The merits of forming good habits are often noted in modern self-improvement books. On the other hand, we often hear that a good and productive life is built upon the right routines. But what actually constitutes a habit, and what makes it different from a routine?
Routines and habits are different. Routines can be made of a set of habits. They are usually positive and require some effort and motivation, whereas habits are automatic behaviors that can sometimes be detrimental to us.
The words “habit” and “routine” are often used interchangeably. However, it is important to keep in mind there are definite distinctions between the two. Read on to find out more about what particularly differentiates these terms in order to use each to your best advantage.
What Is a Habit?
First of all, let’s give a basic definition of both habits and routines before we delve into them deeper.
Dr. Benjamin Garden is a psychologist whose studies focus on habit-forming research. According to Dr. Garden, habits are:
“actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.”
An example he provides for this is the act of washing your hands. You automatically wash your hands (action) after using the toilet (context).
Repeating an action in a stable context develops into a habit. This means that the action will take place consistently whenever placed in that context. Habits are often unconsciously triggered behaviors. Once established, they require very little mental motivation or attention.
What Is a Routine?
A routine can be considered any set of regularly practiced behaviors, which occur whether one feels compelled to perform them or not. Routines often require a good deal of concentrated effort and dedication in order to consistently complete them.
Routines don’t care whether you feel the urge to complete them or not. They are simply a task or a set of actions that need to be done. As such, they generally require deliberation and intention to perform since they do not necessarily come naturally.
Without further due, here are 13 facts and differences between habits and routines:
1. Habits Are Dependent Upon a Consistent Context
Habits are essentially impulses that come from a particular context. According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits*, a habit is triggered by the following:
- Time of the day. For instance, most of us have strong habits in the morning after waking up. It may be hitting the snooze button, making coffee, or brushing your teeth.
- Location. If you are usually buying a muffin from your favorite coffee shop, it will be hard for you to resist temptation next time you go there to order your coffee. It’s sad, but you’d probably be better off going to another coffee shop while you’re trying to quit this foodie habit.
- Preceding event. Some of us love switching the TV on as soon as they come back home from work. Not the best habit, right? Yet, it may be really hard to quit once this has become an automatic behavior.
- Emotional state. If you feel sad, you’ll probably feel like eating cookies or ice cream. Am I right?
- Other people. When you see your colleague smoking in front of you, it will be harder to resist if you’ve quit smoking recently.
This essentially means that for it to occur it needs the correct setup or “cue”.
The unconscious behavior is only unconscious when in response to that particular triggering event.
This means that the habit of washing your hands after using the toilet does not establish a habit of washing your hands before you handle food. The event that triggers the hand washing is the toilet. So outside of this context, there will not be the same impulse to wash the hands. There may very well be a different context clue that triggers the same hand washing response, but it won’t be due to the toilet use trigger.
In order to establish a new, healthy habit, it can thus be useful to plan a consistent time and place where this habit will occur.
Every time you are in this situation, perform the behavior you wish to be a habit. By repeatedly encountering the situation which stimulates the performance of the desired behavior in response, you can train yourself into establishing an effortless habit whenever you encounter that particular scenario.
2. Routines Are Not Impulses
While habits stem from behaviors that are triggered by a certain context and become impulsive and natural, routines do not come about from an impulse.
Routines are something that may (or may not) require hard work and concentration depending on your energy level. They are often performed whether you feel inclined to do it or not.
For instance, my work routine is sometimes easy to follow. However, there are days when it feels really difficult. But I still need to get through it.
On the other hand, a habit ceases to be a habit the moment it becomes difficult.
For instance, in the past, I used to run every morning for 1 hour, 6 days out of 7. It was a proper exercising habit of mine. However, I stopped. And as of now, it would require hard work and dedication for me to build it up again. Hence, by definition, running is NOT one of my habits anymore.
Because of this, routines are often harder to establish than habits. They usually require more of a conscious effort. If given the option not to perform a routine, a person often will not feel compelled to still complete the task.
