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Why Rituals are Superior to Habits

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Habits are great…if you can make them work. Naturally most of us think that habits are important. Pick up any self-help book and you’ll be bombarded by examples of good habits to form.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’ve gotten a lot from habits, but I also realized that they have a few big flaws that makes it hard to succeed with them. After doing personal development for over 14 years (and still going strong), I’ve come to realize the major flaws that habits inherently possess and I’ve found an even better solution. What is it?


Here are 5 ways rituals are superior to habits (and why we prefer them).

1. Habits Are Vague

One of the biggest flaws that habits have is that they are very vague. When you tell yourself “I’m going to read more” you think that’s a habit that you’re going to develop.

But is it really?

Stating to yourself an intention, that’s what it really is, is great to make yourself feel good but it doesn’t actually help you take action.

Our default behavior is inaction. In order for you and me to make changes in our lives, we need to take action. This is going to take intention, energy and most of all: specificity.

The more specific you are with what you want to do, the more likely you will do it. That’s one of many reasons why New Years Resolutions don’t work – they are just vague intentions. They lack specificity as I’ve mentioned in this video before.

So stop staying things like:

  • I’ll exercise more
  • I will read more books
  • I will meditate

That’s too vague, let’s reframe them to be more specific:

  • I will follow the 5×5 exercise program every M, W, F at 8am at Gold’s Gym
  • Every night before going to sleep I will read at least 15 minutes
  • Each morning at 7:30am I will use the Headspace app to learn how to meditate

See the difference?

You want to get as detailed as possible. The more detailed it is, the higher the chance that you’ll take action. That’s why rituals are superior – they force you to be specific.

2. Habits Aren’t Actionable

As a natural progression, the next flaw of habits is that they aren’t actionable. Part of it is that they are vague, but habits also don’t show you what the first step is.

When we don’t know what the first step is, our default behavior is to not do anything. Our tendency is to save energy for something more important and life threatening like we did in the caveman days. We intrinsically choose not to expend energy on some silly habit that will make us smarter like reading a book.

To fight this inertia we need to make it as easy as possible for us to take the first step. That’s why we teach in our Rituals System how to clarify what your first step is. Every ritual you will build needs to have laid out exactly what step one is.

In fact, our Rituals System will show you how to break it down into actionable steps that will take you from start to finish. But the most important piece is the first step.

For example, let’s say you’ve gotten specific with your habit. Instead of saying “I’m going to exercise more” you’ve reframed it as “I will follow the 5×5 exercise program every M, W, F at 8am at Gold’s Gym”. Great! Now what’s the first step?

If you have to even THINK about what the first step is, you’ve already failed. That’s when you have to expend unnecessary energy and when we’re low on willpower or motivation, that’s when we’re most likely to lapse. Just think about it. If you’re tired coming home from work and you know that you need to exercise, are you really going to do it if you have to figure out on the fly what you need to do?

Of course not. You’ll rather sit on your couch and watch Netflix. So the first step needs to be clarified and simple.

It needs to be so simple that it would be silly to say “no” to it. For example, if you want to walk/run more, then the first step should be to “tie your shoes”. See how simple that is? See how ridiculous it would be not to do it? But you know that once you’ve tied your shoes, chances are you will walk out the door and get your exercise in.

So figure out what your first step is and make it as easy as possible to do. How can you not say “no” to it? Every ritual has this built in and that makes them so effective.

3. Habits Don’t Motivate You

You might have seen this popular quote before:

“Motivation gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

I don’t completely agree with that because it’s missing a key component. If it were true, then why do our habits fizzle out? Why do 95% of gym goers stop every year around February 1st?

It’s because they’re missing this crucial component: their why.

If you’ve been following us for a while, you know how we talk about this idea all the time. It’s for a reason – it’s SUPER important.

Your why is what emotionally connects you to what you want to achieve. When you can emotionally connect with your ritual, your chances to succeed go up exponentially.

For our success rituals, we need both logical and emotional connection. The majority of us are good at logically connecting with our rituals.

Logically you know:

  • You need to eat healthier to look better in the mirror and hopefully help you find a partner
  • You need to exercise more to stay healthy and also look better in the mirror to help you find a partner
  • That reading will make you smarter, more successful and will help you make more money
  • That spending less money and saving more is good for your retirement

They’re all logically sound and it usually helps you to get started, but it doesn’t keep you going.

When you only have the logical connection, you’ll inevitable fizzle out. When you’re low on motivation or willpower, logic won’t help you. When you’re tired and low on energy, it doesn’t matter that you want to look better in the mirror. That logical connection isn’t strong enough to change your mind and get your butt off the couch.

We don’t always need more information (logic). We need to CONNECT the logic with what it means to us.

The ugly truth is that we usually take massive action once we hit a low point in our lives. You get fired. Your partner ends a relationship. You are alone one night and feel lonely. One day you flip out when you look in the mirror and see how much weight you’ve have gained.

That’s when the emotional part of you comes out and forces you to take massive action and it’s the hidden driver that keeps you going. You don’t have to hit a low point to take massive action.

When you figure out your “why”, you get the same benefits and results. In our Rituals System we force every student to figure out the why behind their rituals. Without it, we just know that you’ll eventually fail. That’s why we spend a lot of time on it in the program because we’ve seen it with numerous successful clients that once you have it, rituals simply stick and motivation is not an issue anymore.

4. Habits Fizzle Out

When your rituals are emotionally charged, you have most of what you need to keep it going. When times get tough, your why can propel you to keep going. To take it a step further, we can also design our lives and environment to help us succeed even more.

