Rituals are powerful.
(No, not the kind that involves incantations and sacrifice. You may try to achieve the physique of your dreams using sorcery too, just be careful…)
Why are they powerful?
A ritual creates the right environment and encourages focus.
It helps you develop mastery.
I always wear a pair of battered Converse to squat. When I walk to the squat rack, the first thing I do is retie them. It doesn’t matter if they were securely tied already, that’s not the point. I do it every time I need to focus on an important set, when I need to summon intensity, and clear my mind of any doubt.
I’m naturally an analytical person. I often get lost in small details, worrying about things, and not moving forward.
Rituals remove my anxiety. They clear those mental roadblocks and enable me to take action.
Using your ritual to take action
Your ritual must create the belief that you’re in control.
It should flow: moving from simplicity into complexity, and from certainty into uncertainty, like small streams flowing into a large river.
That means you start with easy tasks that you know you can do, building naturally to difficult tasks where the outcome is not certain.
It’s easier to visualise completing the task after a string of small successes. It should almost feel inevitable.
Here’s how you create your own ritual
1. Elevate the mundane
Take an ordinary task and breathe new life into it. If you stretch before training, use this as an opportunity to become aware of your body and your breathing. Go through the movements mindfully.
2. Create focus
Become totally immersed and let everything else fall away. If you’re just making coffee, it’s now the most important coffee in the world.
3. Follow a fixed sequence
Imagine you’re following a set of instructions that you must carry out in the same order every time. The sequence should flow naturally.
4. Use triggers
External triggers are things like notifications or reminders that contain the information for what to do next. Use external triggers at first to set your behaviour in motion.
Internal triggers are things like emotions where the information is stored through association in your memory. These triggers manifest automatically.
Repetition is important. It builds habits and establishes a feeling of control.
- Get out of bed. I think it’s important to do this without hesitation. But during winter I’ll switch on my lightbox and go back to bed for 15mins.
- Step on the scale. Daily repetition removes the emotion, the scale weight is now just a number to note down.
- Make coffee. I leave my coffee and aeropress right by the kettle. The aeropress is delightfully manual, you have to kind of assemble it to make your coffee. I take my time and forget about everything else.
- Shower. Personal hygiene is important, even if you’re working from home.
- Eat breakfast. If I don’t eat breakfast now, I’ll get distracted by work. I want to enjoy the food.
- Work. I start with labelling my emails, removing clutter from my inbox, and responding quickly to the easy stuff. This sets the scene for the important stuff.
With this ritual I don’t have to think about when I’m going to start work, it just happens. I don’t check any notifications before I’m ready, because that would disrupt the flow. Breakfast is always planned out in advance, I don’t spend time thinking about it.
- Eat. This is when the countdown begins. I imagine it’s like a self-destruct sequence that can’t be disengaged. Nothing will stop me from training now.
- Pick the right gym clothes. You need a baggy hoody to show everyone that you’re hardcore. But seriously, use your clothing to become the thing you want to be. Inhabit the role and create the right mindset.
- Listen to music. Music creates the right environment for me to train, it supports my mood, and it motivates me. Do you want to dominate? Listen to Meshuggah. Do you need calm focus? Listen to Meshuggah… or maybe Eric Prydz.
- Check equipment. Do my knee sleeves fit snugly? Are my shoes tied exactly the right way (I often untie and tie them again repeatedly when I squat, remember)?
- Pause. I like to take a moment before I hit the squat rack, clear my thoughts, and let go of any anxiety or stress that might interfere with my training.
I follow this sequence to shift my thoughts away from work and everything else going on in my life. Training is my meditation.
- Wrap up work. This is the cut-off point where I finish whatever I’m working on. No exceptions.
- Switch off electronic devices. I silence my phone at this point.
- Set the scene. I make sure my room is completely dark and quiet.
- Clear the mind. I focus on letting go of anxiety and worry.
It’s important to create the right environment for sleep. Blue light from electronic devices suppresses melatonin production, which means that your laptop and smartphones are stopping you from getting good quality sleep (it also disrupts your natural circadian rhythm). They also distract you with notifications when you should be resting.
How to start
Identify an action you want to take. It should be something that benefits from thoughtful and deliberate practise, like writing.
This isn’t a hack.
It’s not about making it easier, it’s about getting better at doing it.
Find the right time to do it. I find it easiest to write first thing in the morning. It’s important to perform your ritual at the same time every day.
Look at smaller actions you can take that prepare the environment. Do them with intent.
Now go and create your ritual.