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Making Rituals Work For You

Making Rituals Work For You

We all have strong intentions about the things that we want to start, accomplish, or do differently. It can be harder than we think, however, to make these changes happen. Creating rituals can be a way to help you adapt to new behaviors.

Written by:Tara A. Collison, Ph.D.

We all have strong intentions about the things that we want to start, accomplish, or do differently. Whether it’s waking up early to get to the gym before work, setting aside a few hours a day solely for writing or pursuing a passion project, or even unwinding at the end of the day without screen time, we have all set goals for ourselves that we wanted to implement into our daily routines. It can be harder than we think, however, to make these changes happen. 

Creating rituals can be a way to help you (and your brain) adapt to new behaviors. In the last decade or so, scientists have proven that the brain can literally be rewired due to its neuroplasticity, the ability to change structure and function in response to behaviors, experiences, and emotions. However, new pathways (in this case, our new rituals) cannot “overpower” existing pathways (our old, bad habits) overnight—change takes time.

Identifying the Right Rituals
The key to creating lasting change can be in picking the right thing to change in the first place. It turns out that not all change is created equal. Some changes will deliver a cascade of associated positive benefits, while others may be more self-contained. Once you’ve identified the change you want to make, we can leverage what we know about the science of habit formation to ‘hack’ our brains into systemic change!

So, how do we form habits, and what can we do to ensure we’re following through on them? New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg demonstrates how reaching goals and achieving success can be as simple as understanding how habits work and then implementing habit changes into your existing routine. In his book The Power of Habit, Duhigg breaks down the habit loop, a three-part loop that forms the foundation of a habit: cue, routine, and reward. This cycle, along with understanding your cravings, can simplify the process of change.

Essentially, to form a habit you should:

  1. Identify your routine (the behavior you want to change). This should be associated with the larger change you are working to create and should be a keystone behavior that, when changed, can have a positive impact.
  2. Experiment with different rewards to determine what you are craving. The key here is to understand the craving that your existing behavior satisfies. The new behavior needs to both address the old craving as well as provide the new benefits you are seeking to change. In some cases, the natural outcome of the new behavior accomplishes both. Other times, you have to set up additional rewards for yourself to drive change. 
  3. Isolate the cue (the signal that triggers your current habit). Most cues are one of five types: (1) location, (2) time, (3) emotional state, (4) other people, or (5) immediately precedes an action. Keep a log of the behavior you are seeking to change to identify the trigger, and then use that trigger to become the beginning of the new behavior you want to create. You don’t need to remove the cues—you only need to change what you do after the cue! 
  4. Create a plan to help you implement an intended habit. Write down your new plan, including the rewards. It’s another way to frame your intentions and increase the likelihood that you will stick with it. To take it a step farther, keep a log to track your cues and behavior loops. Logging your wins becomes another reward!

When You Get Stuck
It can be difficult, and it’s NORMAL to find that certain rituals don’t necessarily work for you. If a ritual doesn’t work, it isn’t because you failed. It could mean that something else is more important, that you have not yet identified the right cue for your new routine, or that you don’t have a good enough reward system for the new behavior. Rather than dwell on what isn’t working or trying to force yourself into a ritual that isn’t a good fit, focus on making choices that will make the ritual work most effectively for you!

Consider the following if you are stuck:

  • How important is this change to you, and why? (This is your big reason… it can be the key to sticking with things even on the days you want to quit or fall into your old routine!)
  • Have you picked the right thing to change? (Thinking deeply about all the potential things you can do to create change and selecting the one keystone change that will create the cascade takes time… think about and inventory all the behaviors that are related to your goal… then pick where you want to start).
  • What existing behavior are you trying to replace? What triggers the old behavior? Does your new behavior fit the cue you’ve identified? (Hint: Your new behavior should be able to be inserted based on the same trigger!)
  • Is the new behavior rewarding enough? (sometimes we have to artificially create this in the beginning before the natural benefits start kicking in).

Form Productive Rituals with Meddlers
The key to making a ritual work for you long-term is to anticipate the reward ahead of the ritual and stay focused on achieving that reward. Tying this reward to the triggers already in your environment is the key to designing effective rituals. By creating rituals for yourself, you’ll be more productive and focused on your work, which significantly benefits your team and company. To learn more about Meddlers and our neuroscience-based approach to facilitating change, contact us today!

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