When we can’t perform a habit, it feels uncomfortable, like something is wrong.
It can annoy and frustrate us. The opposite is usually true of routines. Since routines take effort, sometimes it is easy to abandon them if given an excuse. If you have been trying to establish a routine of working out every night after work, but you get stuck late at the office, this might feel like a convenient reason to not go to the gym that night.
3. Habits Are Unconscious
One of the main differences between a routine and a habit is simply the level of awareness associated with it. Habits manifest as an urge to do something, usually in response to a situational cue. As the relationship between the cue and the response is strengthened, the more established the habit becomes.
As you wake up, you might feel the urge to drink a cup of coffee. This action may be repeated so many times that suddenly, one morning when you wake up and find that you are out of coffee, it feels strange to not have your usual cup. You don’t apply much thought to the process of repetitively having a cup of coffee upon awakening, and as such, it is a habit rather than a routine.
Now, conversely, if you don’t like coffee and don’t feel the urge to drink a cup upon waking but you force yourself to do it because you’ve heard it is the right thing to do and you want to drink more coffee, this is not really a habit. You have to make a conscious effort to have the coffee. If you woke up and there was no coffee, you’d probably see it more as a relief than as a frustration. This would be considered a routine.
Neuroscience has shown that behaviors that become habits are closely related to parts of our brain responsible for emotions and memories.
Decision making is in a different portion of the brain. As soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making portion of the brain essentially gets to sit out of it all and take a break. Because of this, you can often perform habits while thinking of other things.
Since your brain is on autopilot when it comes to executing the habit, there is more brain space for performing other activities. Think back to the cup of coffee from earlier; usually, one doesn’t feel compelled to sit and concentrate on a cup of coffee while drinking it. Instead, we are often thinking about our day, working on another task, or making mental plans. The action of the habit is unconscious.
4. Routines Require Motivation
As mentioned earlier, routines do not stem from a behavioral impulse. There is not an unconscious compulsion to participate in a routine. In fact, sometimes, routines will even be contrary to what we actually want to do.
For example, the routine of going to the gym every night after work can often be in contradiction with what we would rather be doing, such as heading home to eat dinner or relax and watch television. In order to make it to the gym, we need to be motivated.
Without motivation to overcome the easier alternatives of procrastinating or shunning a routine entirely, the routine will never be consistently performed.
5. Habits Can Become Part of A Routine, But It is more Difficult For Routines To Become Habits
Routines are a set of behaviors that are frequently repeated and require concentrated effort to perform routinely. Routines can occasionally incorporate habits or parts of routines can become habits.
Consider the earlier example of a gym routine. Perhaps after using a piece of workout equipment, there is a behavioral impulse to clean off and disinfect the equipment before the next person uses it. This may first require a bit of effort to remember, but soon we are wiping down equipment on autopilot. While still participating in the routine of working out at the gym, we have established a new habit within its context.
Habits can also become routines if we find ourselves trying to implement a habit outside of its normal context, resulting in a more concentrated effort. Something that might come naturally in one setting might feel forced and uncomfortable in another. In this case, it is now a routine, because the desire to accomplish it does not come naturally.
Conversely, it is very difficult for a routine to become a habit.
While habits require little conscious thought, routines require dedicated attention. It feels uncomfortable to disrupt a habit, while it is often easy to skip or forget a routine if we aren’t thinking about it. As such, routines rarely ever reach a point where they feel totally unconscious.
Simple routines that require less thought have the best chance of becoming a habit. Converting a routine into a habit is not an automatic process and it often requires patience and proper techniques. The best chance of turning a routine into a habit is by breaking it into small, more manageable portions that can be individually addressed over a period of time.
6. By Applying Mindfulness, Routines Can Become Rituals
An important distinction exists between routines and rituals. A routine is simply an action that needs to be done, while a ritual usually has the connotation of being done with a sense of purpose or meaningfulness.
By applying meaningfulness to and being mindful during a routine, it can become a ritual. The ritual makes the routine more of a subjective experience rather than simply a task to be completed.
