If you usually scoff at team-building tasks and visualisations, listen up: researchers at Harvard University have found evidence that performing rituals before stressful events can improve performance.
Alison Wood Brookes, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, writes in the Harvard Business Review about a series of experiments she performed with her colleagues, in which participants were told to do some kind of ritual before their performance was observed on a standardised activity.
In the first scenario, students were asked to sing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey in front of their peers. Half the group was invited to perform a random ritual that involved drawing a picture and sprinkling salt on it, while the other half of the group was not. The group that completed the ritual tasks before singing performed better and had lower heart rates and reported anxiety levels than the control group.
In the second experiment, participants were told to complete a maths equation, with half of them told the task was ‘fun’ and the other half told it was ‘difficult’. Participants were then randomly chosen to either complete a ritual before doing the test or not. From this second round of experiments, researchers found performing a ritual-like task worked to improve performance for the task that was seen as stressful (for the group that was told the problem would be hard), but not for tasks considered ‘fun’.
The take-away? Researchers recommend people develop their own pre-performance routines, based on the belief that centring yourself with something simple and deliberate can help you do better at everything, from having difficult conversations to completing high-pressure work tasks.