try the German idea of 'Feierabend' to transition the other way, from work to home
This anti-busyness ritual is perfect for moments when you feel frantic or overwhelmed
While these rituals are great for illustration and inspiration, rituals must be personal to be effective. Unlike routines they are not one size fits all, but instead need to work with your psychology and worldview to help you transform your thinking in whatever way you're aiming for. Others' ideas are unlikely to be a perfect fit off the rack, so feel free to tailor or combine these suggestions in any way that works for you -- or design your own rituals from scratch.
But don't settle for mere routines. Sure, they might transform how you organize your day. But rituals can transform how you think and feel. And that's much more powerful.