written by
Flavian DeLima

How rituals improve performance, reduce stress, and make you happier

self-improvement 5 min read , September 21, 2021

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The theme of this article is how performing rituals help you be better and reduce anxiety. It is part 1 of 2 articles. Part 2 covers how rituals help groups become stronger.

By Flavian DeLima

Everyone performs rituals but not everyone does them consistently. I’m sure you’ve come across people who are “superstitious” and have unusual rituals and habits. People perform rituals for a wide variety of reasons - one of the more popular being a way to get better at something, often in stressful environments.

I once met a guy who carried a keychain in his pocket that had a miniature Yoda on it. This was well before the release of Disney’s The Mandalorian with Baby Yoda. When he needed to make hard or important decisions, he followed the same ritual. He would pull out his key chain, stare straight at Yoda and appeal to the wise elder for guidance. For him, Yoda was everything he needed to get past life’s hard decisions. Was he crazy to have such beliefs? As we’ll learn, not only was the guy not crazy, he very likely made better decisions and was happier because he did the ritual consistently.

Photographer: Victor Serban | Source: Unsplash

Routines VS Rituals

It's easy to get confused between routines and rituals within the larger context of habit formation. Maria Popova writes about the differences in her popular newsletter, Brain Pickings:

They seem to be different sides of the same coin — while routine aims to make the chaos of everyday life more containable and controllable, ritual aims to imbue the mundane with an element of the magical. The structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalizes us. A full life calls for both — too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb.
Photographer: David Hofmann | Source: Unsplash

The Automatic Life

Twyla Tharp is one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of her generation. I covered her in past newsletters here and here. In her book, The Creative Habit, she writes in a fitting chapter titled "Rituals of Preparation",

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30, in the morning, put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

Tharp says this simple act counts as ritual because it meets the criteria of the definition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ritual as

“a prescribed order of performing religious or other devotional service.”

She says thinking of it as a ritual has a transformative effect on the activity itself. Making something a ritual, she says, eliminates asking the question, Why am I doing this? Everyone practices daily rituals, no matter how small or large.

For Tharp, having several repetitive daily rituals is how a dancer becomes a great dancer as she writes in her book:

I repeat the wake-up, the workout, the quick shower, the breakfast of three hard-boiled egg whites and a cup of coffee, the hour to make my morning calls and deal with correspondence, the two hours of stretching and working out ideas by myself in the studio, the rehearsals with my dance company, the return home in the late afternoon to handle more business details, the early dinner, and a few quiet hours of reading. That's my day, every day. A dancer's life is about repetition.
Gym and exercise rituals
Feel the Burn - Photographer: Bruno Nascimento | Source: Unsplash

Rituals jumpstart motivation

Rituals are important because they help us get started without overthinking and overanalyzing. They eliminate self-doubt and questions like, Why am I doing this? James Clear in his popular book, Atomic Habits writes that motivation:

Often comes after starting a new behavior, not before. Getting started is a form of active inspiration that naturally produces momentum.

For example, how many times have you wanted to stay indoors and skip going to the gym or jogging outdoors? Each time you get started, you notice how fast you get motivated and want to finish. Clear writes that it is more difficult to start than to finish. He quotes Newton's First Law related to habit formation, which states:

Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest.

Elite performers obsessively follow rituals

High-level performers in the business, creative, entertainment, and sports sectors are known for performing unique rituals before, during, and after a performance.

Spanish tennis player, Rafael Nadal has many rituals and well-documented habits when he plays a match. Nadal says,

“It is something you start to do that is like a routine. When I do these things, it means I am focused, I am competing – it’s something I don’t need to do but when I do it, it means I’m focused

One popular ritual Nadal does before serving is to place his hair behind his ear, pull his nose, and adjust his shorts while bouncing the ball.

