This article is an excerpt from Atomic Habits, my New York Times bestselling book.
Twyla Tharp was born in Indiana and was named after the local “Pig Princess” at the Annual Muncie Fair, who went by Twila.
It wasn’t the prettiest of starts, but Tharp turned it into something beautiful.
She is widely regarded as one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of the modern era. She is credited with choreographing the first crossover ballet and she has choreographed dances for the Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, and many others. Her work has appeared on Broadway, on television, and in films. In 1992, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the Genius Grant, and she has spent the bulk of her career touring the globe to perform her original works.
To put it simply: Twyla Tharp is prolific. The question is, how does she do it?
The Power of Ritual
In her best-selling book, The Creative Habit (audiobook), Tharp discusses one of the secrets of her success:
“I begin each day of my life with a ritual,” she writes. “I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours.
“The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.
“It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.”
Let’s talk about what makes Tharp’s morning routine so important and how we can use it to master our own habits.
The Surprising Thing About Motivation
If you have trouble sticking to good habits or fall victim to bad ones, then it can be easy to assume that you simply need to learn how to get motivated or that you don’t understand how willpower works.
But here is the surprising thing about motivation: it often comes after starting a new behavior, not before. Getting started is a form of active inspiration that naturally produces momentum.
You have probably experienced this phenomenon before. For example, going for a run may seem overwhelming or exhausting just to think about before you begin, but if you can muster up the energy to start jogging, you’ll often find that you become more motivated to finish as you go. In other words, it’s easier to finish the run than it was to start it in the first place.
This is basically Newton’s First Law applied to habit formation: objects in motion tend to stay in motion. And that means getting started is the hardest part.
I often find this to be true with my articles. Once I begin writing, it’s much easier for me to power through and finish. However, if I’m staring at a blank page, it can seem overwhelming and taxing to take the first step.
And this, my friends, is where Twyla Tharp’s morning routine comes back into the picture.
Rituals Are an On-Ramp for Your Behavior
The power of a ritual, or what I like to call a pre-game routine, is that it provides a mindless way to initiate your behavior. It makes starting your habits easier and that means following through on a consistent basis is easier.
Habits researchers agree. Benjamin Gardner, a researcher in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London recently published a paper in the Health Psychology Review that covered how we can use habits to initiate longer, more complex routines:
A ‘habitual’ bicycle commuter, for example, may automatically opt to use a bicycle rather than alternative transport (so automatically enacting the first behaviour in a superordinate ‘bicycle commuting’ sequence, such as putting on a cycle helmet), but negotiating the journey may require higher-level cognitive input.
In other words, getting started with a simple ritual like putting on a helmet or checking the air in the bike tires makes it easier to follow through on the bigger behavior (making the commute). If you focus on the ritual, the next step follows more automatically.
Twyla Tharp’s morning routine is a perfect example of this idea in practice. Naturally, there are going to be days when she doesn’t feel like getting out of bed and exercising. There are bound to be times when the thought of starting the day with a two-hour workout seems exhausting.
But her ritual of waking up and calling the taxi takes the emotion, motivation, and decision-making out of the process. Her brain doesn’t need to waste any energy deciding what to do next. She doesn’t have a debate with herself about what the first step should be. She simply follows the same pattern that she always does. And once the pattern is in motion, the rest of the sequence follows more easily.
The key to any good ritual is that it removes the need to make a decision: What should I do first? When should I do this? How should I do this? Most people never get moving because they can’t decide how to get started. Having a ritual takes that burden off your shoulders.
The Idea in Practice
Here are some other examples of how you can apply ritual and routine to your habits and behaviors:
- Exercise more consistently: Use the same warm-up routine in the gym
- Become more creative: Follow a creative ritual before you start writing or painting or singing
- Start each day stress-free: Create a five-minute morning meditation ritual
- Sleep better: Follow a “power down” routine before bed
Whatever it is, make it your own. Use your ritual as an on-ramp for the bigger behavior and habits you want to build into your life. When you master the ability to mindlessly initiate the tasks that are important to you, it’s not necessary to rely on motivation and willpower to make them happen.
Where can you use a ritual or routine in your life? What behaviors do you want to do more consistently and automatically?
This article is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of my New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits. Read more here.