Why rituals, not habits, make you more productive

Why rituals, not habits, make you more productive

Rituals can have a powerful effect on your outlook and success each day.

BY Stephanie Vozza

Quick question: Do you brush your teeth before or after you shower? 

If you’re like most people, you perform these two tasks in a set order. If something switches things up, it could impact the rest of the day. That’s because pieces of your morning routine are a ritual, and rituals can have a powerful effect on your outlook, says Michael Norton, author of The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions

“Sometimes, we use rituals to take very boring things and imbue them with a little more meaning and emotion,” he says. “In the silly example of brushing your teeth and showering, the order really matters to about half of people. When they do it in the right order, and they say things like ‘I’m ready to start the day,’ ‘I feel good,’ and ‘I feel alive.’ For people who do it in the opposite order, they say, ‘I feel weird,’ or ‘I feel off all day.’” 

While rituals and habits coexist, Norton says it’s important to understand how they’re different. A habit is what you do, and a ritual is how you do it. Habits are often automatic, while rituals are intentional. For example, brushing your teeth is a habit, but if you always do it before you shower, you’ve turned it into a ritual. 

“Rituals animate us, enchanting our lives with something more,” says Norton. “They are the emotional catalysts that enhance an ordinary day or make special occasions memorable. They help us get over, get through, and get better at the challenges life presents.” 

Taking a Rituals Inventory

Rituals are effective emotion generators that amp you up or calm you down. As a result, they can help or hinder your day. 

To best leverage rituals as a productivity tool, you’ll first need to take inventory and see where they’re already playing a role in your life, which is often easier said than done. While everyone has rituals, it can be challenging to recognize your own, says Norton. For example, it may never have occurred to you (until now) that you prefer to shower and brush your teeth in a particular order. 

Pay attention to the days when you feel off. Was your routine—aka, ritual—thrown off that day? Another way to uncover your rituals is to ask your partner, kids, or coworkers. Often, the people around you can quickly point out your patterns, such as always sitting in a particular chair or using a favorite mug. 

“It’s a little realization that you’re doing something that provokes an emotion,” says Norton. “When people think about their day, they’ll often realize, ‘I work in a certain way’ or ‘I start meetings in this particular way.’”

Using Rituals to Boost Productivity

When you identify your current rituals, you can take steps to preserve them. For example, if your ritual is to start each day by checking your email, you can block off and protect time each morning for this task. You can also honor their emotional significance in your routine. 


“Rituals help you transition into the mode you want to be in in order to do what you need to get done,” says Norton. “A ritual is built and repeated over time. When we layer it with meaning, we turn [that morning coffee] from simply pouring liquid into a cup into something much richer.” 

Another way to leverage the power of rituals is by adopting new ones. Norton suggests asking yourself, “Where are places where I could use a little more emotion?” “Where would I enjoy a little more meaning or excitement?” Or “Where do I need more calm?” Those are the places to try rituals.

When rituals help

For instance, if you get nervous before meetings, you can create a ritual to help calm your nervous system, such as trying breathing techniques or listening to a special song. Or, if you have a hard time leaving work behind at the end of the day, you can implement a ritual that creates a boundary. For example, you might create a to-do list for the next day, sign out of Slack, or power down your laptop. 

“These steps tell yourself, ‘Now I am leaving my work self behind so I can be my own self, a friend, a spouse, and a parent,’” says Norton. “Rituals demarcate the line between who I am and who I want to be at home.”

While rituals can be idiosyncratic and seemingly silly at times, Norton says there’s something about recognizing and owning them that makes them the most useful.

“Rituals can be a source of joy and meaning,” he says. “They enhance our lives with something more. Experiment with them. You can transform ordinary actions into something extraordinary.”




Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer who covers productivity, careers, and leadership. She’s written for Fast Company since 2014 and has penned nearly 1,000 articles for the site’s Work Life vertical.

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