In every ritual, you want to come up with a list of “sticky tactics” that setup your rituals for success. As I mentioned earlier, habits rely on just logic to keep you going but you now know that’s not good enough. You also need to emotionally connect with it. On top of that, to add icing on top, you’ll also want to use very specific “sticky tactics” that will make it easy to keep going.

As with most things in life, habits follow the law of nature. When something goes stale, it goes bad. Anything stale or inactive usually will erode itself.

If you don’t drink water for a while, you’ll eventually die. If you don’t start the car for a long period, it’ll stop working. If you don’t keep up with a habit, it’ll eventually get lost.

So you want to make sure that you always maintain your rituals. Our sticky tactics will help you with that. Think of it as maintaining a car. Every now and then you’ll need to give it an oil change, check stuff under the hood and make sure there’s enough pressure in all tires. It’s the same for your rituals and we cover a wide variety of tactics in our Rituals course.

5. Habits Aren’t Setup to Succeed

You now have the knowledge to succeed with any ritual. You know you need to:

  1. Be specific
  2. Have the first step clarified
  3. Emotionally connect with your ritual (your why)
  4. Use sticky tactics to maintain rituals

If you use all of them for your existing rituals, I have no doubt that you’ll succeed. We’ve seen this proven framework work over and over again for ourselves and hundreds of peoples we’ve helped with through our Rituals course.

Inside the course we go even a step further and share the actual system we use to start and maintain rituals. That’s where everything is laid out for you step by step, and all you have to do is just follow it to form a new ritual and make it run on autopilot.

Habits miss this step by step system, but rituals force you to be specific and have a game plan for every contingency possible. Our Rituals System covers everything from starting to maintaining to resurrecting lost rituals.

If you’re interested in getting your success rituals sorted out, then I invite you to check out the Rituals course.

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Posted by Rozay  | January 8, 2016 at 5:58AM | Reply

But what is the difference between habits and rituals?
I don’t get this.

Posted by Doaa  | January 7, 2016 at 7:13PM | Reply

This is a very good post of AE, as usual :)

I just can’t understand how the ‘why’ connect to the emotional part not to the logical one?

I see most of the reasons for the rituals are logical, and the ultimate emotional reason is happiness.

Posted by perfexcellent  | January 7, 2016 at 2:35AM | Reply

I usually like you stuff which is great. I totally don’t agree with you analysis of habits. You seem to have taken the poor implementations of habits and making them what a habit is.

I agree with the Charles Duhig book on Habits that every Habit needs to have 3 elements

a) Reminder (or trigger): time, event, person that makes you carry out some action. e.g “Every time I receive a newsletter from AE”

b) Routine: the thing you do habitually upon the trigger e.g. “Clip the article into Pocket, read it on my iPad and reflect on it”

c) Reward: the benefit e.g. “The satisfaction of either confirming one of my productivity practices by AE or knowledge of one more thing to improve.

Problem is, people when they talk of habits … only focus on the routine which they poorly define e.g. “exercise”

I am pretty sure what you call Rituals has all those three elements. Don’t demonise a word (habit) based upon wrong executions of it. It weakens your message to people who actually do read for themselves.

And before you think I’m a hater … no I respect your work a lot, I started by OF journey with OF Premium scripts, I’ve benefitted from lots of amazing things you guys write/say …. this one though …. falls too hollow.

Happy new year!

Posted by Paul  | January 6, 2016 at 5:34PM | Reply

Excellent post and hits the nail on the head. I also like Charlie’s approach in the previous comment.

One thing that is missing for me, whether trying to form a habit or set up a ritual to form a habit, is accountability. I think knowing your “why” gives a certain amount of self accountability but there is nothing like having other people hold you to a commitment to add the extra motivation.

Posted by Tim  | January 6, 2016 at 5:30PM | Reply

when having a cue, why, routine, and reward, what do you keep where in terms of evernote/omnifocus?

Posted by Grant  | January 6, 2016 at 1:45PM | Reply

Great article with great insights on helping with habits and New Year resolutions. This article reminded me of a goal setting method I learned in college that is SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely. By making a SMART goal/habit, you make a much more realistic goal that is attainable.

Another great point for achieving goals is planning the first step before physically starting. So many times I have turned to Netflix too when I haven’t planned. This is a great article for keeping those renewed New Year resolutions. Thanks for posting AE!

Posted by Charlie  | January 6, 2016 at 11:10AM | Reply

I agree whole heartedly with much of what you wrote. I myself teach good habit development to my clients as a core aspect of my work. I differ a bit in that I teach habit stacking inside routines and then teach my clients to ritualize their routines.

I have found some ligustic and operation distinctions that have made a huge difference.

Habits good and bad are habitual/automatic.

So when we are talking about nee habit development, what we are really talking about is practicing new behaviors.

I have found that choosing new pratices that are connected to a bigger ‘why’ and using the word practice helps my clients stay connected to their motivation and creates space. When you have a deep why and permission to be imperfect it is easier to pick the behavior back up when we ‘fail’

I also encourage my clients to build routines that are focused on common goals. Personal morning routine for example. All the habits and pratices in this routine are working towards a common goal, “starting the day on the right side of the bed”

Once the routines have become automatic I teach my clients to ritualize. For me rituals are different from routines in that they are approached from a certain state of mind… They are approached as sacred space and time. They incorporate the witness function, which allows the patterns of behavior to serve as a tool for self reflection and growth.

I love what ya’ll teach and enjoy getting your emails. Its always nice to see similar yet distint approaches.

Happy New Year!

Charlie Birch, AKA The Burnout Banisher
Founder of BHA Consulting
Entreprenuerial Lifestyle Coach

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