Even the greatest writers had to sometimes trick themselves into writing. John Steinbeck, for one, couldn’t put words to paper unless he had 12 perfectly sharpened pencils lined up on his desk. German philosopher Friedrich Schiller “could not live or work” without a drawer full of rotting apples nearby—a fact his poor friend Goethe discovered by following a peculiar, reeking stench to its source in Schiller’s study. Even Virginia Woolf relied on a custom standing desk—not for any proclaimed health benefits, but because her sister, a painter, worked standing in front of an easel all day, and Virginia loathed to appear any less industrious.
The magic here is not in the pencils, or the standing, or even the moldering apples: it’s in the ritual. Rituals are powerful drivers of behavior, and there’s increasingly more research to back it up. Studies have shown that a ritual toast before a drink can make the drink taste better, ritual journaling can reduce stress while promoting a more positive outlook, and any ritual behavior that establishes the start of a process can help us push through procrastination and dispel anxiety. According to recent research reported in Scientific American, some rituals can even improve our performance in tasks tied to personal identity. In this case, it may be as simple as writing with a lucky pen.
Across several studies due to appear in an upcoming Journal of Marketing Research, researchers had students complete a variety of physical and mental challenges, sometimes with the help of decorated (or “lucky”) objects that reinforced a part of their identity—for example, a drinking coaster decorated with a picture of an athlete might be given to a student to use during a coaster-flipping game. The question was: can custom equipment have an impact on success?
Superstitious as it may sound, the answer seems to be yes: custom objects had a profound effect on the students’ performances. According to Scientific American: “Even though participants did not expect any benefit, they threw customized darts more accurately, they came up with more anagrams using a customized pen, and they played a beer-coaster flipping game better with customized coasters. Across the studies, customization boosted performance by 25 percent.”
Notably, the effect worked best when those custom objects had a strong connection to some part of the student’s purpose. One of the study authors, professor Martin Schreier of the Vienna University of Economics and Business, explains: “If there is an alignment between the goal and the identity, then you are more motivated to pursue this goal because you can affirm this part of the identity.”
So, a lucky pair of underpants may not make you a better guitar player—but a Led Zeppelin sticker on your amplifier actually might. Keep that in mind, should you ever have to choose between a fancy pen and a desk full of apples.