How to Turn Bad Habits into Stress-Reducing Rituals


We’re all drawn to the “10 Things Successful People Do” lists. For good reason—we’re dying to know what we’re doing wrong, and what we should do instead. And yet if your favorite writer regularly eats Twizzlers while ripping through pages at 2 a.m., well, that may not work for you (or most people).

The secret to a less stressful, more fulfilling life isn’t just about replicating someone else’s habits; it’s about creating ones that help rather than hurt you. And while dropping bad habits is a great idea, the reason that’s so hard is because it always sounds restrictive and loss-oriented (you have to stop doing a thing). I have a better way: Replace old habits with more rewarding rituals.

In our recent survey, “What Does Stress Look Like to You?,” we asked respondents to tell us what they do when they’re stressed. Almost 80% said they go to one of two places: the fridge or the bed. And boy, do we understand the impulse to eat or sleep your stress into submission. A negative stress response can feel so overwhelming and defeating, all you want to do is shut the entire system down. Of course, these habits end up making you feel worse about yourself, more stressed and more stuck.

But the bad habit is actually an opening to transformation: When you bring attention and awareness to a deeply embedded, almost unconscious habit, you can discern what emotional need that habit is meeting for you.

Then, elevate the habit into a thoughtful, fulfilling ritual to serve your needs in a healthier way. Not the needs of the mythical, magical, uber-successful people in the lists. Your real and ongoing needs.

Here are two examples of elevating stress-induced habits into positive rituals.

Habit: You regularly eat a package of cookies while watching television after dinner.

If it’s not a scientific fact, it should be: when you eat out of a package you are going to eat every last crumb. So what is that bag of cookies and television doing for you? Are you rewarding yourself for getting through the day? Are you trying to get some distance from loneliness? Are you distracting yourself from ongoing stress at work?

Create a new ritual: Savor the sweetest moment of the day.

Reward, comfort, and a change of pace. Those are all wonderful things to give yourself. To make a ritual out of it, set aside 15 minutes after dinner to enjoy one or two cookies from a special plate. Add your favorite cup of tea and the beginning of a television show you’ve been wanting to watch for week, or a phone call to a friend. In all ways, this ritual becomes your dessert that you get to enjoy fully, rather than mindlessly.

Habit: You loiter in bed every morning even though you know it makes you late.

Often there’s a lovely, peaceful moment when you first wake up — and then you remember every to-do list item you haven’t done, all your inadequacies, your impending financial ruin, and why your marriage will likely fail. Whatever your grim soundtrack is, no wonder you pull the covers over your head! This habit serves your need to hide before the world (and your mind) overwhelms you, even though the hiding ends up making the day more stressful.

Create a New Ritual: Wake up to a beautiful moment.

You and your mind need a little time and space to prepare before you take up the mantle of the day. Instead of hiding, make that transitional time as lovely and suited to you as you can. While you’re in bed, read a page from your nightstand novel. Or play a song that makes you feel great. Take 10 minutes for jumping jacks or for meditation, Or, just before you go to sleep, set out flowers beside your bed and spend a few minutes taking in the colors when you wake. With a morning ritual, you get to begin the day on your best terms.

Anytime you find yourself doing something repetitively and mindlessly, that’s your clue that you may need to elevate your behavior into a positive ritual. They may not eradicate your stress or anxiety, but they will help give rhythm and meaning to your days, and strength to cope with whatever comes next.