The Power of Ritualization: Rituals vs. Routines

For years, I've been planning my days hour by hour, trying to build habits that last for longer periods, not just for a few months. In a life without goals, habits are the fundamental stones, and opening some space for them is crucial to not falling into an aimless life.

One of the results of these habits (writing every day) is this blog. This blog is the product that came out from me sitting down and writing for at least thirty minutes every morning. It was difficult to start writing at first, but these days, I just grab my pen (or sometimes keyboard) and continue writing or editing my previous drafts. Once I got used to the habit, it became a routine.

Actually, many of my habits became routines; I planned them carefully and adjusted their times and cadence according to other events happening in my life. Doing something every single day may sound quite boring to many people and also can be challenging. When someone asks me how my life is going, I can mostly say, "it's the same since you last asked." Sometimes there might be some news; sometimes, nothing interesting happens. At least, nothing interesting for them, not for me. Life is actually not boring, even if I do the same things every day. Because I don't have routines, I have rituals.

I've been using Headspace for a few years on and off to learn meditation and to train my mind. In one of the meditations, the guide talked about rituals. That was an enlightening approach that helped me understand why I enjoyed doing a lot of activities every day while others found them loathing.

When we build a ritual around a routine, it ramps up the routine, much like the weekend hikes we used to do as a family in my childhood. Or, like cooking turkey in our family's new year's celebrations. They both had a set of activities consistently done in a certain order every time. When we went on weekend hikes, we always searched for wild fruits and always ended with a barbeque next to a small river. When we cooked turkey for the celebration, preparations started a few days ago, and we always had my uncles as guests in our apartment. We didn't only go for a hike or cook turkey alone; we consistently built activities that made these experiences delightful.

Ritualizing layers meanings around activities. It gives a sense of satisfaction to the most tedious and regular activities. Think about a family dinner on a religious day like Christmas or Ramadan. These dinners have certain rituals around them that have been done every year. They are not just dinners where everybody is present. They have been ritualized with multiple layers around them.

I've been adopting this ritualization idea in my life for a while. One of my daily rituals after waking up is grinding a coffee, setting up the coffee machine, meditating for ten minutes while the coffee is brewing, and drinking that coffee. Drinking a cup of coffee is a ceremony, not an activity to wake me up. Certain and consistent activities lead to taking the first sip—measuring the weight of beans, manually grinding coffee at hand instead of using a machine, adjusting the strongness of the brew depending on my day and mood, and then meditating in silence at 5:30 in the morning. The very last moment of this series of events is actually enjoying the coffee in complete silence. For me, reaching the first sip of coffee demands building up mindfulness. I have huge respect for the people who bring these coffees to my cup, and I feel like that's one of the things I can do to honor them.

Rafael Nadal, a world champion tennis player, is known for his ritualistic habits in the game. He arranges his water bottles carefully, never steps on the lines while walking in the court, and always jumps during the coin toss. He says that his activities are not superstitious. When he serves a ball, he adds something from himself. He individualizes every single move. By doing so, he focuses on the game and enjoys every moment—even the most boring parts, such as drinking water.

Sometimes, it isn't easy to individualize each activity and make them joyful and ceremonial. For example, I started reading books at university. Building the reading habit took me a lot of time. That's when I realized that I was reading physically low-quality books—the print material of the books were horrible, hence reading was not fun at all. Once I recognized this, I decided to find books with better print. These days, I always opt for hardcover prints instead of paperback if it's available. Reading from hardcover books makes reading more pleasant. If the book has a good cover design, that becomes a cherry on top.

A well-designed item nudges me to use it. When I pick up a well-designed book from the shelf, the excitement encourages me to fulfill the book's purpose: to be read. When it's a beautifully designed book, that purpose shows itself instead of me searching for it.

The visualization helps keep rituals consistent. If I want to keep going to the gym, I prefer having comfortable and nice-looking shoes. These shoes motivate me not to skip the gym day. Because I really want to wear my shoes; they just look great. The same applies to note-taking: I usually use fountain pens while note-taking. Suddenly, writing things down becomes a pleasure because writing with a beautiful fountain pen is more satisfying.

All routines can become rituals. It's all about perspective and how we approach building habits. The perception of routines has to change, and one way to do this is by ensuring we build some routines with people we love. Maybe regularly watching sports with friends, meeting up in the same café every month to catch up, or going to the same location every summer for a family trip. From one perspective, they are routines, but from another, they are rituals. They have certain ceremonies we do every time that make these routines delightful.

We need to search for and find pleasure in every activity we do. Our jobs might be tiring or overwhelming. But when we find some things around them and ritualize some parts, they become easier. A beautiful physical calendar can change our daunting planning cycle. A beautiful coffee machine may boost our mood in the mornings when we're having a cup of coffee with one eye closed. Or going to the same hotel in summer can relieve stress from searching and planning and help us enjoy every moment of family time.

Routines can—and should—become rituals. And beautiful design helps build and keep them consistent. If we are going to do the same thing every day, then it should be a pleasure, not a burden.

Medium Length Last Updated: Dec 15, 2022