Many of us fail to differentiate between habit and routine — and that’s a problem.
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.
The Not-So-Simple Difference Between Effort and Automatic
On the one hand, the difference between habits and routines is pretty straightforward (and I’ll get to it in a second), but it’s not nearly as simple as it may seem on the surface.
At the core of the difference is something called the basal ganglia, which is more affectionately known as the habit center of our brain. It’s what allows things to happen automatically when triggered by a cue or urge.
Those things that happen automatically are habits.
But as I mentioned, it’s not quite that simple.
The reason is that those habits can form deliberately, or on their own when we make consistent, but otherwise mindless decisions. Often, this difference between mindless and mindful habit formation is the difference between what you may think of as bad habits versus good ones.
Routines, however, are one of the greatest tools we have to deliberately create those good habits.
That’s because routines, unlike habits, are NOT automatic.
They require you to be deliberate: making your bed, going on a run every other day, shutting your phone down by 8pm, and so forth.
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!
So, the easiest way to think about the difference between habits and routines is that habits are the things we do automatically, and routines are the ways that we create those habits — and you have a choice if you will do so mindfully or mindlessly.
Understanding the power that routines have in helping us create lasting, meaningful change is so important, in fact, that we included an entire module on it in our forthcoming online program, called The Focus Factor.
In the rest of this article, I’ll share with you some of what we cover in that module. I’ve also decided to make almost a full lesson and one week’s exercise available for free as a mini-program I’m calling The Routine Reset so you can start putting this powerful tool to use right now.
Using Routines & Habits for Good
So, how can you use the power of routines and habits to create positive change in your life?
The most important thing to recognize is that it’s going to take time, effort, and discipline to convert your routines into these automatic habits. That’s mostly because what you’re really doing is programming your prefrontal cortex (PFC) to do so.
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,” it’s just not true. Unfortunately, there are plenty of folks out there peddling quick-fix programs, but this is why they generally 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 — and how much is going to depend on a lot of things that are unique to your circumstances.
That said, there is a way to deliberately approach this process that will help ensure that you succeed in developing the type of habits that will create positive change in your life. It’s what Charles Duhigg beautifully describes (using cookies!) as the habit loop.
The Power of the Habit Loop
Duhigg’s habit loop is a simple idea based on using a cue as a tool to help you create and cultivate a deliberate habit.
You begin by choosing a cue of some sort. When you complete that cue task, it will notify your brain to begin the activity you 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.
The key is to eliminate choices and any wiggle room, because it’s those choices that engage your PFC and keep it from handing things off to the basal ganglia!
In other words, if you give yourself the choice, it’s too late.
Second, you must continually and consistently execute the given set of tasks (aka your routine) over time. One of the easiest ways to achieve this consistency is by grouping together a small, but actionable set of tasks — a process I call chunking.
For example, one of my morning chunks is to: wake up, make coffee, pee, meditate for 5 minutes, and write. This isn’t some big, elaborate routine. The whole chunk takes about 15 minutes.
The key to this process is to start small, start accessible, and start foolproof.
Lastly, finish your habit loop with validation. That means that you should 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.
Unleashing the Power of Routines and Habits
Are you ready to unleash the power of routines and habits?
If so, start right now. And the first, easiest step is to sign up for our FREE mini-program, The Routine Reset.
But however you choose to proceed, choose something you want to adopt — maybe it’s something small like drinking an extra glass of water when you wake up, cooking dinner during weeknights, upping your NEAT score, or adopting a daily movement practice — but whatever it is, start it today!
Whether it takes you 18 days or 400 of them, 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”.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2020 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.