Digital Health & WellbeingOpinion Piece

Rhythms, routines and rituals

We are creatures of habits and patterns. We celebrate life stages, mark significant events and have weekday and weekend schedules that we generally stick to. 

We make similar meals and go on relatively similar holidays. We wake up, eat and go to bed at a similar time. We form habits and patterns to help us manage our day-to-day lives. 

There are a number of reasons for this. A few of these are: 

Automatic (subconscious) behaviour

Learning and mastering new skills takes time and energy. If you think back to when you were last learning a new skill – like how to drive a car – you had to actively think about: ‘seatbelt on before starting the car’, ‘lights on after dark’, ‘check mirrors before changing lane’, ‘indicate before turning’. It was nerve-wracking, required intense concentration and was rather tiring.

After a few years, you do these activities habitually, and automatically. You don’t really have to think about it. How often do you find yourself driving down a familiar stretch of road and don’t have any memory of the previous five minutes of driving time? 

To conserve energy and to free up brain capacity for other activities, we naturally develop ‘muscle memory’ for a task and automate as much behaviour as possible.

This is partly why changing habits requires so much time, effort and energy.  

Meaning making

Being part of a community where you have at least one thing in common creates a sense of belonging within that group. It is grounding and engenders meaning and purpose. 

Rituals and rules give a group structure and boundaries to operate in and allow for progression and growth within that group. 

Belonging is an important human need. This is why solitary confinement and ostracisation are such harsh punishments. 

A group’s rituals and being recognised within that process is an essential element of group belonging. 

Beginning, middle and end

Everything in life has a beginning, a middle and an end. A number of these events are either recognised, celebrated or mourned.

Nature has ebbs and flows, night and day, winter and summer. These are the natural rhythms of life. 

What does this have to do with Digital Technology?

Amongst a host of ways digital technology has affected and enabled a disruption of these rhythms, rituals and routines, there are two that we can easily amend.

The first is a bit of an obvious one: sleep disruption

Many of us are still looking at a screen well into the evening, and sometimes late into the night.

  • We know that the blue light emitted from screens interrupts the melatonin production that helps us to sleep.
  • Even if you do have a screen on night-time settings, your brain is activated and stimulated by the app, content or program. It takes time to slow down brain stimulation enough for it to fall into sleep mode.
  • If you are looking at work and emails late at night, the emotional stimulation from the project, message or sender can increase fight or flight hormone levels that reduce the ability to easily fall asleep.

Matthew Walker, in his book ‘Why We Sleep’, suggests that we should turn off all screens at least two hours before we are due to go to bed and not allow any devices into our bedrooms.

The second is a more recent ‘invention’: remote and hybrid working

Research during the Lockdowns showed that most remote workers started their working day at the same time as they had originally left for work and continued until the time they arrived home from work. The research indicated that these workers showed no indication of improved productivity levels – despite working that extra amount of time each day.

Another research study showed that working parents, who needed to leave work at a very specific time, were more productive than those who didn’t. They knew they had limited time to get the work done, so were a lot more focused during the workday. 

We generally tend to get something completed within the time allocated to the work. If, for example, we have five hours, we tend to procrastinate and do the majority of the work within the last hour. If we only had an hour to get the same work done, we tend to get it done within that hour.

We also know that the commute to and from work is a time that we allocate to ‘transitioning’ between our home selves and work selves. It helps us to mentally, emotionally and physically delineate these two life realms and responsibilities, and helps us to better focus in each space.

We need to create rhythms, routines and rituals. Replicating the activities we normally engage in during our commute is a great way to engage our brain in this transition. If you normally read a book on a bus/train to work, sit in a comfortable chair at home and read a book during your traditional commute time. If you listen to music in the car, find a space at home where you can sit and listen to music. If you normally cycle or walk to work, cycle or walk around the block.

The key in all of this is to keep your body and brain within a work-home ritual and routine that gives you the mental, emotional and physical capacity to delineate between these two life realms. It may just be one of those key things that keep you focused and productive during your work day.