When I was a long jumper on my college track team, I always counted to five before starting my run to the takeoff board. Counting helped me block out distractions around the track and get focused on the jump. But it had to be five. Why? Because I started counting to five at the beginning of the season and had been performing well so far. Five was one of my favorite numbers, but I knew there was nothing magic about it. What mattered was the consistency of my pre-jump routine.

Having a set routine before beginning any performance, whether on the track, on the stage, or even in a business presentation to a client, is fairly common. But often these routines seem to serve little purpose. Anyone watching a Major League Baseball game will witness what seems to be an epidemic of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Virtually every player adheres to an unchanging and, in many cases, seemingly unnecessary routine as he steps into the batter’s box. Some players readjust their batting gloves after every pitch, whether they took a swing at the bat or not. Others tap the bat on the plate before a pitch. Still others will point the bat at the pitcher until he starts his windup. The patterns vary, but are remarkably consistent for each player over time.

If It Works Once, Do It Again…and Again…and Again

Toni Morrison makes coffee and watches the dawning sun before starting to write, while Somerset Maugham would ponder his first written sentences of the day while in the bathtub. Beethoven would pace around and splash water on himself to stir his creative juices; Igor Stravinsky would do a headstand. Detroit Tiger Mark Fidrych used to talk to the ball before pitching it. The list goes on and on.

Apparently there is method to this pre-performance madness, and it is part of what makes us human. “We are hardwired to look for patterns and causes for events,” claims Tor Wager, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado who specializes in neuroscience. This hardwiring may be evolutionary, tracing back to a time when a movement in the weeds was a trigger for primitive man to run for cover. Of course, this would mean fleeing the scene even if an innocuous breeze was tickling the underbrush instead of a lion waiting in ambush. When seconds can make the difference between life and death, who stops to question it?

Research shows that repetitive patterns of behavior in both humans and animals developed as a way to induce calm and manage stress in unpredictable situations. Anxiety is reduced because the rituals help us believe we are in control—even when we aren’t. But ritualistic behavior may progress to obsessive-compulsive disorder when the compulsive behavior does not have a clear place to stop. In the case of compulsive hand washing, for example, there is no external reference to indicate absolute clean, so an element of anxiety remains. This is clearly different from shooting foul shots or being up at bat, which culminate within seconds in either misses or hits.

When Superstition Overcomes Logic

Many of us have good luck charms we carry with us, or lucky numbers we put into service when picking lottery numbers or dates for getting married. I have a talisman myself: a silver ring etched with the profile of Kokopelli, a Hopi god of fertility. Soon after buying it, my wife and I finally overcame years of infertility to have a child. I have never taken the ring off since. Do I believe that Kokopelli helped make my daughter possible? Not really—but don’t you dare try to take that ring off my finger.

In studies conducted at the University of Cologne in Germany, social psychologist Lysann Damisch and her collaborators investigated the impact of superstition on people playing golf and doing other tasks. Subjects instructed to putt a golf ball ten times were divided into groups. Group 1 was told that they were playing with a ball that everyone used. Group 2 was told that the ball they were using was lucky. The first group sank an average of 4.75 putts, while those with the “lucky” ball made an average of 6.42. Being told luck was on their side gave Group 2 a 35% greater success rate.

In another experiment, a group of people was asked to bring a lucky charm to a session where they were instructed to form as many words as they could from a group of eight letters. Some participants were allowed to keep the charm with them during the task, while others had to leave it in another room. Those equipped with their talisman were able to continue making words longer (a total of about 12 minutes versus 7) and found about 50% more words than the group that was “luckless.”

Freeing the Mind for Deeper Thought…and Fostering Social Connection

Most of us have predictable routines for daily tasks such as getting dressed, brushing our teeth, cooking dinner, or other household chores. By following the same routines, we turn many of these actions into almost automatic, reflex-like behaviors that don’t require us to think about them. Rituals in this context are like servants to the brain, taking care of the drudgery behind the scenes. This frees up the mind to focus on more interesting pursuits.

Rituals also help soften the blow of anxiety or distress associated with everything from an important job interview to the loss of a loved one. An often-used sequence of thoughts or actions can provide comfort merely by its predictability. Sharing rituals during occasions such as religious services, weddings, and political meetings also helps us feel more connected to others. This sharing can alleviate the stress of loss, as well as heighten feelings of elation during a celebration.

Take a moment to consider personal rituals that you adhere to on a regular basis. Perhaps you’re not aware of some routines that you follow because they’re so ingrained in your behavior. It would be surprising if you didn’t have any repeated routines in at least some realms of your daily life. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to count to five before I jump over a puddle in my driveway.

What Are YOUR Pre-Performance Rituals?

Share one with the Rewire Me community in the comments section below, or on our Facebook page.

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Read about Ed Decker.

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