October 1, 2020

Understanding the Difference Between Routine and Habit and Why It’s Critical to Our Functionality

Many of us fail to differentiate between habit and routine. 

We often put these two distinct ideas in one swirling pot, having no idea that doing so may be what causes us to struggle with achieving our goals. 

I believe that understanding the difference between the two — and using each when appropriate— can make all the difference. 

I recently shared with you about the habit center of our brain (the basal ganglia) and that it’s what allows things to happen automatically, triggered by a cue or urge. 

Those things that happen automatically, due to consistent activations (choices and actions), are habits. 

A routine, on the other hand, is something that is NOT automatic. 

A routine requires you to be deliberate: making your bed, going on a run every other day, shutting your phone down by 8pm, etc.. 

Routines take daily, conscious effort. They’re the series of deliberate choices (what we call activations) that can transform your life for the better, and create habits! But done mindlessly, they can also drive you in a direction you don’t desire, also creating habits. 

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So, yes, routines, if practiced with intention over time, can become habits.

This power we can find in routines is why we crafted our new (now available) online program, called The Focus Factor, with an entire module on how to use them effectively. 

Discerning what our purpose is, and what is most essential to that purpose, allows us to be intentional when moving through our daily routines, and cultivating habits. 

Why does this matter? 

In time, the implemented practices that make up routine can become habits, and can become automatic, thanks to your prefrontal cortex (PFC). It WILL, however, take time, effort, and discipline. (That’s also why the Focus Factor is six whole weeks of juicy goodness, while still leaving you room to decide whether the routine you’ll cultivate will serve you sustainably.)

Phillippa Lally, a psychology researcher at University College London, studied 96 people over the span of 12 weeks measuring how long it took for them to form a habit. She found that it takes approximately 66 days before a habit becomes automatic – although even that was variable based upon the individual, their circumstances, and presumably their genetic make-up and inclination towards sensory impulse and instant gratification. 

So while you may have heard that 21 days is enough to “reset,” unfortunately, whoever told you that is likely trying to sell you a quick-fix program — that will probably just lead to disappointment.

In reality, while the average habit-formation time was 66 days, Lally found that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to get things cemented in. Habits take time. 

Charles Duhigg beautifully describes the process as the habit loop

We begin cultivating our habit by deliberately choosing a cue of some sort. When we complete that cue task, it notifies the brain to begin the activity we want to turn into a habit. 

For example, I use going to the bathroom as the cue to my morning routine. When I wake up, I generally have to go to the bathroom. I empty my bladder, drink 2 glasses of water, and I know it’s time to begin my practice. 

It can be as simple as that — turning on music in the morning might be a cue to begin a morning sit practice, or drinking a glass of water and placing the empty glass next to your journal might be the cue to initiate your writing habit.

You must eliminate choices and any wiggle room which places the effort on your PFC! In other words, if you give yourself the choice, it’s too late. 

Second, we must continually execute the given task (or routine), starting with a small, but actionable set of tasks — or, as I’ve called them before, chunks.

Maybe it’s wake up, make coffee, pee, meditate for 5 minutes, write. The idea is NOT to write a robust, involved set of tasks, or routine. Start small. 

Start accessible. Start foolproof. 

Lastly, finish your habit loop with validation. Wrap up your chunk with something that keeps you coming back! Maybe reward yourself with the cup of coffee that you started brewing pre-meditation.

Are you ready to unleash the power of routines and habits? Choose something you want to adopt. Maybe it’s something small like drinking an extra glass of water when you wake up, pre-coffee or email checking. Whatever it is, start it today!

Whether it takes you 18 days, or 400 days, get in the “habit” of putting in the reps and falling in love with the process of your practice, rather than being concerned about “getting it done” in a particular amount of time. Or, in the simple words of BKS Iyengar, “Practice, all is coming”. 

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