Other rituals Nadal performs at matches include:

  • Wearing both socks at the same height.
  • Carrying one racket onto the court, and five rackets in his bag.
  • Taking off the jacket while jumping, facing the audience.
  • Placing his bottles in the same exact position.
  • Sipping his energy drink and then his water, always in the same order.
  • Jumping at the net during the coin toss.
  • Crossing the sidelines with his right foot only and avoid stepping on it.
  • Using a towel after every single point.
Spanish tennis player, Rafael Nadal, has many rituals

The science of rituals

Researchers performed a series of experiments in a 2016 study called, “Don’t Stop Believing” that Noa Kageyama wrote about in this article. Researchers wanted to understand if rituals improve performance and lower anxiety. They randomly assigned 167 university students to 3 groups:

1. A Ritual Group (”Please complete a specific ritual”)

2. A No Ritual Group (”Please wait”)

3. A Calm Down Group (”Do your best to be calm before you sing”)

Journey - Don’t Stop Believin’ (Escape Tour 1981: Live In Houston)

From a waiting room, they were taken to a second room and told they would be singing the first verse of the 1981 Journey song, "Don't Stop Believin" in front of other participants. Each participant's heart rate was measured before and after they sang. Each participant’s performance was rated by judges and tracked.

1981 Journey song,
1981 Journey song, "Don't Stop Believin" - Source photo by The cover art can be obtained from Columbia.,

Students in the ritual group were asked to perform the following ritual:

Draw a picture of how you are feeling right now. Sprinkle salt on your drawing. Count up to five out loud. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash.

The "no ritual" group was asked to:

Sit quietly for one minute.

The calm down group was told to:

Do your best to calm down before you sing.

"Don’t Stop Believing" Results

The group that did the ritual benefited and had the following results :

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduce heart rate
  • Improved performance (as rated by the judges)

The researchers conducted a statistical analysis and found that performing a ritual reduced anxiety and lowered the heart rate.

Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety.
Brooks, A. W., Schroeder, J., Risen, J. L., Gino, F., Galinsky, A. D., Norton, M. I., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2016). Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 137, 71–85.

The ritual of drawing a picture, sprinkling salt on it, counting to five, crinkling, and throwing out the paper resulted in reduced stress and a performance improvement.

Ironically, when researchers conducted the same experiment but changed the name of the exercise from a “ritual” to "a few random behaviors", the reduction in anxiety and the performance boost did not occur. The improvement occurred only when participants understood the exercise as a ritual.

How artists really work

In her book, Stitches, Anne Lamott writes:

Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.

In his book, Daily Rituals, journalist Mason Currey spent many years researching how the most successful artists work and why they are so prolific. He wrote brief profiles of 161 creative professionals. They included novelists, painters, poets, philosophers, filmmakers, and scientists. He wanted to know how they used their daily time each day to get work done and create such great works.

David Brooks wrote in New York Times about discovering a surprising fact:

Creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, disciplined routines. They think like artists but work like accountants....In situation after situation, this pattern recurs: order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring.

No two artists get the exact same results if they do the same ritual. Mason noted that a ritual and schedule that works for one person will not work for another person. Daily routines and rituals involve a:

highly idiosyncratic collection of compromises, neuroses, and superstitions, built up through trial and error and subject to a variety of external conditions.

Mason also observed that accomplished artists never wait for inspiration.

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where, and artists channel this energy, or tap into it, or become the conduit for it. Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.
Daily rituals of writing, creators and creatives
Photographer: Aaron Burden | Source: Unsplash

Mason elaborates on how artists view inspiration in his book, Daily Rituals:

William Faulkner: “I write when the spirit moves me, and the spirit moves me every day.”
George Balanchine: “My muse must come to me on union time.”
Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
John Updike: “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.”

Stephen King in his memoir, On Writing, describes his daily fiction writing ritual to “creative sleep” and the same way he gets ready for bed every night:

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule—in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk—exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go....
And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night—six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight—so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

Writing is about consistently following rituals until you finish your work.

Positive energy rituals

In their book, The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz write:

Positive energy rituals are powerful on three levels. They help us to ensure that we effectively manage energy in the service of whatever mission we are on. Secondly, they reduce the need to rely on our limited conscious will and discipline to take action. Finally, rituals are a powerful means by which to translate our values and priorities into action—to embody what matters most to us in our everyday behaviors.
Photographer: William Farlow | Source: Unsplash

Rituals require precision and specificity

Loehr and Schwartz believe the most more important element for successfully building a ritual is to be specific with one’s timing and to perform precise behavior during the 30 to 60-day acquisition period.

Research studies confirm that precision and timing are key success factors. The authors describe one experiment where drug addicts were studied during periods of withdrawal. Withdrawl is that painful time period when an addict requires more energy to control the urge to take drugs. It is also a time that could severely compromise the addict’s ability to perform other tasks.

