A guide on how to use the power of ritual to create wellness habits that will improve the quality of your life.
I now fit into my black jumpsuit again. I am nearly 4 kilos or 8 pounds lighter than I was at the beginning of the year. My limbs have a moisturized glow and my hair dresser has commented on how silky my hair feels of late. In short, I look like I’ve been taking care of myself - because I have. This was not the case six months ago. I was stressed out of my mind and consumed a brownie and a bag of chips after a thousand-calorie lunch, every day. Then, three things happened:
- I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- I discovered how to use the power of ritual to help me form good habits
- I learned how reinforcing my belief in my rituals made my good habits sustainable
If you haven’t read the book, no worries. I am going to distill its core essence for you (would highly recommend reading it if and when you can) and provide my perspective on how to form and sustain wellness through habits born of rituals.
The Power of Habit – In a Nutshell
“If you believe you can change - if you make it a habit - the change becomes real.”- Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Habits work in loops. First comes the cue, which triggers automatic action, then comes routine, and finally there is a reward that tells our brains whether or not this loop is worth remembering.
Over time, the loop becomes automatic. Which means it plays itself out without much intervention from the brain, which refrains from decision-making and diverts itself elsewhere when the habit loop is in play – in fact, habits exist because our brain is looking for ways to save effort.
Old habits can only be changed permanently when people believe in the change. Same with creating new habits – belief is the central ingredient.
“It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a re-worked habit loop into a permanent behavior.” - Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
I knew I desperately needed to change my eating habits. I was addicted to sugary, processed foods and had utterly failed at curbing my cravings in the past. All of my willpower was spent on parenting my rambunctious 5-year-old boy, executing at an intense finance job and as an entrepreneur. There was none left to reign in my poor food choices. My cravings peaked right after lunch, when I would return to a long to-do list, feel overwhelmed by the stress of having to make huge progress over a few short hours and given in to a soulful yearning for a sugary treat as a reward for immersing myself in what needed to be done.
So, I introduced a post-lunch ritual at work. One that I believed would bust my stress and help me change my habit. Post lunch stress hits (my cue), I get up (having typically scoffed lunch down at my desk), walk over to the kitchen area and make myself a cup of black tea. While it’s brewing, I do two quick Pranayam (deep breathing) exercises – the channel cleaning breath and breath retention. I then exhale deeply, do a forward bend if there’s no one around and return to my desk to sip on my cup of tea, sans sugar.
How Rituals Birth Habits
Rituals are not habits – at least not at first. What makes them different is that they are conscious and deliberate actions, unlike habits, which manifest on autopilot. Joseph Campbell puts it beautifully when he says:
“by participating in ritual, you are put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life.”
Pranayam is yoga’s breathing tradition that I find helps calm and focus my mind. I believe in its ability to ground and relax me and that’s why I was able to substitute it for a sugary snack and still feel the same reward of feeling happy and relaxed.
Rituals can give birth to habits. For example, my mother’s morning ritual begins with an hour of meditation, then breakfast, then an hour of prayers, following which she showers and gets ready for work. Naturally, she gets to her office by noon, which works because she’s self-employed.
The meditation and prayers are ritualistic in that they are conscious and deliberate actions. After decades however, they’ve become her core habits. The days mum needs to travel and can’t meditate or pray, she feels decidedly uneasy.
How the habit makes the ritual sustainable, and vice versa.
The trouble is that you can become irregular with wellness rituals even if you believe in them. Particularly because many don’t deliver instant gratification, at least not in the way a chocolate brownie or a bag of chips can! So, step 1 is to create a habit loop for the ritual and step 2 is to reinforce the reward with belief-boosting affirmations. Below is a list of my ritual-led-habit-loops that explain the virtuous cycle of ritual-habit-ritual.
- Oil pulling (every day)
- Cue: running my tongue over my teeth in the morning and feeling the film (ughh)
- Behavior: swishing oil around my mouth while I undress and then through the shower
- Reward: seeing how sparkly white my teeth look and how clean they fee afterward and telling myself that the oil is cleansing my mouth of certain bacteria that are more soluble in oil than water
- Dry brushing (only on Saturdays)
- Cue: stripping down outside the shower area and remembering how invigorating dry brushing feels and how it’s just what I need to start my weekend right
- Behavior: dry brushing my body starting from my legs upwards.
- Reward: feeling my soft, smooth skin afterwards and telling myself that I have helped boost circulation and eliminate some of the thicker and stickier dead skin cells
- Body oiling or moisturizing (every day)
- Cue: drying myself with a towel and running my hands over my bare legs reminds me to oil (summer) or moisturize them (in the winter)
- Behavior: giving myself an all-body acupressure point (marma) massage with the oil or lotion (scroll down for ritual)
- Reward: feeling my soft, smooth skin afterwards and telling myself that I have helped nourish my skin with the moisture it needs
- Hair and scalp massage (with or without oil)
- Cue: removing my hair band or banana clip when I get ready to go to bed at night and as I do so, feeling aware of the tension that’s built up on my head and neck
- Behavior: giving myself a hair and scalp massage either with a hair elixir (scroll down for the ritual) or with the natural sebum on my scalp
- Reward: feeling my stress ease, sleeping so much sounder and telling myself that I have helped bring nutrient-rich blood to my follicles
How habitual rituals automate your well-being
If the affirmations help create a reward that’s impactful enough for you to establish habit loops for your wellness rituals, your wellness will be on autopilot. This is because habit loops require a part of the brain called the basal ganglia to kick in and the decision-making parts of the brain to be diverted.
“Take the act of backing your car out of the driveway. When you first learned to drive, the driveway required a major dose of concentration….nowadays, however, you do all of that every time you pull onto the street with hardly any thought. The routine occurs by habit.” - Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
That said, while habits are sticky, they can still be fragile. Belief is what keeps them going. As Gandhi once said:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions.Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny."
So do your well-being research, find rituals you believe are right for you and push yourself to create core habits out of them.
How turning routine into ritual maximizes the everyday
Perhaps what’s most incredible about my transformation is that I haven’t once felt like I’ve had to go out of my way to achieve it. Everyday rituals have transformed into every day habits that have resulted in an improvement in my overall well-being. I am so enjoying being able maximize my every day. Are you ready to begin?