Habit VS. Ritual

Ryder Carroll
11 min readMay 29, 2021

Automatic vs Intentional Behavior Change

“Make a delicious bowl of tea, lay the charcoal so that it heats the water; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain; and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.” — Soshitsu Sen

I’d never been into tea. Tasting like wilted flower soup at its best, and hot soil water with a slight bouquet of manure at its worst, I’ve been puzzled by its ancient, meditative, near mystical appeal. Maybe there was something I was missing? So while visiting Kyoto, I sought out what seemed to be one of the ultimate forms of its preparation: the Japanese tea ceremony — a ritual that can take up to four hours.

Though the ceremony I ended up attending wasn’t nearly that long, it helped me find something I didn’t even know I was looking for: an idea.

From beginning to end, the ceremony left nothing unaccounted for. Each tiny element was a critical part of a spell that allowed this ancient ritual to transform the simple act of pouring cups of hot flavored water, into an experience that felt…sacred. This ritual had the power to make the ordinary extraordinary. What if we could harness that power in our own lives?

In order to harness a force, we need to better understand its nature. So, what is a ritual? Stripped of its religious, spiritual, or cultural connotations, a ritual is simply a repeated sequence of behaviors. This definition is shared by another — perhaps more familiar — term: routine.

These terms are often used interchangeably because they have a lot in common. They’re both tools for directing our behavior, and deploy many of the same psychological tactics to help us develop that most critical yet elusive quality: consistency. Though routines and rituals share many of the same means, what is often lost, is that their ends are very different. Whereas the goal of a routine is to make a behavior automatic, the goal of a ritual is to make it intentional.

Routines are process-driven. They’re sequences of actions often intended to turn good behaviors into habits. By definition, a habit is “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.”

Most of the behaviors required by the habits we aspire to are far from voluntary. Be it diet, or exercise, or going to bed on time, we often resist doing what’s necessary because…

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Ryder Carroll

Creator of the Bullet Journal®. NYT Best-selling author and digital product designer, living in Brooklyn, NY.