Photographer: Samantha Gades | Source: Unsplash

The experiment involved two groups who needed to find employment post-rehab. The first group was asked to commit to writing a short resume before 5 pm on a particular day. Everyone failed in this group. The second group was asked to complete the same task but given additional instructions. They had to say when and where they would write the resume. 80% of the second group were successful.

Practice makes perfect when performing under pressure

According to Loehr and Schwartz, having specific and precise rituals makes it easier to perform under pressure. Bill Walsh is a former coach of the San Francisco 49ers and. He won 6 division titles, 3 NFC Championship titles, and 3 Super Bowls and was named NFL Coach of the Year in 1981 and 1984.

 Bill Walsh is a former coach of the San Francisco 49ers on rituals
Football Practice. Photographer: Alexander Schimmeck | Source: Unsplash Photographer: Alexander Schimmeck | Source: UnsplashPhotographer: Alexander Schimmeck | Source: Unsplash

Walsh had this to say about his approach to football:

At all times, the focus must be on doing things properly. Every play. Every practice. Every meeting. Every situation. Every time.

Walsh believes that if you can’t perform a task very well, when you’re relaxed and under little or no pressure, then you won’t be able to perform under high pressure or in a crisis. This scene from the hit comedy, Ted Lasso, shows the importance the coach places on every player attending practices. Practices are the only time a full team plays together, recognizing that not all players get on the field.

Ted Lasso on the importance of practicing with teammates

Walsh on the power of rituals when the mind plays tricks:

The less thinking people have to do under adverse circumstances, the better. When you’re under pressure, the mind can play tricks on you. The more primed and focused you remain, the smoother you can deal with out-of-the-ordinary circumstances.

Values and a deeper purpose

Many of us underestimate the importance of having a deeper purpose in our work. Gallup released their latest State of the Global Workplace Report in June 2021 revealing that:

Roughly 7 in 10 employees are struggling or suffering, rather than thriving, in their overall lives. Additionally, 80% are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work.

In her book, The Working Life, Joanne Ciulla writes:

Humans are seekers of meaning. We not only make sense of the world, we assign significance to it. Organizations don’t create meaningful work, they are simply places where one might find it...To seek meaning, one has to feel like a human being.

Ciulla goes further on why work is important:

Work makes life better if it helps others; alleviates suffering; eliminates difficult, dangerous, or tedious toil; makes someone healthier and happier; or aesthetically or intellectually enriches people and improves the environment in which we live.

Purposeful activities matter

What if you viewed any activity you do as work if it had a purpose for you? How would you feel if that activity gave you purpose? We shouldn’t be so strict with what we think work is supposed to look like.

Webster's New World Dictionary defines work as:

physical or mental effort exerted to do or make something; purposeful activity; labor; toil.

Engaging in an activity with purpose can give you tremendous focus, direction, passion, and perseverance. When purpose motivates you by challenging you and towards a destination, it can very well give you an intense sense of meaning and intrinsic purpose from the inside.

Ritual activities with purpose
Photographer: Anupam Mahapatra | Source: Unsplash

Finding your intrinsic purpose is key

Loehr & Schwartz believe that having a purpose that is motivated internally instead of externally has a much greater impact and more staying power in the long-term. How often do hear of people who have achieved many extrinsic motivations? Yet, they are miserable and unhappy. Extrinsic motivations that are never enough are things like money, approval, social standing, and power. Intrinsic motivation starts out of a desire to engage in an activity based on the natural satisfaction it provides.

A study on human motivation by the University of Rochester’s Human Motivation Research Group found that intrinsic motivation leads to more sustainable energy. The study involved two groups. The first group was people whose motivation was authentic or defined as “self-authored”. They demonstrated more interest, excitement, and confidence as well as more persistence, creativity, and performance. The second group or the control group, who were motivated by external demands and rewards showed lower results.

As Twyla Tharp writes about her daily creativity:

When it all comes together, a creative life has the nourishing power we normally associate with food, love, and faith.

If everyone performs rituals, wouldn’t you want to be more deliberate doing them every day? Wouldn’t you want to do not overthink them? Wouldn’t you want your purpose and values to drive your rituals forward? And finally, wouldn’t you want to be less anxious, and happier?

If you answered yes to one of the questions, and you’ve got an itch to start something, get busy with your rituals and perform better without the added stress.

In part 2 of this article series will cover how rituals help groups come together better and stronger. Sign up here for my free biweekly newsletter that covers how middle-class online creators are succeeding in the new creator economy.

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