There is all this talk about creating routines and habits to make your life easier and I subscribe to that thought process but when do we really need ritual instead of routine?
Let’s start by diving into the definitions of the words. According to Merriam-Webster:
Routine when used as a noun means “a regular course of procedure; habitual or mechanical performance of an established procedure” or when used as an adjective “of a commonplace or repetitious character; ordinary”.
Whereas ritual is defined as “the established form for a ceremony “or “a ceremonial act or action” when used as a noun or “of or relating to rites or a ritual: ceremonial” when used as an adjective.
While these words on their surface may sound relatively interchangeable if we look at their definitions, we see that there is a difference between them. Routine feels habitual, something that can be done or dealt with without requiring any deeper thought or purpose. Ritual, on the other hand, feels more intentional.
If you subscribe to a religious affiliation and you conduct your prayers or practices as routine do they feel as special or transformative? If you are picking up your mail or driving to work (or some other well practiced destination) do you treat it with reverence?
It’s been important for me to think about what in my life is a ritual and what is a routine; focusing on how these two things are different allows me to use them both beneficially.
Routines, in my experience, are habits and practices that you can do automatically. This is something that doesn’t require much thought and if you want to build easier, better habits using your routines to your advantage is helpful. “Atomic Habits” by James Clear really pinpoints the idea of making habits by building on small, already accessible routines — like if you want to start an exercise habit maybe do 5 squats while you’re brushing your teeth. Something small and routine that ultimately you can do without thinking.
Routines can get you through the grinding tasks of adulthood or things you know you should be doing but don’t really want to — when the inner teenager is shouting “but I don’t wanna!” These are ways to automate the tasks that your mother (or other adult caregiver in your life) would make you do against your will.
For example, I hate folding laundry. For some reason, this task is my “wall of awful” where I just see the laundry baskets piling up (my husband does the laundry) and every time a new laundry basket gets added I just die a little inside. I don’t know why, it’s really not that big of a deal but for some reason folding clothes is like torture — matching all the socks especially because they’re all SLIGHTLY different, am I right?
Anyway, I digress.
After everyone else goes to bed, I usually stay up and watch a little TV. Usually, an episode or two depending on what time it is, and my routine has become when I sit and watch TV, I fold the laundry. I have paired these two activities together to help me do the one I NEED to do but don’t really want to do. Using a routine in this case has helped me combat my inner teenager and “adult”.
But when I want to feel connected or intentional about my activities, that’s when I investigate making something a ritual. In December 2021 I wrote about my after-work ritual that helps me close out my workday and transition into my home life without dragging the stress of work home with me.
This ritual is an intentional 10 minutes of my day that allows me space to decompress and shift into my family life and responsibilities. If I died tomorrow, work would replace me ASAP, but my family cannot. I do not want to waste my time with my family being caught up in work and this ritual allows me to take 10 minutes to put a bookend on my day to ensure work stress (for the most part) is not distracting me or taking me mentally away from my family.
The other ritual I have found to be helpful is my morning ritual. I used to call it a morning routine because there is lots of evidence out there talking about the “best” morning routine, but I have found that I need some intentionality to starting my day. By participating in my morning ritual, I shake off the sleep, feel grounded and therefore ready to start my day.
Realizing this difference in routine vs. ritual has helped me see the value in both and when one may be more appropriate than the other. I have created routines in my life regarding cleaning and movement, but I’ve created rituals to connect on a different level with myself, my family, my friends, and my world.
Routines are largely passive and about making life easier whereas ritual is active and about making life more meaningful. Separating the two and using them at different times makes life better.