From Ritual to Habitual

The Story:

When I stir my morning coffee with a spoon, I always gently tap the spoon twice on the edge of the mug to eliminate drips. One evening I was mixing cold drinks for dinner guests and used a teaspoon to stir the contents of some exotic drink I was making in an elegant, rather expensive, glass. To my horror, my gentle taps on the edge of the glass shattered it.

Right then I realized that the ‘two spoon tap’ was a useless unconscious habit and resolved to banish it immediately. For the next week I successfully concentrated on not tapping the coffee cup with the spoon. However, a couple of mornings later, my wife pointed out that I was tapping with the spoon again! It was only then that I remembered an old teaching as to why trying ‘not’ to do something invariably fails. It’s like asking people ‘not’ to think of a purple striped elephant.


To solve the problem I resorted to the principle that the mind cannot think of two things at once, and instead of trying ‘not’ to tap, I focussed on an alternate process — that of shaking the spoon twice (at least that wouldn’t break expensive glass). To embed the new process in my mind, I practiced it repeatedly based on a second principle, namely: A ritual is a behaviour repeated consciously, whereas a habit is a behaviour repeated unconsciously. Further, if a ritual is repeated enough, it too becomes a habit. In this case it did and my problem was solved.

The Nature of Habit:

This anecdote reflects a simple physical habit; however, the concept applies equally to mental processes such as our habitual judgements about our self and our relationships with others. Many of these mental habits are counter to our true desires, yet we not only act as if they were true, we forget that these beliefs were self-created.

'The Ladder of Inference' model developed by Chris Argyris, describes just how quickly we humans jump from observation to conclusion and then reinforce the validity of the belief. For example:

  •  Jim says: “We need to be more respectful of people” and I SELECT that for focus

 •  I add my own MEANING: Jim is uncomfortable with straight talk

 •  I make the ASSUMPTION: Jim doesn’t like confrontation

 •  I CONCLUDE: Avoid discussing sensitive situations with Jim.

 •   I then adopt this conclusion as a BELIEF about Jim

This belief becomes the framework for my next interaction with Jim and my tendency to notice Jim’s aversion to conflict then reinforces and justifies my belief about him. Unquestioned, this reinforcing cycle is invisible and the judgement about Jim becomes unconscious and habitual. We all have experienced our own version of this story many times. It is one of the biggest causes of miscommunication and erosion of trust in relationships.

The Cycle of Success:

The first step to breaking this pattern is being aware that it exists. The second is to recognize how strongly we feel that our beliefs are the truth and be prepared to let them go. Having identified an undesirable habit, recognize that trying to ‘not’ let it affect our judgement is probably futile because of the natural power of the reinforcing cycle. However, we can capitalize on this same power in a very constructive way by using a repetitive conscious behaviour, or ritual, to replace the original habit: To change the cycle into a ‘Cycle of Success’.  If our perception of events is a consequence of the beliefs invoked then we can control which beliefs are brought to the foreground by conscious attention to our thoughts. This sets our attitude

Using the earlier example of my limiting belief that ‘Jim hates conflict’, I could choose instead to focus my attention on a positive belief about him, such as ‘Jim has a great sense of purpose’. By consciously and repeatedly keeping Jim’s deep sense of purpose in my mind, in my thoughts, and all conversations with Jim, this belief would become a new habit over time and replace the earlier belief. Handling conflict then becomes a normal process.

However, the original example assumes that the reinforcing limited belief I held was unilateral and that Jim was either unaware of my beliefs, or indifferent to them. My behaviour was likely to trigger Jim to jump up a few rungs on his own ladder of inference to adversely judge me. This would deeply reinforce our beliefs about each other. For us to shift our beliefs would require a dialogue of extraordinary openness and trust to challenge the untested assumptions.

A better context to apply these principles is to the beliefs we hold about ourselves. By creating supportive rituals to replace our own limiting beliefs we can begin a journey that will transform all our relationships.

Bryan Walton