Routine, Ritual, and Habit

The brain is an amazing multi-tasking sensory-processing device. I can walk down the street, taste an ice cream cone, watch children play, hear my companion talk to me and make meaning of the patterns of the sound waves, all while feeling the breeze blow through my hair and remembering the ice cream cone from last week. What I cannot do is attend to all of those things at once. On a normal day, my attention will flit from sense to sense, directed to novel, interesting, or potentially threatening stimuli. If I am “lost in thought,” I may miss part of the conversation or an oncoming car. How many times have you been urged to “pay attention!”?

Most of your behavior is cued by your environment.

What would life be like if you had to attend to everything, all the time? That would mean keep your heart beating, remember to breathe, actively think “little circles” while brushing your teeth, create a mental map and execute a path to get from your bed to the coffeepot in the morning, and so on. Life, which already feels complex, would become unmanageable. Different tasks require different levels of attention and some tasks deserve more attention. Research at Duke University showed students actively made decisions less than half of the day. In reality, most of their behavior was cued by the environment. When you realize you are living on auto-pilot, some behaviors make sense, like eating ice cream while standing in front of your open freezer at the end of a stressful day. How did I get there?

Bowl of chocolate ice cream with silver spoon

If you have a Facebook or Pinterest feed, you might see references to the importance of routines and rituals and habits. You may see the words used interchangeably. These are three different things. When speaking casually to someone in the grocery check-out line, feel free to say whichever comes to mind. When you are working on your self-awareness, behavior change, or self-care, the differences are important. If we aren’t mindful, routines and habits are accidentally built from mindless repetition and can require enormous energy to change.



Water kettle on kitchen counter, morning light






Mindfulness is the art of consciously attending to stimuli, both internal and external. When we are being mindful, we may “notice” and “name” sensations, emotions, behaviors, and thoughts as a way of turning off the auto-pilot and checking in to our experience.

What would be possible if you could change that environment?

In the next few posts, we will engage with what they are, how they work, and how you build routines, rituals, and habits to support how you mean to be.


Preparation & Scaffolding

One of my favorite theorists is Vygotsky. His work influenced how I taught aquatics forever and it’s time to revisit an old friend.

Last Saturday, my coach said he wanted me to know what 205 felt like in my hands. We are working on my deadlift and while I’ve pulled 190 a few times, 205 would be a lovely PR on track to make the goal weight in June. All I had to do was lift it out of the rack from about mid-thigh and hold it. At first, I couldn’t lift the weight. The bar wouldn’t budge. After a moments thought, he re-loaded the bar to 185 and described how he would put 205 in my hands. My job was to lift the bar out of the rack, and he would load extra weight once the bar was up. It worked. Today we lifted from 45s instead of the floor, which puts the bar higher than my sticking point, and I pulled the 205 which wouldn’t budge from the rack a few days ago.

Vygotsky’s idea is a novice can accomplish a task beyond his capabilities with support from an expert. Vygotsky was concerned with cognitive tasks and we first became acquainted during an educational psychology class. Over time, the novice learns how to learn and the expert’s assistance at that level can be removed. Others have extended the work and refined ideas of how far the novice can stretch with assistance. The distance is personal, called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). If the expert places the novice too high, even with coaching, the novice will be unable to complete the task. If the expert places the novice too low, the learner will be unmotivated because he has already mastered the content. Because these concepts are nearly 100 years old and absorbed into common knowledge, my exercise-science-trained weightlifting coach flawlessly erected appropriate physical and mental supports and withdrew them as they became unnecessary.

The expert has to deconstruct the skill and the learner into their component parts, and adapt the attempt at the skill to the learner. Not every expert is naturally able to teach a novice because most experts have internalized complex skills and forget how many parts there are. For example, a meme floated through my social media feed and claimed “Showing up on time” required zero skill. Showing up anywhere on time is actually a complex skill, as any parent of a four-year-old can attest. We spend inordinate amounts of energy teaching small children how to create a system to ensure they have clean clothes, a clean body, whatever materials they must take with them, acceptable shoes, and transportation. Perhaps a meal or a snack before leaving is necessary. If there is no expert in your house to teach you how to plan and prepare to be somewhere on time, you may or may not learn. If your expert’s teaching consisted of yelling or unrealistic expectations, you may or may not learn. You may learn you aren’t the kind of person who is ever on time, and incorporate that belief into your identity. “Showing up on time” is the result of the successful execution of a complex sequence of skills, resting on the ability of the prefrontal cortex to manage executive functioning.

Everyone needs a little help now and then. The best help is a carefully constructed set of supports which allow the learner to teach himself and are then removed.

Friday I will pull 205 from the floor.

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