The Science of Rituals and Automation: How to Set Yourself Up for Success

Top-rated health podcaster and author Shawn Stevenson shows you how to change your brain to make lifestyle changes part of who you are.

There’s a wonderful statement that goes like this: You can have anything, but you can’t have everything. You have a finite amount of time here, which is why the decisions you make about what you’re going to do with your time are of the utmost importance. And to have the body, mind and health that you deserve in your one life, you have to have a strategy to get there.

Strategy is the conscious application of tools and methods to get you the results you want, and it’s critical to getting from point A to point B (while cutting out a lot of mayhem). You can use rituals and routines to move you toward your goals—whatever it is that you want in life—with more ease and, ultimately, to successfully execute them.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to create unhealthy habits than healthy ones because our environment is set up to encourage the unhealthy. Many years ago, all of us would be eating farm-to-table because that’s what food was. But today, with a fast-food restaurant, liquor store and gas station on every corner, you have to go the extra mile to procure the type of food you want to feed yourself and your family. That’s one part, and the second part that makes unhealthy habits too easy is that we’ve become sedentary in nature. Because we’re sitting in chairs so much, we’re actually changing our structure to be really good at sitting. Living as we are in the Golden Age of television binge-watching and getting trapped in social media seek-find-seek loops, it’s easy to become addicted to being sedentary.

With knowledge comes power, so we’re going to go over how you can strategically create a lifestyle change that becomes a healthy ritual and helps you succeed in reaching your goals.

How to create a lifestyle change

Your brain and your body are actually programmable. Your brain has a quality called neuroplasticity, and you can actually change the structure of your brain with your habits and rituals, which are the equivalent of your software programs. When these habits become part of who you are, they are easy to do.

There are two ways to create an engaging lifestyle change or engaging habit and really make it part of you. The first is repetition, and the second is through an emotionally charged event.

1. Repetition. Consistency makes neurons in your brain fire together and actually change the pathways in your brain, which makes it easier to do something regularly. For example, the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry probably wasn’t good at shooting three-pointers when he first started out, but he began to practice more and more and eventually laid down something called myelin in his brain, which created a pathway for this activity to become second nature to him. That’s what happens in your brain with repetition. When you start something new, at first it may be uncomfortable, but if you continue doing it, it will become part of who you are as your brain changes.

2. Emotion. You can also change your brain with an emotionally charged event. These events are another way to lay down myelin in the brain, which once again creates a stronger pathway for neurons to fire, much like repetition. When emotion is involved in an activity, it engages your endocrine system and your nervous system, which is all tied to the hypothalamus gland in your brain, and it impacts every cell in your body.

For most people, emotionally charged events are incidental, rather than deliberate. That’s why the memory of a certain song can evoke a certain feeling. But you can also tap into your emotional drive purposefully as part of your strategy to reach your goal. For instance, by selecting the right playlist for your new workout program, with songs that fire you up, you’re going to be able tap into your emotions and help create a new neurological association for this new positive and healthy behavior. (Keep in mind your brain also has “mirror neurons,” which simulate everything you’re exposed to, and that’s a good reason to be thoughtful about what you choose to listen to and to surround yourself with positivity.)

In addition to music, I also recommend using a strategy called incantations, which is a practice of using affirmative phrases while you’re exercising. This could be saying something like “I am strong” or just praising yourself while you’re training. If you can train your mind with these powerful affirmations, you can drill down deeper into your psyche and, once again, more likely spark an engaging lifestyle change. You can even find a form of exercise that ties in affirmations called intenSati at gyms all over the country.

3. Coaching. Another strategy for reinforcement is utilizing the coaching from a trainer , and any successful athletes and professionals can attest to this practice. While I’m working out, I like to listen to Dr. Eric “ET” Thomas, who is a leading motivational speaker and has an album with positive messages on top of great music. It gets me energized and helps bring life to those affirmations, and it could do the same for you.

By using repetition, emotionally charged events and coaching, you can successfully support the changing of your brain, and you’ll lay the groundwork for automated rituals that get you where you want to go.

With automated rituals, your healthy food is already prepped and your gym bag is waiting by the front door—all you have to do is execute and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

My Strategic and Winning Morning Routine The morning routine is essential because it sets the tone for the rest of the day and keeps my body and mind healthy and nourished. Here’s how I do it: Get hydrated. I drink about a liter of high-quality water every day right after I wake up. I do it to get rid of metabolic waste and give myself an inner bath. Reading/journaling. To feed my mind, I read some motivational text or excerpts from a self-development book, and I’ll also write in my journal. I share what I’m grateful for, and I write down my biggest target for the day to stay on track with my goals. (I like to do the big thing first and get it out of the way.) Meditation. For more than a decade, I’ve been meditating. I do short meditations and focus on my breathing and map out my day with visualization. Going through that mental rehearsal is so powerful. (By the way, I often tell people that the number one thing I’ve used to achieve success in my life is meditation.) Movement. To close out my “power hour” in the morning, I get moving. Whether or not I’m going to the gym later, I’ll always get in a little movement first thing for a quick cortisol reset, which actually helps me to sleep better at night. The Four Stages of Learning For anything you want to make part of your life, you have to go through the four stages of learning. If you understand them, you can move through them faster. They are as follows: Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence—You don’t know what you don’t know. Stage 2: Conscious incompetence—You realize that you don’t know something. (This is an important place to be because it’s a catalyst for change.) Stage 3: Conscious competence—You know what to do and you’re doing it, but it takes a lot of mental effort, planning and strategy. (This is the work phase, during which you are laying down myelin in your brain to make that nerve pathway fire, leading you to automation.) Stage 4: Unconscious competence—You don’t even have to think about doing the right thing; you just automatically do it because you’ve gone through all the phases and it’s part of who you are.

Photo credit: Tom Casey,
Hair and make-up: Mariah Nicole,