I never thought I’d miss working from the office. Even before the pandemic, I preferred working from home. I loved avoiding the stinky, crowded subway. I loved the flexibility to work in my pj’s. I loved having my own space where I wouldn’t be interrupted by other people or distracted by the office around me. I loved not having to run upstairs and drop $5 every time I wanted an iced coffee. Working from home rocked.
Until it kind of didn’t. The longer I worked from home due to the pandemic, the more I felt my work slipping. There’s no denying that a lot of it has to do with the many mental health stressors of the pandemic, but also, there were some hidden struggles to WFH life that I didn’t account for. Turns out, the little habits and rituals of office life that I was happy to leave behind—like commuting on the subway or walking to a café for a coffee break—not only helped me perform better at work, but also enabled me to practice better self-care and unwind. That’s because, whether I realized it or not, they were crucial things called transition rituals.
Okay, I’m intrigued. What are transition rituals, exactly?
Let me back up. We spend our days transitioning between individual tasks and projects, and we also transition between larger blocks of time, like from our workday to personal time. But what we don’t often realize is that we don’t always just bounce aimlessly from one thing to another. Instead, we sometimes mark transitions with little “rituals” that signal to our brain it’s time to switch gears.
You probably have a ton of habits that function as transition rituals without even thinking about it: you “transition” from home to work by driving, you “transition” between projects by taking a stretch break or scrolling through social media, you “transition” from parent mode to chill mode with a glass of wine or a relaxing candle after your kids go to bed.
For one, take how we can benefit from a solid morning routine and nighttime routine—they transition us in and out of the workday. “When you finish work for the day, it’s hard to go straight from 60 to 0 miles per hour, so instead, you can take a step-down approach,” clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., tells SELF. In that way, you might feel better signaling the end of your workday by taking a walk instead of, say, just closing your work email and opening Twitter. The same goes for having a morning routine before starting work so you don’t have to go 0 to 60 then, either.
So how do I establish transition rituals?
There are a lot of transition rituals you can build into your day, and at first glance they’re pretty straightforward. Transitional rituals can be activities like: going for a walk, taking your dog out, calling a friend for a quick chat, knocking out a chore, brewing a mug of coffee or tea, reading, listening to music, doing a meditation, exercising, taking a shower, eating a meal—the list goes on.
If this seems like a lot of fuss just to tell you to take a walk or meditate, you’re not wrong. The key is to be intentional about when and how you do these things. If it were as simple as taking breaks or carrying out a specific routine, we wouldn’t have an issue in the first place. Putting purpose and thought behind how we move from one thing to another—whether that’s starting, stopping, or switching between tasks—can put us in the right headspace to stay on track.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for building transition rituals:
1. Know when and why you run into trouble.
Everyone has different challenges they can problem-solve with transition rituals. Maybe you have a hard time disengaging from work at the end of the day and therefore can’t relax. Maybe when you try to take a short break, time gets away from you because you get sucked into a social media vortex. Maybe you never get any work done until noon because you always plop down in front of your computer before you actually feel awake. Once you know the pain points of your day, you can build from there.
For example, I know a lot of my transition issues are related to my ADHD (in fact, I first stumbled across the concept of transition rituals in this video from How to ADHD about working and learning from home). The ADHD brain has trouble with executive function around activation (meaning getting started on a task), as well as hyper-focus (which can make it difficult to stop a task), according to Frank. There are also issues around distractibility, hallmark symptoms of ADHD. All of these factors and more can make transitions feel super daunting.
“A lot of folks with ADHD are afraid to take breaks because they’re afraid of the transition,” says Frank. “You’re worried you won’t be able to get started again or you’ll get distracted in the meantime. So transitions are spaces where you need to be self-directed and intentional in your choices.”
Whatever your issue is, it’s about asking how you can set yourself up to succeed. For me, it’s not as simple as deciding, “Okay, I’m going to take a break at 3 p.m. to stay productive.” It’s, “How can I remind myself to take a break between projects, and how can I make sure it doesn’t derail the rest of my workday?” From there, I found my transition rituals: either a midday shower or 15-minute ride on my stationary bike, prompted by an alarm on my phone. What’s your version of that?
2. When in doubt, re-create the familiar.
Like I said, a big problem for many has been losing transition rituals that were built into our day. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, riding the subway to work prepared me to get shit done and commuting home got me in the space to rest. Similarly, grabbing coffee with a coworker during the day gave me an opportunity to get in the headspace to switch between, say, writing a story and preparing for an interview.
3. Plan for them until they become habits.
As with building any habit, you sometimes have to fake it until it comes naturally to you, says Howes. But just like breaking for coffee in the office with your coworker or chatting around the water cooler felt second nature, transition rituals can start to feel automatic too. For that to happen, you have to be really intentional in the beginning.
That said, there are a lot of different ways to go about that. For some, intentionality looks like scheduling your transition rituals as part of your routine and sticking to that, but for others that might be stifling. I try for a flexible in-between approach. I vaguely schedule my day and set alarms for my routines—but if I’m in the middle of a project and it’s not a great time, I hit snooze until I’m ready. Otherwise, I’d just keep on working without a break.
For others, it makes more sense to decide on certain cues as triggers for rituals. For example, planning to do a certain ritual whenever you finish a task on your to-do list or after every team Zoom call. Your body might also provide natural cues, and if you’re in tune with it, you can plan around it—like deciding you’ll take a walk when you feel brain fog creeping in or take a 10-minute break for a glass of water and a guided meditation when you feel thirsty.
The point is setting rules for yourself, in whatever way makes sense for you. Pretty much anything is better than vaguely deciding you want to implement some transition rituals and then winging it.
4. Set your boundaries and find ways to enforce them.
When it comes to actually doing the rituals instead of just planning for them, you might need to go the extra mile to make sure they’re effective. Much like with setting goals, specificity can help a lot with follow-through. For example, instead of saying you’re going to read after work before tackling dishes, tell yourself you’re going to read for 20 minutes or read one chapter. Otherwise, whoops, suddenly it’s been an hour and you’re still reading to procrastinate on all your nightly responsibilities (true story).
Alarms, timers, and self-control extensions can also keep you on track. For example, if your transition ritual for easing into your workday involves reading the news and scrolling through Twitter but you always do it way longer than you mean to, install an app like SelfControl so you can’t access Twitter after 10 a.m. Similarly, many find the Pomodoro technique useful.
5. Be kind to yourself and experiment.
No transition ritual—or way of dealing with productivity struggles related to mental health, for that matter—is one-size-fits-all. You may have to experiment to find out how to make it work for you, and even when you find one that helps, it won’t work perfectly or forever.
But more than that, don’t put an undue amount of pressure on yourself to solve all of your struggles right now. Sure, learning about transition rituals and why they’re important was super helpful for me. But it also didn’t solve all my problems. Getting shit done, staying productive, and managing a healthy work-life balance are still hard, especially during a pandemic. It’s important to remind yourself that transition rituals are just tools to keep in your back pocket. Your most important tools right now might just be lowering your expectations and practicing a whole lot of self-compassion.