I am not a religious person but I like to believe that everything that humans have come up with, has a purpose and can be beneficial when done in the right way. We have come up with a multitude of religions over generations and continue to come up with new ones, I used to think that an all-powerful God was the commonality between all these different religions but I have come to realize that I was wrong and that there are many non-theistic religions. The actual commonality between most religions is rituals and these rituals take up a significant portion of these religions and the lives of people following these religions.
Why do we like rituals so much? Is there something inherently satisfying about repeating a ritual over and over again without always thinking about an end goal?
A devout Christian(let’s call him Dan) on some level has a goal of going to heaven or being in God’s good books to be more general. To achieve this goal, Dan spends 30 mins every day praying but he has no guarantee that this ritual will get him to heaven but he does not think about this uncertainty every day and continues to practice his ritual with the belief that every day he is moving towards his end goal. If you think about Dan’s story, he has a goal but in his every day life the goal is not relevant, the ritual is, he draws is satisfaction from successfully practicing his ritual every day. I think humans are ritualistic by nature, a farmer does not think about how much crop his farm will produce that season while starting his day, he just continues to do what he does every year like a ritual and believes that all his rituals will result in a good crop and he is right to believe so.
The problem with focusing on big goals is that they create a delayed reward system. Humans are probably the only animals that can somewhat deal with delayed reward systems but I don’t think we are great with them. Rituals help simplify these goals and create instant reward systems that add up to the end goal.
In our modern society, most of us are taught to work in a goal-oriented manner and we spend too much time thinking/worrying about a goal that might be too far away and might not even be important by the time we reach it. What is important is to be happy and satisfied each step of the way to this big goal, we all know this at some level but don’t always know how to achieve this attitude and that is where the idea of ritualistic work comes in. The idea is to define a goal (maybe you want to learn a language in 3 months), define rituals that you think will take you to this goal. Once you define your ritual the goal becomes irrelevant and with each repetition of the ritual you draw satisfaction from the fact that you completed your ritual instead of drawing it from how much closer you got to your end goal.
Now the aim of this idea is not to become more productive or to achieve all the goals we have in life, the aim is to enjoy every step of the way but I think this can also lead to higher productivity if we set up our rituals in the right way. For your ritual to be effective it must have the following properties:
- Although the end goal is irrelevant, it has to be important to you. This will help you start your ritual habit.
- You must strongly believe that your ritual is moving you towards your goal, this is what gives you satisfaction after every iteration of your ritual.
- You must enjoy your ritual.
An example of such a ritual that I have been using is a very slight variation of the Pomodoro technique, I call mine the owl technique cause my timer looks like an owl. My end goal is to do more focused work, every time I sit down to work I start my owl timer for 25 or 50 mins and work without distractions for that long and then take a 5 or 10 min break, the timer is going tic tok even right now on my table and also forced me to take a break just as I was about to finish writing this article and I did take that break. Every time the timer rings, I know that I did a significant amount of focussed work and this makes me happy, whether I will reach my somewhat vague goal is irrelevant to me at this point.
I strongly believe that I can convert all of my work/personal goals into rituals and stop worrying about the actual end goal. I think that this can be used for teams too and not just for individuals but getting entire teams to work in this manner might need a complete culture (work culture) change.