Rituals, not resolutions: Chasing those 1% improvements

by Kate Courtney


Being an athlete is a constant exercise in optimization. For cyclists, the time to set new goals and establish better routines usually comes around in the fall as training picks up. But throughout the year, there are countless opportunities to measure, adjust and recommit to optimizing your life for performance. How can I get better sleep? How can I improve recovery? How can I fuel better before and after a workout?

It seems there are endless ways to improve performance and chase those 1% improvements. With the start of the new year, however, I always feel an urgency to recommit to doing every little thing, every single day. I find myself setting ridiculous and sometimes pointless resolutions that aren’t always sustainable and result in a lot of wasted energy and willpower. As January comes to a close, I am again surprised by how quickly resolutions can fade into the background.

Historically, my resolutions haven’t lasted long. Like the time when the Christmas cookie season left me with the resolution of giving up “after-dinner desserts” for the month of January. Note that I said after-dinner desserts — meaning cookies during and after rides were definitely still fair game. Halfway through the month, I was so exhausted and tired on a rest day that the only thing I could muster up the strength to do was bake something for a friend’s birthday party. I made an apple pie from a special recipe I was given at Christmas. I considered eating it before dinner and thereby respecting my resolution, but low and behold I cracked and, honestly, it was worth it.

My failure to cut out after-dinner dessert is a perfect example of how silly and unproductive some resolutions can be. I take nutrition very seriously and honestly don’t have dessert most nights anyway, but making a random, strict rule for myself didn’t really push me towards any helpful goals. It just meant I had to do a lot of bargaining with myself before that little slice of apple pie. Some might say I just needed more willpower and discipline — and maybe they’re right — but I’m guessing many of you have had experiences like this.

For me, it’s a perfect example of why resolutions often don’t accomplish much.

Suspecting my resolutions would have fleeting effects, I tried something a little different this year. I decided to revisit rituals, and not set resolutions. A ritual can defined as, “Any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner.” Like habits, rituals become ingrained in our way of life and begin to become second nature. At a certain point, they no longer seem to take willpower or decision making, you just do them. Rather than focusing on controlling a specific behavior and exhausting my willpower and discipline to do something specific “every day” or “never again,” I shifted my attention to flexible rituals that I could do every day.

One of the rituals I am focused on this year is maintaining a regular meditation practice. For me, meditation is magical. It improves my mental clarity, makes me feel grounded, is an important part of recovery, and has many other scientifically proven health benefits — it’s a wonder we aren’t all meditating all the time. The past few years I have set a resolution to meditate every single day and struggled to maintain it. Time and again, I found myself procrastinating and busying myself with other things. I know it doesn’t sound that challenging, but it always seemed to take so much willpower to choose to sit down and sit still. Not only that, but the resolution sometimes seemed to work against me. I would skip a day, feel bad that I had broken the resolution, and stop doing it all together.

Instead of falling into my regular resolution-failure-guilt cycle, I tried approaching daily meditation as a ritual. I realized that the best time for me to meditate was in the morning right after waking up, but I often found myself distracted when I was setting a timer on my phone. I got an alarm clock so that I could easily set a meditation timer, and I started sleeping with my phone outside of my room. It sounds like a simple change, but the results were immediate. I found it was so easy to wake up every morning, set a 10-15 minute timer, meditate and then start my day.

This ritual also had other positive impacts — creating some technology-free time in the morning and evenings and even improving sleep. It’s now the end of January and I am already appreciating the benefits of a daily practice, free of stress or guilt. I don’t have to wake up every day and decide whether to meditate or go to sleep every night giving myself a gold star for accomplishing it. Instead, it is just a flexible and positive part of my morning routine that I don’t have to think about all that much.

Another behavior I wanted to cultivate this year was to incorporate short naps. While this sounds like a hilarious and somewhat luxurious goal, napping can actually be a very important part of recovery on hard training days, and particularly when trying to rest between two workouts. It is also more challenging than you might think to fall asleep in the middle of the day when there are a million other things you feel you should be doing.

So what was stopping me from napping? A few days a week, depending on the time of year, I have a strength workout and ride on the same day. I realized I was getting home from my morning workout, eating, and then becoming distracted by emails until it was too late to take a nap. If I by chance made it to my bed, I’d get distracted by my phone trying to set a timer to wake me up. So I changed my post-workout rituals. I answered emails before I headed off the to the gym, made sure to have lunch ready ahead of time, and carved out the 20-45 minutes I needed for deep recovery. I ordered an eye mask to help block out the daylight. I also started using my Apple Watch to set a “recovery nap” sleep timer on an app that tracks your sleep cycle and wakes you up at an optimal time. This may sound like overkill, but it has completely changed my recovery habits and created a ritual that I now slip into seamlessly every time.

For me, these small but powerful examples show what can happen when you focus on habits you can control and approach your goals with rituals not resolutions. Rituals involve creative problem solving rather than beating yourself up for not having more willpower and the discipline to be perfect.

Unlike many of my resolutions in the past — cough, cough, apple pie — rituals help me feel good on a daily basis and can be started or restarted at any time. Instead of taking the new year as a time to try something extreme with the expectation of perfection, I tried something tiny with the expectation of flexibility. And in the wise words of John Steinbeck, “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

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About the author

Kate Courtney is a professional cross-country mountain-bike racer for the Specialized Factory Team and is the 2017 U.S. national champion. Off the bike, she’s a self-described “huge nerd” with a degree in human biology from Stanford University. She’s a fan of any and all outdoor adventures, but is mostly in it for the snack breaks. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.

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