For example, you might be trying to establish a routine of eating healthy. Focus on the taste and texture of the food, being conscious of how you chew and taking your time. Be aware of how your body moves and the sensations created by the ingested foods. Research has actually shown that practicing more mindful eating can improve the flavor of what you are eating.
Even something as simple as making the bed can become a ritual. As you smooth the sheets, you can try to center your thoughts and concentrate on how your muscles move and how the sheets feel in your fingers. Contemplate how having a made bed will help you feel more organized and clean. By tying a routine in with a sense of purpose, it can become a ritual that can help a task be more enjoyable.
7. Habits Are Often a Fixed Way of Thinking
According to the American Journal of Psychology, a habit is generally considered to be a fixed way of thinking or feeling that results from repeated experience.
The more repetition involved, the greater likelihood of a habit becoming ingrained in us. Because of this, habits, once formed, can be very difficult to shake off.
Studies have shown that people who routinely perform the same action in the same way, every single time, such as putting on their shoes in the morning with the left foot first and then the right foot, will often have a little difficulty if put in a different environment. Since habits are so firmly connected to situational cues, a change in the trigger can result in a modification of the habit.
For example, a person on vacation who always puts shoes on starting with the left foot might accidentally put his or her shoes on in a different order than usual without noticing it. Habits are often fixed responses, so while the urge to complete them may still remain, there might be a slightly modified execution since the stimulus feels different.
For this reason, many experts say that vacation is one of the best times to try to break a habit. All the usual cues and familiar stimuli that would prompt a behavioral response are often absent on vacation. Hopefully, you will have repeated the habit enough while on vacation to carry over to when you return home.
8. Habits Are More Likely to Involve Undesired Behaviors
Have you ever seen someone start fidgeting when embarrassed? Or maybe someone who begins to bite their nails when they are nervous? These are unconscious habits that may not be necessarily desirable by the person committing them. It may be more hygienic and professional to refrain from biting your nails, but the compulsion occurs when you are nervous whether you want it to or not.
Anyone who has ever smoked cigarettes can be very familiar with the negative influence of a habit. Especially when trying to cease smoking, a smoker might find it very difficult to ignore the compulsion to light up a cigarette.
Perhaps someone has the habit of eating junk food late at night, such as eating an entire bowl of chips and salsa every evening after his wife is asleep. While it would likely be healthier to not eat this every night, there is still a sense of compulsion and an unconscious desire to repeatedly do it.
While routines might involve participation in tasks that aren’t enjoyable, we consciously choose to complete them because it seems to be the correct or necessary thing to do. Habits, alternatively, give us some sort of subconscious satisfaction and we automatically perform them, even if it is actually bad for us.
9. Habits Are Harder to Break
You may have heard the old adage that “old habits are hard to break.” There might be some truth behind this. A lot of times, habits become so ingrained that it is difficult to even acknowledge a habit taking place.
Smokers trying to quit smoking definitely know the challenge of breaking a bad habit. If you have repeatedly enjoyed a cigarette every day at a certain time, such as after a meal or right before going to bed, it can be very unsettling to suddenly not have a cigarette at these times. True to the definition of a habit, it feels uncomfortable and frustrating to not be able to perform the action.
For this reason, some smoking cessation products attempt to recreate the action of smoking by providing a dummy cigarette to suck on that doesn’t have the unhealthy smoke and chemicals of a traditional cigarette. This allows a person to still fulfill the desire to partake in a habit, but it eliminates the unhealthy, undesired component.
Often, to break a habit requires a conscious dedication. Since habits are impulses that are often automatic, a person needs to first recognize the habit in order not to simply click into autopilot. Sometimes, this can be very difficult to execute.
Many strategies for breaking habits involve creating substitute habits or avoiding the scenarios that cue the habit. By forcing ourselves not to repeat a habit, it may eventually fade and no longer be an instinctual response.
