When Work Routines Become Ruts

When Work Routines Become Ruts
by Kaitlin King
August 05, 2016
“I have a leather bag with two pockets in front, whenever I close the latch, it means I am done with the day and tasks.”
“I make my bed every morning in a particular way to start the day.”

“When I am working and messed things up, I take a walk to the water fountain, to calm things down.”

“I pray the same prayer before every meal to remind myself to be grateful.”

These were all examples of people’s rituals from Stanford’s D. School and human-centered design firm IDEO’s study on ritual in the modern world. Technically speaking, “Rituals help us to spark meaning in what could be repetitive, everyday activities. It’s very common that people use ‘rituals’ interchangeably with ‘routines,’ but there is an important difference: one of them creates meaning; the other doesn’t.” A ritual awakens the consciousness to something special, set apart, that triggers a reaction. Their significance could be completely hidden to outsiders and even subtle to the actor, but somewhere beneath the action sparks a reminder, emotion, awareness, or connection.

A ritual is a performance, sometimes with physical movements, sometimes with props, sometimes with spoken words. While seemingly simple, the researchers at IDEO claim the power of ritual can propel individual and organization behavior change if done right. So, if you want to alter your daily actions and thoughts, creating a ritual around an activity could help you reframe your experience and appeal to a higher narrative.

But, repetition and circumstantial change over time can dull the once magical impact of a ritual. Once your ritual loses meaning and becomes a routine, reconsider its purpose in your day-to-day.  

Take an audit of your rituals. Try this approach:

1. Make a list of the work habits and rituals in your life and dig deeper into their value

The pop-up class was encouraged to write down all of their rituals on individual post-its and organize them on a four-point matrix. On the x-axis were individualistic to collective, on the y-axis profane to spiritual. Look for emotional reactions, impact, and significance. Eliminate those that no longer carry consequential meaning.

2. Make a list of sticky points and high points in your day-to-day

When do you get most stuck? When do you begin to lose steam during the day? On the other hand, when do you feel most accomplished? What time of day gets you excited? Figure out key moments and situations where you commemorate a high point or intervene to make a low point better. These are sweet spots that are perfect triggers for rituals. Highlight the rituals you already have around these events.

3. Assess the rituals you have left and the opportunities that lend themselves to extracting meaning

Now you can start reviving old rituals and creating new ones! Keep in mind, ritual balances between the choreographed, and the improvised. As designer Fatih Kursat Ozenc of IDEO says, “Rituals can grow out of rewiring repetitive patterns or improvised actions into a more holistic experience, taking the in-the-moment activities and imbuing them with greater meaning.” Practice, experience, react, and iterate to find the right mix for you and your growth.

Practically speaking, if you need some oomph and inspiration, there are some great products designed around ritual. Take the app Fabulous, which asks you to create rituals, and reminds you of rituals throughout the day while guiding you along to fulfilling a higher purpose—being the best version of yourself. Or take Yaye’s wellness app, which centers around getting fit among a group of friends, tracking and celebrating progress together, ritualizing hitting goals and providing ritualized encouragement to push through barriers. Try them out and see what results you get!

How interesting as well, to apply these ideas to your workplace. What about designing a ritual to “induct” new hires? A ritual to celebrate the sales team winning a new sale? A team-wide ritual to thump the 3PM slump? Go through the 3-part exercise above with a group and see if you can come up with special rituals. Talk about a company culture-builder!
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How do you break out of a rut?