The only way to create lasting change is by taking small steps towards it. One way to accomplish that is instilling meaningful habits and rituals into your life.
The thing is — we often confuse one for the other. We call habit a ritual and vice versa. As a result, we fail to understand the difference between them and the functions they serve.
We can’t foster full power of either before we know how they work.
This article offers a practical explanation of the difference between habits and rituals. In the last section, I will also talk about how to combine both to reach your goals in 2020.
If you’re motivated to reinvent your life — then let’s get started.
The Habit Hype of The 2010s
It seems like we’ve spent the last decade organising an open, inclusive conversation about self-improvement for the first time in human history. One of the main pillars of this conversation has been habit building.
Habits are the behaviours we repeat over time — and which are prone to evolving. As Charles Duhigg wrote in his bestseller The Power of Habit, “change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”
In the last decade, we talked a lot about deliberately designing our habits. We wrote books, created courses and recorded videos about it. We realized that any behaviour if repeated often and long enough, impacts who we are.
That’s the core function of habit-building: intentionally influencing who we become through committing to certain actions. When we look at them from this angle, habits’ primarily function is a practical one. It’s kind of a “micro-dosing” of bigger changes that we want to see in our lives.
Habits, as opposed to rituals, are quite malleable. They change over time. We adjust them to the consecutive iterations of ourselves. At the same time, they serve an important role in self-signalling.
Benjamin Hardy put it best when he said: “How you see yourself is highly fluid and based on your own behaviors. As your behavior changes, your perceived identity changes.”
If you develop a habit of exercising regularly, you start seeing yourself as a fit person. When you write day in and day out, it’s much easier to call yourself a writer. Habits give us huge power to reshape our identity. They are the little bricks from which you build a strong wall over time.
Now, let’s look at the slightly different function of rituals.
Ritual As A Way To Regulate Emotions
Psychologists and anthropologists alike have reached a consensus that ritualistic behaviours are our brain’s response to uncertainty. Performing any ritual has anxiety-soothing tendencies, because of its repetitiveness and controllability. It allows us to experience a sense of agency over otherwise unpredictable lives.
Nick Hobson, who’s been researching the psychology behind them for over a decade, says that rituals are more rigid in their structure than habits. While a habit can be adapted to our needs as we go along, the power of ritual resides in the very fact that it’s predictable. This means it usually follows a defined and unchanging sequence of activities.
On top of that, the function of ritual is much more symbolic than utilitarian. While habit is a very practical behaviour — ritual isn’t necessarily. On the contrary, it often symbolizes our connection to something bigger than ourselves — be it nature, religion, ancestry or another personally meaningful concept.
Rituals have three main regulatory functions, one of them being emotional regulation. That’s right — by performing rituals that are meaningful to you, you’re able to alter your emotional states.
Consider a person who prays to their god for security and protection. While it’s arguable whether the prayer has any causal effect, it will likely induce feelings of safety for the faithful. This may cause them to gain a sense that their life is more secure than before the prayer.
Unless they’re in the middle of a military conflict, this enhanced sense of security will typically benefit their well-being.
As you can see, both habits and rituals have their place in creating a good life. What remains is to answer one final question:
How to combine the power of both to achieve your biggest goals?
Ritual and Habit Work Best Together
Habits and rituals support each other really well. One can do what the other cannot. Now it’s the matter of understanding which types of challenges belong to the ritual, and which to the habit realm.
For me, habits are the primary means of realizing tangible, long-term projects. They allow me to create a behavioural framework for the actions I know will support my goal. A good example is all the habits I needed to establish to turn writing into a viable career.
I already know which habits serve this goal. Each morning before I start writing, I meditate, read a few Medium articles and go for a walk. Through repeating these behaviours over and over, I’ve trained my brain to treat them as cues for writing.
Rituals, however, are equally important for pursuing my goal. They help me when I run into emotional difficulties which could potentially get in the way of performing habits. Because I have a range of personal rituals to support me, I can use them to alter my emotional states when I need to push through.
One of them is lighting a candle and burning palo santo just before I sit down to write. This grounding ritual engages senses and brings my attention to the present moment. On a symbolic level, the flame designates hope and energy for creation. The palo santo scent purifies the space I’ll be writing in.
Does it have a literal effect of giving me energy or making the air in the room “cleaner”? I’m not sure. What matters is that, symbolically, the ritual achieves these things for me.
Designing a habit prompts you to take action. It helps you take the little steps required to reach your goals, one day at a time. That’s because habits have the power to change your behaviour and identity in the long run.
Meanwhile, a ritual supports the performance of habits in a symbolic way. Whenever you’re feeling down, anxious or distracted, it brings your attention to the present moment. Psychologists have discovered that rituals can help with emotion regulation when the world around overwhelms us.
When planning your 2020 goals, employ both habits and rituals to help you achieve them. By feeding on their joint power, you’re maximizing the odds of success.