10. Not Performing a Habit Feels Bad, While Not Performing a Routine Can Often Feel Good
Since habits come about naturally through instinctive impulses generated in response to a particular stimulus, they generally feel good to perform. The satisfaction of accomplishing a habit may not be readily apparent to us. Deep down, somewhere in our subconscious, we are performing the repeated behavior because it brings about some sort of satisfaction or relief.
As such, when something prevents us from performing a habit, it often feels bad. If unable to brush our teeth before bed, we might lie down feeling acutely aware of how our mouth feels fuzzy with plaque and have a general discomfort about the idea. It may result in us seeking out a way to brush our teeth or perform a substitute action, such as gargling mouthwash, in order to experience some semblance of relief.
In contrast, routines usually do not feel pleasurable to execute on their own. They often require a motivated effort to perform. For example, folding your laundry may seem tedious and you try to postpone it as long as possible. You may run the dryer several times to remove the wrinkles because you keep hesitating to remove the clothes and fold them.
If you are procrastinating when approaching a task, it generally means that you either are not looking forward to it or it ranks low among your priorities because you don’t perceive an immediate benefit from it. If you skip a routine, you don’t feel the same sense of discomfort and annoyance that comes with being unable to perform a habit.
11. Routines Are Often a Set of Habits
Many times, if you break down and analyze a routine, you can determine that it is actually a series of stacked habits. While the overall routine may be daunting and take effort to execute, there may be small, automatic efforts within it. Sometimes, adjusting these habits is an easier way of modifying a routine to make it less burdensome.
For example, for some people, getting enough sleep at night might feel a bit like a routine. While you might not feel tired or want to stay up later, it is important to get a full night’s sleep in order to have a productive morning and maintain good health. So, even though you might not feel the impulse to sleep you still know you need to go to bed.
However, the routine of going to bed might have within it a series of habits.
Perhaps before you go to bed, you find yourself compulsively brushing your teeth or washing your face. It is part of your routine for getting ready to go to bed, but it would feel wrong if you didn’t perform the task, therefore it is actually a habit. The stimulus is going to bed, and the conditioned response is to brush your teeth and wash your face.
Perhaps before you turn off your light to sleep, you like to read a chapter or two in a book. If you have repeated this action enough times, it may become so ingrained as a habit that it feels wrong not to perform it. If you go on vacation and find yourself without a book in the hotel room at night, you might find yourself having a hard time falling asleep because you weren’t able to complete the conditioned behavior.
As such, it is understandable that routines can be made up of a set of habits. Simply because routines are often a conscious effort, it doesn’t mean they can’t consist of some unconscious behaviors.
12. Forming A New Habit Requires Repetition
Forming a new habit begins with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop.” The habit loop is a three-part process. It all starts with a cue that triggers the brain to automatically execute a response. The response is the second stage in the process and is what we generally think of as the habit itself. Finally, the third part of the habit loop is the reward.
The reward is the part of the habit loop that keeps us automatically performing an action. The reward is often subconscious. It can simply be a feeling of pleasure or the avoidance of discomfort that would result if the behavior was not performed. Sometimes, we don’t even know what we are actually craving when we perform a behavior.
However, simply because a behavior results in a mental reward, it doesn’t mean it will become a habit. Behaviors completed that give pleasure may still require a certain amount of conscious thought if it is something that doesn’t occur often. However, as you repeat the behavior more and more often, you will need to dedicate less thought to its execution.
Behaviors that you have repeated enough times so that they barely require any concentration or attention transcended into the realm of habits.
13. Routines Can Be Changed to Form New Habits
Since habits depend upon a trigger to incite them, changing a routine can result in the development of new habits. While changing your routine can be daunting and require a bit of mental motivation, the new habits may be easier to acquire. Routines will establish new scenarios and environments which will inevitably lead to new cues for behaviors.
Sometimes, the easiest way to break a bad habit is by establishing a new routine. If the routine circumvents the original situation which cued the undesirable habit, then the routine might be beneficial in helping forget the habit. While it may be tedious to establish the routine initially, in some instances, it may be easier than trying to target a specific subconscious behavior that often occurs without even realizing it.