Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Why Rituals Matter

Practically every life coach and self-help guru will go on about rituals, and how important they are. As one popular example, watch the following Tony Robbins video:

(Note for clarity, added after my discussion with Brent Mosher in the comments section below: I do not endorse Tony Robbins; he's a self-help guru, and he keeps raising unrealistic and false hopes in his followers. However, I think he's right in this regard, and I believe in separating the wheat from the chaff, even with gurus.)

He's right, of course, and they all are: Rituals are good for you!

This posting is about what they don't tell you, perhaps because it's not trendy and not "positive" enough. Or, more probably, they simply don't know it. (*)

There is a well-documented psychological effect called decision fatigue. It describes how decisions are physically exhausting. The following quote from a NYT article (quoted in an excellent article aptly titled "Decision Fatigue: Why Willpower Isn’t Always Enough") explains it nicely:
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.
It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain...
(Highlights by me.)
And that is precisely why it makes sense to ritualize our tasks - especially those we don't like. Daily workout, I guess, is one of those for most of us. You get up in the morning and your brain and your whole body goes noooo, not again... I'm tired, I want ten more minutes in bed, it'll feel terrible... And that odd behaviour will continue day after day after day, even though you repeatedly have the experience of being more happy after the workout than before. But when you're used to doing your morning exercises every day at the same time for so long you don't even remember a time when you did not do them, it's much easier. It's one thing you don't have to think about.

Perhaps more importantly, if you know the dynamics of decision fatigue, it gets easier to handle those situations. It's not a question of guilt anymore, but a question of acquiring the skills. Instead of calling yourself a failure for not having enough willpower, now it's time to learn how to ritualize all the things you want to do on a regular basis.

And it gets even better!

'Cos you can apply the same principle on a much lower level, too.

I find that workout gets easier if I do the same set of exercises every time. Sure, every now and then I add an "extra", just to make it more interesting, but in general, I have my 10 or so moves that I do every day.

I hear similar stories from people who decided to go vegetarian. There is no question about ordering that rare steak. One more decision they don't have to take with every single meal.

Venturing into philosophical terrain, I find it plausible that our identity, the labels we attach to ourselves and then attach ourselves to, are yet another way to get rid of decisions. If that is so, my decision never to go 100% with any dietary philosophy has a severe drawback here, and I will rethink it in the next few days.

So, in case you were wondering why your grandma always insisted the dishes be done right after the meal, now you know - she was perfectly right. Sometimes, a lifetime of experience can make one a great psychologist.

What tasks can you think of right now that you would like to ritualize in this way?



  1. Jesus! Well first i just want to say how offended I was to see Tony Robbins on your blog. I mean, I was having lunch, for pete's sake. At least it wasn't Deepak Chopra...

    Richard Feynman tells the story of how he used to fret over what to have for dessert. So many tempting choices. One day he decided to have chocolate ice-cream. And to stick with that decision from then on. I don't know if he ALWAYS, ONLY EVER had chocolate ice-cream, but I laughed at his point.

    I call the process streamlining. And it makes life much less stressful. Eat the same things (I'm on a frozen lasagna kick right now), get the chores done at generally the same time in the same way. Not boring, just frees me up for more important matters. And when "life" happens to screw things up, I just observe how I handle it, and appreciate the ritual even more.

    This goes for consumption, too. I just revamped my home studio. Hours on the interet researching gear. The educational part of it was great, but the buying decisions were not, and I felt a malaise about it quite often. I'm glad I got all the stuff, but kept to a philosophy of keeping it simple (easy to do when you're poor). Musicians in the digital age often talk about how having too many choices (thousands of virtual instrument patches to choose from) can actually hamper creativity.

    I don't have any problem with ritual and repetitiion. Love them in fact. Just so long as they are of my own creation and serve a purpose I can see getting benefits from.

    Keep it simple.

    1. Sorry if I disappointed you. My intention was not to endorse the guy, but to give an example of how gurus can sometimes have stuff that's actually useful. I mean, he's right about having rituals, credit where it's due - his way of presenting it has a strong guru-smell, and it raises too high-strung expectations, and as I said, he probably doesn't know why it's a good idea. (True, I might have been clearer on the latter parts. I didn't want to keep hammering on about the evils of gurus.) But it's still true.

      The question I ask myself is, why did this correct message not come through to me, even during the time when I did think much better of Robbins? The only answer I can think of is that I always need some well-grounded reasoning behind an idea, before I can implement it. I'm analytical that way. Plus, Robbins' "chunking" (to borrow an NLP term) is too large. I need smaller steps.

      As it turns out, I don't have a problem with repetition either. I only thought I had one.

      Feynman definitely rules! That story is excellent!

    2. P.S. I added a little note for more clarity.

    3. I was joking about Robbins!!!! Sheesh...

      But yes, Robbins sells fantasies and preys on desperation and confusion. I think he's somewhat sincere, but I doubt he does much follow-up to see if anyone actually got anywhere with his "product". I had a friend once who was into him Of course, he was also into The Secret, and probably Wayfarers...I had a copy of The Power of Now he was interested in (yeah, I read that one...it's actually relaxing to read it, but so are many things...and much of it is just spiritual blather). And on and on and on...Byron Katie, Deepak...Jesus and Buddha...you'd think with all these people helping humanity out we'd all be nirvana blissed millionaires by now? What's going wrong??? Hmmm...

      I think it was only ice-cream Feynman went choco-only on..can't remember now. I like the idea of deliberately limiting choices.

    4. I was joking about Robbins!!!! Sheesh...


      Well, I'm happy for it because it made me put in the little disclaimer which, I think, is a good idea. I absolutely don't want anyone thinking I'm a fan of Robbins, or any other guru.

      Wayfarers? What what what, there are self-help gurus out there that I don't know yet? Damn!

      Oh dear I read and watched much too much of that stuff. The Secret of course, What the bleep, Robbins, Tolle and a few other advaitans, Ken Wilber... you name it.

      Tolle, I have to say, is pretty amusing. I always wondered whether he keeps his soft voice even in bed. Well perhaps he doesn't have any sex, but then, why become a guru if it doesn't get you laid? The rest of the advaitans is so obviously just a bunch of pretty-face charlatans it's frightening.

      What's going wrong???

      Oh come on, as if you didn't already know the answer to that one... ;-)

      it's actually relaxing to read it

      I think it would be excellent if we managed to start reading religious and self-help texts simply as entertaining, inspirational and relaxing fictional literature, instead of taking the stuff seriously. Much like a mystery novel or something. I couldn't do that with the bible, though. Too much personal experience with its cults.

    5. Oh dear I read and watched much too much of that stuff. The Secret of course, What the bleep, Robbins, Tolle and a few other advaitans, Ken Wilber... you name it.

      Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I also watched What the Bleep, read one Ken Wilber (LMFAO)and watched the Tony Robbins infomercial (mostly for the chick he hangs out with). The secret I browsed for two minutes in the bookstore, to my credit that is all the time I wasted on it. To my enduring shame, I read The Celesitne Prophecies all the way through. Just wanted to see what the noise was all about. Again, I despair for humanity when i think how many people take this stuff seriously. Probably the worst book I ever read.

      The Wayfarers Manifesto http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWNi7rBVkA8

      Gotta admit it's catchy.