The importance of rituals on our well-being
One universal outcome of the COVID pandemic has been a loss of control. As individuals and as leaders, our routines have been disrupted in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few months ago. While we may not be able to change our external circumstances – be it government-mandated lockdowns or the state of healthcare – there are other things we can do to salvage some semblance of control to our lives and work.
Rituals are a powerful source of restoration, a potential tool to cushion the sudden loss of normalcy. In The Restorative Power of Ritual, published recently in the Harvard Business Review, Scott Berinato identifies rituals as an antidote to the anxiety and grief produced by the current pandemic. He points to findings from Mike Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied the impact of rituals on our well-being:
Rituals play a number of critical roles: rituals in the face of loss can help us feel less grief, rituals with families can make us feel closer, and rituals with our partners can reinforce our commitment to each other…. Most important for the world right now, when we are all facing both actual and anticipated grief, these idiosyncratic rituals can restore our sense of control over our lives. We feel out of control when we experience loss – we didn’t want it to happen, but we couldn’t control it. That is, in and of itself, a very unpleasant feeling, that sense that you’re not in charge of your life. Rituals restore some of that control.
What exactly do we mean by “rituals” here?
Rituals aren’t habits that we perform automatically and unthinkingly, nor do they refer to elaborate religious ceremonies. Rituals are intentional and distinctive tasks that hold personal value for the people involved.
Think of how your family celebrates a special occasion, or the unique phrases you and your partner have invented over the course of your relationship. Have you seen the Haka performed by the All Blacks rugby team? That’s probably one of the most famous public rituals in the world.
Rituals also play a vital role for many successful leaders. Steve Jobs, for example, would look in the mirror every morning and ask himself: “If today was the last day of my life, would I be happy with what I’m about to do today?” If the answer was “no” for several days, he interpreted it as a signal for change. During his term as president, Barack Obama made it a point to wake up at least two hours before his first engagement, so he could exercise and catch up on current affairs and sports.
Recently, I have also been trying out new rituals to bring more order and focus in my days, while being in lockdown mode. For instance, I am making it to a point to connect more systematically with some of my peers in the industry so that we can share more. I am being more disciplined about doing weekly one-on-one check-in’s with my team. I am also being more diligent with my morning meditation, taking daily morning walks with my wife and scheduling 30 minutes of playtime every afternoon with my eight year old daughter.
In the pre-COVID world, you probably had lots of daily or weekly rituals – going for a morning run, meeting friends at the end of the work week, or having Sunday brunch at your family’s favourite restaurant. At the office, too, rituals added structure and meaning, be it getting a coffee next door, celebrating team victories in your own unique way, or joining co-workers for a post-lunch walk around Ndiema. The loss of many of these beloved rituals – personal and professional – has created a vacuum, which in turn can further heighten feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
New or adapted rituals can fill this void and help to restore a sense of control and well-being. Norton and his team of researchers found that rituals don’t have to be old and organic in order to be beneficial – even those that are newly invented can make people feel better. Some rituals are based on repetition, while others may be one-time events:
When you repeat rituals, they do seem to gain in strength, but even rituals performed a single time can be useful…. What seems to matter is that you name it as a ritual, and that you actually do the ritual and don’t just think about doing it.
Here are five suggestions to help leaders to establish new rituals and adapt old ones:
1. Integrate reflection into your day
If you don’t already have a daily practice around introspection or gratitude, there has never been a better time to start! Leaders around the world have developed a variety of personal rituals to increase joy, learning and productivity. This could be something as simple as meditating, exercising or performing a mental inventory every morning. Many people find it helpful to jot down their thoughts in a journal. Some good points to ponder:
- three things which you’re grateful for
- three things that made you happy the day before
- three things you want to accomplish today
Another way to set the right tone for the day is “reading before scrolling”, as explained by entrepreneur Chris Harder in a Forbes article on leadership rituals:
We’re all programmed to open our phones as we head down the hall first thing in the morning, but you’re leaving your “mood” up to whoever happens to be posting on Instagram at that moment. That’s a gamble I’m unwilling to take. So I promise myself that I’ll read at least 10 pages of a book every single morning before I’m allowed to indulge in social media.
2. Recreate social connections
With physical distancing rules in place, some people have started adapting social rituals using technology. Are you making the most of these possibilities? Think beyond conventional team meetings: you can also recreate some of the informal events you had in office. Video calling makes it possible to “meet” co-workers for coffee, celebrate birthdays virtually or even organise an online games session.
On a personal front, why not set up recurring weekly chats (same day, same time) with family or friends? This offers everyone a chance to arrange their schedules around the call; plus, it’s something to look forward to! As Norton points out:
I’m seeing people try rituals and then say, “Let’s do this over video every Tuesday at 9 pm.” It feels good to know we have this event happening at a regular time. It regularises our lives.
3. Collaborate and co-create
Along with the Haka, the All Blacks have another, less-famous ritual: win or lose, they clean their dressing room together after every game. This is a way for the team to come together, show gratitude and reinforce humility among all its members. These kinds of practices build team culture and nurture a sense of belonging, which is more important than ever in the current scenario.
If you’re planning to design a new ritual for the team, why not do so in collaboration with them? This gives everyone a chance to participate in the culture-creation process and drives a higher level of buy-in right from the start. You could begin by identifying a problem (e.g., weakening of the team’s social bond, people feeling like their efforts are being overlooked, not enough positivity at work, etc.), then brainstorm rituals that could address it.
Avoid inventing complicated and time-consuming practices that make your team’s life more difficult. Powerful rituals tend to be authentic, human-centred and straightforward. Ease of execution is vital for adoption and engagement.
4. Be flexible
When instituting new rituals that are meant to be fun and relaxed, don’t make attendance mandatory. Keep in mind that many of our co-workers are coping with extra workloads like household chores and childcare. Encourage your team members to participate, but give them the choice of opting out. If the new ritual becomes a regular affair – such as a weekly coffee chat – people will start looking forward to it and those who haven’t been participating might be motivated to join. As the situation continues to evolve, be willing to adapt your ritual to new circumstances.
5. Embrace the goofy
Remember, rituals don’t always have to be practical or meaningful in order to work. As Mike Norton explains in the HBR article mentioned above:
Absurd rituals can have high utility. If it helps you create that sense of control, if it calms your anxiety, that’s what matters…. Thinking that rituals are irrational (“this is crazy, why would I do this?”) is a barrier that it can be helpful to overcome. Our research suggests that embracing them, no matter how silly, can improve our well-being.
Norton gives the example of a company that now begins all virtual meetings with participants clicking on images of Patrick (a character from SpongeBob) to indicate their current mood. As he notes:
Hard to imagine something sillier than this, but think what it does for the group: it has become a ritualistic way to start the meeting, and it is giving people a sense of control and familiarity in a new and uncomfortable situation.
So, the rituals you invent can be serious or light-hearted, practical or symbolic, public or private. What’s most important is that you actually do it (rather than just thinking about it). Easy, fuss-free rituals are more likely to become a regular practice.
Are there any new rituals you or your team have started recently?