The philosopher Byung-Chul Han opens his book The Scent of Time by observing that life has become more rushed and directionless. “The time of a life is no longer structured by sections, completions, thresholds, and transitions,” he writes. “Instead, there is a rush from one present to the next, an aging without growing old.”
Han describes the modern time warp: that feeling of constant restlessness and busyness, of time folding in on itself and disappearing, but without any real meaning. One of the primary drivers, he argues, is the disappearance of rituals.
For the vast majority of our species’ history, our lives ebbed and flowed with routine. We rose when the sun came up and slept when it went down. Electricity changed this. In 2017, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings said that the company’s biggest competition was sleep.
Organized religion once dictated numerous rituals and routines—from the sabbath to lighting candles to morning prayers—for nearly everyone. It continues to be on the decline. The emergence of portable digital technologies—first the pager, then the laptop, then the smartphone—blurred boundaries between work and home. More recently, pandemic-induced remote work destroyed whatever was left of those boundaries altogether.
Nowadays, for many people hardly anything in life consists of ritual and routine. We go from work to play, from important to trivial, from deep to shallow, from news to entertainment, from light to dark, from weekday to weekend, and on and on and on, without much, if any, pause. Time feels blurred because it is.
It’s not that we should all do away with electricity, go back to organized religion en masse, ditch our devices, or abolish remote work. This isn’t about proselytizing any single approach. But it is about recognizing that we could benefit from injecting more ritual and routine into our lives.
The two major areas where routine and ritual are most helpful are marking the passage of time and marking transitions between activities. In both cases, routine and ritual imbue with depth, meaning, and concreteness what otherwise might become shallow, trivial, and blurry.
You can mark the passage of time daily, weekly, seasonally, and annually. It could be as simple as lighting candles, making coffee or tea, journaling, or observing a sabbath; or as complex as a big camping trip or an entire week of solitude. It doesn’t so much matter what you do, just that you do something that creates a pause and backward step from the craziness of life, and that you do it with enough regularity that it takes on significance.
Marking transitions between activities could involve setting aside specific spaces for specific tasks, leaving your phone behind, listening to music, brewing a fresh pot of coffee, and so on. What matters is that you find something that helps you gather yourself and bring intentionality to the important things in your life.
A big reason that routines and rituals have faded is because we live in a culture that is obsessed with short-term optimization and efficiency. Judged against this standard, routines and rituals make no sense. They are seen as wasted time, since they offer no direct or immediate productivity. When you execute a routine or ritual you do it for its own sake, and what you make—meaning and significance—isn’t measured by conventional dashboards.
But when it comes fulfillment and long-term performance, routines and rituals begin to look essential. They take you out of a frantic, frenetic, and frazzled attention economy and put you back in touch with what matters to you most. They turn off distraction and turn on focus. For example, studies show that sitting on Instagram before physical feats reduces performance, whereas having a more purposeful routine—certain music or self-talk, for example—improves performance.
The more frantic your day-to-day life, the more crucial routine and ritual become. As I explained in my latest book, Master of Change, developing routines and rituals is particularly important during chaotic and tumultuous times, such as those we are living in now. In addition marking time and generating meaning, routines and rituals provide a sense of predictability amidst disorder, which goes a long way for mental stability.
Zoom out further and routines and rituals help ensure that you don’t live your entire life barreling from one thing to the next until suddenly you reach your death and you have no idea how you got there. In a world void of routine and ritual, writes Byung-Chul Han, “one perishes in non-time; this is what today makes dying more difficult than ever.” Han also deploys the metaphor of gravity, a force that holds us to the ground and organizes our lives. Routines and rituals are a source of gravity, ensuring we don’t just float from one thing to the next. (That gravity is used as a synonym for meaning is not surprising.)
It’s wild that the key, or at least a key, to meaning in life could be getting in the habit of lighting a candle or brewing a pot of coffee in silence before you get caught up scrolling on your phone. But as the writer Annie Dillard so eloquently remarked, how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. If we want our lives to feel meaningful, to have gravity, then we need to ensure that our days feel meaningful and have gravity too.
A good place to start is developing daily, weekly, and annual rituals or routines. You could also select a few specific activities about which you care deeply, and try attaching a ritual or routine to each. Experiment and find what works for you.