Start on January 1

There is much research that suggests that change—learning new tricks, introducing a new behavior, or replacing old habits—is extremely hard. Most attempts at change, whether by individuals or organizations, fail. In their book on The Power of Full Engagement Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz provide a different way of thinking about change: they suggest that instead of focusing on cultivating self-disciplineas a means toward change, we need to introduce rituals.

Initiating a ritual is often difficult, but maintaining it is relatively easy. For most of us, brushing our teeth at least twice a day is a ritual, and therefore does not require special powers of discipline. We need to take the same approach toward any change we want to introduce. According to Loehr and Schwartz, “Building rituals requires defining very precise behaviors and performing them at very specific times—motivated by deeply held values.” For an athlete, being a top performer is a deeply held value, and therefore they create rituals around training; for most people, cleanliness is a deep value, and therefore they create the ritual of brushing their teeth.

Once you identify the rituals you want to adopt, enter them in your planner and begin to do them. New rituals may be difficult to initiate; over time, usually within as little as thirty days, performing these rituals will become as easy and as natural as brushing your teeth. In Aristotle’s words, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

One of the barriers to introducing rituals is the belief that they take away from spontaneity or creativity, especially when it comes to interpersonal rituals such as a regular date with one’s spouse or artistic rituals such as painting. In fact, however, if we do not ritualize activities—whether working out in the gym, spending time with our family, or pleasure reading—more often than not we never get to them, and rather than being spontaneous, we become reactive (to others’ demands on our time and energy). In an overall structured, ritualized life, we certainly don’t need to have each hour of the day accounted for, and can thus leave time for spontaneous behavior; more importantly, we can integrate spontaneity into a ritual as, for example, deciding spontaneously where we go on the ritualized date. The most creative individuals—whether artists, businesspeople, or parents—have a daily ritual that they follow. Paradoxically, the routine frees them up to be creative and spontaneous.

Think about two rituals you will implement right away – not next week, but starting today.