Why you need both rituals and routines to power your workday

There are few things that impact your daily productivity, career trajectory, and overall well-being as much as your routines. As Will Durant writes in The Story of Philosophy (a quote often misattributed to Aristotle): “We are what we repeatedly do.

Today, we know the true extent of those words. According to research, up to 40% of our daily actions are powered by habits—the unconscious actions and routines we’ve developed over time.

Yet our routines aren’t the only thing we need for a balanced life. Most of us spend our days bouncing between tasks. We’re a designer or developer for the morning and then a professional emailer and meeting-attendee for the afternoon. And it’s our rituals—those symbolic actions performed at key moments—that help us move through the day smoothly.

As Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings writes, though very different in practice, routine and ritual seem to be two sides of the same coin:

“While routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical. The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us.”

So how do routines and rituals fit into the modern workday? And how can we develop ones that maximize our ability to do meaningful work?

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How to build a daily routine you’ll actually want to follow

routine walk

First, let’s start with our routines. In their most basic form, a routine is a series of regularly followed actions.

You can have a morning routine comprised of the things you do when you first wake up (shower, make breakfast, plan your day, drive to work). Or an evening routine that helps you unwind and disconnect from work.

We all have routines (whether we recognize them or not). Yet not everyone consciously crafts their routines to maximize their time.

That’s why so many people are interested in the routines of successful entrepreneurs and creatives. We think following the same steps will bring the same results.

But blindly following someone else’s routines won’t make you as productive as them.

For one, correlation isn’t causation. And just because Apple’s CEO wakes up at 3:45am every morning doesn’t mean that’s the reason for his success.

Instead, the most successful daily routine is the one that works for you. At work, this means understanding your body’s natural ebbs and flows of energy. Planning meaningful work when you’re best suited for it. And protecting your time and attention from interruptions, distractions, and too many meetings.

What’s important isn’t the exact nature of your routine, but that you have one and stick to it.

Free Download: Grab our Morning Routine Template and start your day off right.

Rituals help us shift our attention to where it’s most needed

ritual coffee

While routines keep us grounded, they don’t always do much to help us get through the day. While you might routinely spend the first hour of the day writing before your morning meetings kick in, your brain doesn’t always allow for such a clean break between tasks.

This is thanks to what’s called “attention residue.” As Deep Work author Cal Newport writes, while you might quickly switch from Task A to Task B at work:

“Your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.”

To get over that attention residue, we need some way to formally say:

“I’m done working on this task for now and it’s time to move onto the next one.”

That’s where rituals come in. Rituals are repeated behaviors just like routines (they can even be a part of your routine). However, they’re imbued with deeper meaning beyond just a sequence of actions. Think of religious rituals or family traditions. These rituals signify a change or moment of importance that we should take note of.

How to bring rituals into your workday

There are key moments during the workday where rituals can help guide you and alleviate attention residue.

Think about switching from writing a document to having a 1-on-1 meeting. The mental expectations between the two are incredibly different. And we need some way to disconnect from our words and engage with the person in front of us.

So what do you do? The simple answer is: pretty much anything.

Rituals are deeply personal. You could go for a quick walk, grab a cup of coffee, or put away your laptop. The action itself doesn’t matter as much as what it symbolizes to you—that you’re finished with one part of your day and ready to move onto the next one.

Now, I’d understand if you’re skeptical. But research has found that rituals help with self-control, can alleviate disappointment after hearing difficult news, and can even reduce anxiety before stressful tasks and improve our performance.

Part of this is because our behaviors lead us to conclusions about ourselves. When we repeat a ritual associated with a certain task, it tells us we’re disciplined, motivated, and focused.

As Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton, behavioral scientists at Harvard Business School, write:

“Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true.”

The most famous (and bizarre) rituals of creatives, entrepreneurs, and leaders

Routines are easy to explain. But rituals can often seem pretty strange to people on the outside.

Think of the relationship between athletes and superstition. It’s hard to believe anyone really thinks growing a beard during playoffs or not changing your socks during a tournament will help them win. But they do it anyways.

To help you feel less embarrassed, here are a few of the most famous (and a few totally bizarre) rituals of artists, entrepreneurs, and creatives:

Simone de Beauvoir always corrects the previous day’s work before launching into anything new:

“If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.”

Winston Churchill took a late-afternoon nap to separate his morning work from his evening work:

“At 5:00 p.m., after another weak whisky and soda, he went to bed for an hour and a half. He said this siesta, a habit gained in Cuba, allowed him to work 1 1/2 days in every 24 hours. At 6:30 p.m. he awoke, bathed again, and dressed for dinner at 8:00 p.m.”

Stephen King creates the same work environment every morning before he starts to put himself in the right state of mind:

“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”

Author Will Self smokes and drinks strange teas and coffees. As he explains in The Guardian:

“Q: In your line of work, you spend much of your time alone. How do you survive?”

“A: Rituals. Smoking–pipes, cigars, special brands, accessories, the whole bollocks. Coffee, tea, strange infusions…”

And all the way on the other end of the spectrum, Picasso refused to throw out his fingernail clippings and other bodily detritus for “fear of squandering his essence.” While Charles Dickens always slept facing north, believing it improved his creativity.

Routines power your day, but rituals help you get through them

Days have a funny way of slipping past without us even realizing it. And while routines help us feel in control of our time, rituals make sure we stick to our plans. Sometimes it’s the simplest actions that help us get through the day and stay motivated.

Do you have any workplace rituals that help you get through the day? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

4 comments

  1. “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” is a great book that goes into detail about the rituals how famous/infamous people got their stuff done. A common thread seems to be waking up (usually early), then a ritual like a walk or coffee, then getting into undistracted work for a couple of hours. Then the rest of the day is left for living their lives. I’m definitely most productive following a similar schedule, sans saving my toenails.

    It’s contrary to the “work 12-16 hours a day” hustle culture thats all over social media.

    1. I definitely agree! We recently interviewed Alex Pang, the author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Do Less, and his research found the same daily routine across varying disciplines: Wake early. Do your most important work first. And then stop when you’re done. No need to work all day for diminishing returns.

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