Ritual vs. Routine

Published on Nov 29, 2019

Last update: Dec 13, 2019

What’s the difference?

To me, a ritual is something you do the exact same way every time. Rituals can take place any time, any where, and don’t need to follow a schedule for repetition. Some of my rituals are walking my dog (we have a 5-minute jaunt we do several times per day), making tea, and relaxing at night with my microwave heat pad (I know exactly how long to microwave it and have a sequence of ways I lay on it to soothe my various back muscles).

Routine is something you do on a strict schedule, but not necessarily the same way every time. Some of my routines include waking up around 6:30am, exercising after work, and going to a wine tasting with my wife and dog every Wednesday before dinner (if you’re ever in Boulder you should check out Boulder Wine Merchant’s Wednesday evening tastings!).

By this definition something can be both a ritual and a routine (if you do it the same way and on a set schedule). In this case, I’d say that intention is what differentiates routine from ritual—rituals have more intention and routines tend to be mindless.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ritual and routine lately because I’ve struggled with self-inflicted stress/anxiety for several years. I’m the type of person who has tons of energy without drinking caffeine and once I get started on something, it envelops me and I grind to get it done. This type of personality has benefits–I tend to get a lot done–but I’ve slowly discovered that it’s not great for your health. Rituals have a calming effect on my demeanor and whenever I feel myself getting too worried about and fixated on something, I start one of my rituals to help my mind slow down.

I set out about a month ago to add more rituals to my repertoire for stress management, but it’s taken me until now to realize that I was conflating ritual and routine. I’ve been trying to force myself into a dozen new routines, but the work of fitting structured time into my already busy days actually increased my stress.

I think it’s important to know the tools in your toolbox well. Routines are useful in their own right–particularly for productivity. Rituals can be used to change the state of your mind. I use rituals to clear my head and keep myself calm, but you could also devise rituals that get you pumped. For example, football teams doing the “Who’s house is this?!” chant before a game.

Perhaps the most important trait that I’ve noticed about rituals is that they can’t be manufactured like routines. They’re usually short, repetitive tasks that we seek out because we enjoy them, even if it’s only on a subconscious level. Building a new ritual takes a lot of time with both complexity and intention increasing over time.

I’ve discovered that expanding on habits that I already do is a great way to develop new rituals. For example, I enjoy drinking tea. But throwing a tea bag in a mug with some water and nuking it in the microwave for two minutes doesn’t make the process a ritual. Habits are often great candidates to become rituals by adding intention slowly over time. I mix my own teas, boil the water to a precise temperature, measure the steep time, etc. Everything is precise and requires full concentration, which requires my full attention and puts me into a repeatable state of mind.

If you think your life could benefit from more rituals, I’d recommend that you take a few days and try to notice small habits you do for yourself. Take note of how doing those things changes your demeanor. Maybe there’s a subconscious reason you have a certain habit. If you dig deep into that, you might be able to add intention to your habit and help it evolve into a routine over time.

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