The Life-Changing Power of Rituals

He woke up at 3am screaming his lungs out. He continued sobbing, on and off, till the sun came up. He giggled over breakfast as he used his bowl as a hat, tipping yoghurt over his bald noggin.

The past 12 months have taught me a lot about the life-changing power of rituals (and teething babies). As any parent will tell you, if you don’t have rituals your life can resemble a Wiggles song — ‘hot potato, hot potato’.

So here are five things that have helped me stay sane and get more done — in less time — in the toughest year of my life.

1) Make Fewer decisions

Think of all the decisions we make each day before we get to work:

  • Should I hit the snooze button?
  • Should I go to the gym today?
  • What am I going to wear?
  • What should I have for breakfast?
  • What’s on Facebook?
  • When’s the next train?

No wonder we get overwhelmed.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, these decisions, however trivial, cause mental fatigue. They sap our energy — energy we need to make the really big decisions.

President Obama gets it:

“You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits,” Obama said to writer Michael Lewis.

 “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

American social psychologist Roy Baumeister has found that willpower is like a muscle that becomes fatigued from overuse. Willpower is a limited resource. Baumeister says that people who succeed don’t have more willpower than you, they just develop better daily routines and habits, which after a while become automatic and require less thought, conscious energy and willpower.

2) Beware of the Big Goal

Goal-setting isn’t always the secret to success. In fact, it can backfire. Setting a big goal (I’m going to become a millionaire!) can be overwhelming, cause paralysis from over-analysis and stop you from even starting.

Yet an even bigger problem is that when you’re committing to a big goal you’re subconsciously telling yourself, “okay, so I have to endure this crap long enough so that I can be happy when I reach my goal.”

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly do have goals, but I keep my head out of the clouds and focus on my daily tasks. (Besides, the thing I’ve observed over the years as a financial advisor is that the gloss of achieving any financial goal wears off really quickly, like three months after buying your dream car. At which time it’s replaced with another, bigger goal).

3) Practice like a champion

Okay, so you make too many decisions, willpower wanes and most goals are worthless — so what does work?

Well, there’s a growing body of research that suggests that the habit of cultivating daily routines (that eventually become automatic) is the hinge that big changes swing from.

The driving force behind daily routines is the power of the tortoise versus the hare; most people totally overestimate what they can get done in a short amount of time, but totally underestimate what they can achieve from short, sharp daily practice.

Warren Buffett didn’t set out with the goal of becoming the greatest investor of all time.
He got there by reading 500 pages a day for 70-odd years (and apparently still does). Yet it wasn’t a chore he did so he could wake up decades later a happy billionaire. It’s the compound effects of daily practice that made him into a champion.

4) Disconnect

It’s almost impossible to disconnect today. I trace the problem back to June the 29th, 2007.

That was the day the first iPhone was released, and from that point on we’ve marvelled at how far technology has come — and spent years trapped in a multi-tasking web of our own making.

The problem with technology — especially email — is that it allows you to feel productive without really achieving anything. Of the tens of thousands of emails I’ve read and sent, there are less than a hundred that were real game changers.

5) Slow down to speed up

The routines you set in place before breakfast (when your energy is often the highest) will have a huge impact on what you achieve for the rest of the day.

Yet the problem is that most of us don’t spend time in the present moment. Instead we focus on something that hasn’t happened (and probably never will), or on something that has happened that we can’t change.

And that’s the great thing about kids — and the ultimate lesson my son Louie has taught me over the past 12 months. Kids force you to live in the moment — and, thankfully, they also force you to create routines so that you can get stuff done!

Happy first birthday to Louie!

Tread Your Own Path!