Healthy Rituals – Strong Messages

What we all need to develop powerful patterns in everyday life

Science advocates them; religious leaders abide by them; we live and breathe based on them. They are rituals.

Rituals dictate how we sleep, eat, work, and play. While often associated with schedules and patterns, rituals are also expressive ways we interact with ourselves, our family and our communities and, given the right opportunity, rituals can become healthy expressions of how we choose to interact with this world.

Not convinced? Look in any medical journal or psychology magazine and you are bound to find at least one study espousing the importance of rituals – whether the topic is family dynamics, healthy living, or preventive medicine – science knows the importance of habits, rituals and routines, as do religious leaders, yoga enthusiasts, local food advocates and a host of other personal value practitioners. But do you? Do you know what rituals, habits and routines drive your life? And, more importantly, do you know if they are healthy?

That’s the question I asked myself this spring, when I found myself cluttered in my overcrowded office, overwhelmed with multiple to-do-lists and scattered with my exaggerated goals. It’s the same question Toronto-based life/career coach and creator of MyLifeCoach.com, Michele Caron, asks her clients when helping them take control of their lives. She believes that any person willing to “think and do things differently” can get results.

That’s good news for someone like me – with too many hats to juggle, I often find that my rituals are more rote than deliberate. More repetition than inspiration.

Thankfully, this is the perfect formula for a little habit housecleaning – a process of re-examining and realigning our routines with our actions and goals.

Step One: Acknowledge

The first step is to acknowledge the importance of rituals in everyday life. As little as thirty years ago, lifestyle choices were not considered significant factors in a person’s health. Then, Canadian health policy experts released a ground-breaking and internationally acclaimed study, the LaLonde Report. The report stated that a person’s health was directly affected by “the result of personal, deliberate, individual choices.”  Over the last three decades more and more people, from all walks of life, acknowledge the importance of rituals.

Reverend Amy Gregory, a United Methodist Minister in New York City says that “rituals and repetition resonate with and comfort people.” She continues by drawing parallels between her religious tradition and her dancing passion. “As a dancer, I have found that the ritual of taking class has a deep connection with my spiritual life in the church. Going through the patterns and their variations in a dance puts me in touch with the sense of something and someone greater than myself. These things that I do have been done by those before me and will continue to be done after I am gone, limiting my self-importance, while at the same time connecting me with my community.”

As Caron asserts, “A great part of that healthy environment is formed by our daily actions, responses and habits.” When we acknowledge the link between our thoughts and our actions we begin to understand how we can influence the outcome of our goals.

Step Two: Evaluate

Evaluation refers to a periodic process of: listing our rituals; listing our goals; and analyzing (or ordering) this information to determine if our current patterns are healthy and effective.

As a Toronto-based writer, editor, publisher and activist, my morning ritual consists of ‘waking-up’ at the computer, reading and writing emails and diving into the current or next project. While this might seem a little too ordinary this repetitive action is what pushes us towards our goals. “These actions and responses are the little things that add up towards whether you support and prompt yourself towards being your best, or sabotage yourself and your positive energy,” explains Caron.

Caron suggests that when evaluating keep in mind: Is this ritual healthy? Does this ritual enhance my intended goals?

“The most direct way to know if something is healthy or not for you, is to ask yourself how it makes you feel.” This can be done by answering a few simple questions: Does this make you deeply happy or do you feel great about yourself when doing this?  Does this represent you and your core values?  Do you have less energy or more energy after this?

Through this evaluation we are able to identify what patterns are consistently leaving us feeling less energized and unhappy, and this leads us into the next step for developing healthy rituals.

Step Three: Plan of Action

If you are anything like me – i.e.: a perfectionist who would rather do it ten times then fail once – the process of establishing healthier routines can be a daunting. After realizing an unhealthy habit I feel frustrated or disappointed. Caron suggests that I change this attitude and instead congratulate myself! Through this process, “you have discovered a source of untapped energy – or thought about another way, a source of energy loss that you can correct. When corrected, you can expect to have more of your heart and mind focused on the things that will bring you what you want.”  So the first step in my new plan is to change my perspective.

The next step is to determine if our actions are aligned with our personal values. If, like me, you have difficulty getting started with this process, Caron suggests breaking the desired new habit into very small chunks. “The smaller you can make things, the less overwhelming, and easier to implement, they will be.”

For my brother, a studious man who aspires to learn all that life has to offer, this process of self-evaluation and continued pattern improvement actually includes breaking down tasks for each goal into an Excel spread sheet. For my dear friend and mother of one, the process consists of a long-term goal list, supported by day-to-day to-do lists. Either way a plan of action is necessary for improving or changing a routine from an unhealthy hindrance to a healthy ritual.

Step Four: Be Aware

The final step in developing and keeping healthy rituals is to be aware. This step cautions us to be on the lookout for negative self-talk and sabotaging behaviour.  “Sometimes we identify with our rituals and habits, making the mistake of thinking they define us, when really, we are so much more,” explains Caron.  As a result we need to be aware of what self-talk we are listening to and what actions we are taking as a result.

For rowing and life coach Mayrene T. Earle, this self talk has a profound effect. “Despite your efforts to stay positive, the negative self-talk flows endlessly through your mind, reinforcing your mental doubt. And here’s the bad news: Persistent negative self-talk can keep even the best…in the world from performing well.”

Earle’s suggestion is to scrutinize the validity of all mental talk. And always do this process with a pen and paper. By writing it down we become observers, rather than participants, and this provides us with some objectivity.

  • Write down a goal.
  • Write down ALL thoughts that come to mind when you wrote down that goal.
  • Now, it’s time to re-record your tape. Take each one of the negative thoughts you had while thinking of your goal and turn them around into a positive — even if you don’t believe it.

The famous best-selling inspirational American author, Og Mandino, once stated: “The victory of success is half won when one gains the habit of setting goals and achieving them. Even the most tedious chore will become endurable as you parade through each day convinced that every task, no matter how menial or boring, brings you closer to fulfilling your dreams.”  My rituals, then, are the basic elements of who I am, what I value, and how I fit into this world. The development of healthy rituals becomes my commitment to a healthy, productive process of connection and communication with my own self and my community. A process that lasts a lifetime.

Originally published in Check UP! Magazine in March 2007