Advice & News

November 18, 2022

Rituals at Work and on the Job Search: What’s in It for You?


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Rituals might traditionally evoke images of rain dances, candle lighting, and the like, but not all rituals are spiritual, and simple ones performed at work or during the job search can support your well-being and success.

Like routines, rituals involve a "fixed sequence of behaviors," but they are different in that they hold symbolic meaning for the person performing them and often include behaviors that are non-instrumental in achieving goals. For example, a pre-interview routine might include eating a healthy breakfast while reviewing the job description and taking a walk. In contrast, a pre-interview ritual might involve taking a specific number of deep breaths before walking into the interview or having a specific coffee order for the mornings you have interviews.

While you might be thinking it's about luck, it's more about what these actions provide for you when performing them. One study that asked participants to complete a ritual before performing "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey found that rituals can "reduce anxiety, lower elevated heart rates, and improve performance -- provided they are imbued with symbolic meaning."

"Rituals ground us, meaning that rituals provide some order out of chaos," said Erica Keswin, author of "Rituals Roadmap: The Human Way to Transform Everyday Routines into Workplace Magic," on the Better at Work podcast. "Rituals give us this sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, and they give us an opportunity to connect to purpose. How do you know if something is a ritual? You really, really miss it when it's gone."

In her book, Keswin talks about the three Ps that rituals give us: psychological safety, and a connection to purpose, which ultimately leads to improved performance. For job seekers, Keswin recommends using a ritual to prepare your mind and body for an interview or even to get into the right headspace to prepare your application materials.

On the job, higher education professionals, in particular, can benefit from the grounding that rituals provide. As a faculty member, between classes, grading, advising sessions, committee meetings, and email, how are you achieving uninterrupted time for research, journal submissions, or other tasks that require your undivided attention? Or maybe you work in a student-centered staff position -- you still must find time for in-depth tasks that demand your full focus.

No matter your role on campus, there is always what Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University and author, has coined "deep work" to be done. "Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task," Newport said.

When interviewed on the How I Work podcast, he shared how rituals have helped him get into the flow of work. "When I'm trying to solve a theoretical computer science proof, the rituals I use almost always involve various walking routes around my town," Newport explained.

He also has a specific ritual when he's getting ready to write. "In my house, I had a custom library table built that was reminiscent of the tables at the university library where I used to work as an undergraduate," he said. "It had brass library lamps next to the dark wood bookcases. When I sit there, writing, I have a bright light shining right down on the desk, and it's just me and my computer."

Rituals -- whether it's having a morning cup of coffee, journaling, or taking a walk -- can have a calming effect. Maybe you have a particularly stressful meeting ahead or had a mishap in class. Rituals can help you re-center.

We each have our own individual rituals that ground us, give us motivation, or help us collect our thoughts. One of my co-workers, prior to the pandemic, had a morning ritual of making the rounds through the office saying good morning and checking in on co-workers. It might seem like a small thing, but for her, it was a way to start off the morning on a good note. To this day, even though we are primarily working remotely, I still get a friendly good morning email.

"It gets me energized for the workday (or any day, really!) and hopefully helps to connect people," she told me. As mentioned above, these morning conversations aren't necessarily instrumental to my colleague's day, but it supports her sense of belonging in the organization and gets her into a productive mindset.

At your institution, there may also be workplace rituals that are part of the larger organizational culture. For example, in a previous job, any time an account manager closed a sale, they rang a bell to celebrate the payoff for their hard work. It also gave others a chance to hear about the sale and the account manager the opportunity to share their excitement about working with the new customer. Something similar might be implemented on campus if you receive a grant or a large donation. Other examples of workplace rituals include celebrating birthdays and after-hours gatherings. While not everyone loves partaking in these events (that's okay, and your employers and colleagues should respect your choice!), others find them helpful for building community and being productive.

Weaving rituals into your work life -- and partaking in team rituals -- isn't a necessity, but it can ease your anxiety, help you focus, and improve your overall sense of belonging. What rituals help you get through the day? Share in the comments below.

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