American Association for Physician Leadership

Operations and Policy

The Research-Backed Benefits of Daily Rituals

Michael I. Norton

May 24, 2024


While some may cringe at forced corporate rituals, research shows that personal and team rituals can actually benefit the way we work. The authors’ expertise on the topic over the past decade, plus a survey of nearly 140 HBR readers, explores the ways rituals can set us up for success before work, get us psyched up for important presentations, foster a strong team culture, and help us wind down at the end of the day.

“Give me a W! Give me an A! Give me an L! Give me a squiggly! Give me an M! Give me an A! Give me an R! Give me a T!”

If you’re still not sure which company asks its employees to engage in this cheer, the end gives it away: “Whose Wal-Mart is it? It’s my Wal-Mart.” Employees are even given specific guidance on how to shimmy their hips on the “squiggly.”

If you cringed at the idea of having to enact this ritual, you’re not alone: It’s been described as “two parts militaristic, one part kumbaya.” And more generally, the phrase “workplace rituals” can elicit eyeroll-inducing memories of forced corporate retreats with cliched activities like trust falls.

But it might be a mistake to dismiss workplace rituals entirely. My new book, The Ritual Effect, summarizes my own and others’ research over the past decade, revealing three key insights that might change the way you think about their value. First, many of the workplace rituals that people report engaging in are not mandated by corporate, but are in fact crafted by employees themselves. Second, despite our knee-jerk reaction to the idea, workplace rituals help to provide structure and meaning to our days at work. We start our workday with them, we use them before stressful meetings and presentations, we rely on them in our teams, and we even use them to leave work behind at the end of the day. And third, and perhaps most importantly, these rituals often are linked with actual benefits — from helping us maintain better work-life balance to getting more out of our teams.

The Benefits of Daily Rituals

To demonstrate the ubiquity and usefulness of rituals, I asked HBR readers to take a survey and tell me about their workplace rituals, which were defined as “an activity that you make sure to do every so often, is repeated over time, and is something that you do because it has meaning for you.” I heard from nearly 140 readers, from 23 countries, with an average age of 48 (and an age range from 24 to 70). I broke their responses down into the following categories:

Rituals to Start the Workday

These rituals were most common among respondents, with 79% saying that they had a regular practice each morning. Typical themes were prayer, exercise, meditation, and, of course, coffee. Three separate people shared:

The best days involve a workout first thing in the morning and a meditation. A balanced breakfast and a cup of coffee. During the drive, either a motivational podcast or a loud dance party in the car. Days where all of those things happen are the best days!

My morning usual ritual for commuting by train is to put [on] my makeup on the way. Whilst it became a habit caused by the lack of time, it allows me to have my confidence boosted and reminds me of my beautiful feminine nature right at the start of a day.

I wake up with sun salutation and gratitude for the day. I thank all those individuals that I will learn from and ask that I give good advice and feedback to those struggling.

They might be on to something with these rituals. Many of the most talented and productive artists swear by their similar, if slightly quirkier, morning rituals — like writer Maya Angelou, who each morning headed to a motel and began writing only after all the art had been removed from the walls; or author Victor Hugo, who stripped naked and asked his valet to hide his clothes until he met his daily writing quota.

Rituals and Performance

People’s use of rituals continued once they’d arrived at the office. Some 63% reported engaging in a ritual before stressful meetings or presentations. The most common themes centered on specific types of preparation, different kinds of deep breathing exercises, and music. Three different responses illustrate this:

[I use] deep breaths and meditations. I also make sure I have clothes on that make me feel proud, strong, and beautiful. I always make sure I have my Prada glasses on.

I usually look in the mirror and psych myself up.

I have a playlist I listen to. It doesn’t need to be the whole thing; even a few songs will get me in the right, confident mindset.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have posited that these types of pre-performance rituals help to alleviate our stress in part by simply forcing us to focus on something else, giving us less time and space to spiral out of control. You can see how this helpful dynamic might play out in the responses of readers like the one who wrote, “Breathe deeply and think of being a leaf that flies lightly.”

Team Rituals

While less common, 38% of readers reported having at least one team ritual. Many of these rituals occurred during meetings, and the most common types centered on sharing good news, playing music, and (again) breathing exercises. Three examples include:

For internal team meetings (conducted via Zoom), we usually start with a 90-second silent breathing exercise to allow all of our teammates to settle into themselves and shift their presence to this specific meeting.

For our staff meeting, we use an icebreaker each time. Further, we ask each member of the team to participate in bringing an icebreaker and switch off for each meeting. We have done everything from Two Truths and a Lie, to “If this meeting were a song, which song would it be?” It starts the meeting off on a good tone.

Prior to starting, we share positive developments (personally and professionally) and sometimes at the end what we are looking forward to during the weekends.

One survey respondent noted that some teams at their company made a practice of eating together every day while employees on other teams ate alone at their desks, and felt that “the teams who eat together seem more connected.” My research with several coauthors suggests that team rituals like these are in fact associated with a range of positive outcomes. For example, we show that members of teams who report having at least one ritual tend to view their work as having more meaning than members of teams who report no rituals at all.

Rituals to End the Workday

Finally, rituals were also commonly used to help leave work behind. Fifty-nine percent of readers reported having a ritual to end their workday. Here, the most common actions involved shutting off technology, creating space for transition (à la Mr. Rogers), and connecting with family. Examples include:

Closing all the open tabs/applications on my computer and shutting it down. Helps to mark the completion of one day and keeps me from being triggered the next morning when I log in by all the “unfinished” tasks of the day before.

At the end of my workday, I look to see whether anyone on my team is still online — if so, I reach out to see if they need help or encourage them to close-up and enjoy the evening. I then shut down the laptop, turn off the light in my office and close the door behind me. Creating a separate office space and being able to close the door at the end of the day has made it easier to separate from work at the end of the day.

I take the dog for a 30-minute walk at the end of my workday, and listen to a non-work-related podcast. It’s my marker between closing my computer and transitioning into home life. As a working mum in an executive role, this is the 30 minutes I have to myself where I can let my mind go blank or wander. I don’t talk to anyone (except my dog), and if I do have emotions to process, I use that time to solve for it so that I enter family time in a more present state.

In my ongoing research with colleagues, we surveyed nurses who work in emergency rooms, and found that those who reported using rituals to leave work behind felt more successful in separating work life from home life, in part because rituals served as a reminder to engage in self-care. As one nurse told us: “When showering after work, I imagine the entire hospital turning into liquid and circling down the drain.”

Interestingly, readers who reported having a ritual to start their workday were no more likely to have a ritual to end their workday. This suggests that it’s not the case that some people do many rituals and others do none. Instead, the same person uses rituals in some situations but not in others. In other words, we decide where rituals are most needed and use them only then.

. . .

These reader responses, in addition to my research, demonstrate that rituals can be useful and effective, and offer suggestions for when and where we might use them ourselves. So, consider trying similar approaches to start your day off right and to close it out successfully, to help you when you’re most stressed, and to shift your teams from a smattering of random individuals into a meaningful collective — no cheering required.

Copyright 2024 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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Michael I. Norton

Michael I. Norton is the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He is the author of The Ritual Effect and co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending. His research focuses on happiness, well-being, rituals, and inequality.

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