There are plenty of strategies people use to meet their goals, from writing in a planner to scheduling cheat days. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests a different tactic—building rituals around the behaviors you wish to adopt.
As study co-author Francesca Gino writes for Scientific American, following rituals, or symbolic actions repeated during certain events, can help us cope with grief and anxiety. To see if rituals also help people practice self-discipline, the researchers conducted an experiment with female undergraduate students. Each volunteer wanted to lose weight, and they were given different instructions to follow while trying to achieve their goal: The first group was told to be mindful of what they ate and the second group was told to follow a specific ritual before each meal. The pre-eating ritual involved cutting up food, arranging the pieces on their plate so they were perfectly symmetrical, and pressing down on the food with a utensil three times. Both groups were told to record their eating habits in a food diary.
At the end of five days, the participants who followed the ritual consumed on average 224 daily calories less than those in the control group. They also ate less fat and sugar during the week.
A separate study researchers conducted yielded similar results. Three groups of college students were invited into the lab where they were given food to "taste test." First, subjects were given two carrots, and then they were given the choice between sampling either a carrot or a chocolate truffle as their third item. The group that completed a complex ritual involving hand motions and deep-breathing before eating the first two carrots chose the carrot as their third option 58 percent of the time. The group that was asked to make random hand gestures instead chose the carrot 46 percent of the time, and subjects who weren't required to do anything at all chose the carrot 35 percent.
Gino concludes that performing rituals such as these might set us up to succeed. If a lack of self-control is the reason you struggle to eat more vegetables (or go to the gym, or open your textbook and study), then performing a low-stakes ritual beforehand, something that requires a bit of discipline, might trick your brain into thinking you are a strong-willed person.
Because most of the experiments in the study were related to eating healthy or eating less, it's hard to say if the strategy would work just as well with other types of goals. Plus, performing complicated and silly rituals might get tiring fast if you have trouble getting motivated in the first place. If you're looking for more ways to be productive, check out these tips from an expert.
[h/t Scientific American]