How does she keep her house so spotless? How does he keep showing up at the gym every day? Your favorite productivity influencer on YouTube seems to have it all figured out, and you hope to be more like them.
In the quest for self-improvement, two words often pop up – ‘habit’ and ‘routine’. What do they mean exactly? Is one more effective than the other? Should you be pursuing one over the other?
It’s easy to confuse these terms or use them interchangeably, but understanding the difference between habit and routine can be pivotal in your journey toward personal growth.
Here, we’ll break it down for you, illustrating the unique features of each, and why their distinction matters in shaping a successful, productive lifestyle.
What Is the Difference Between Habit and Routine?
The difference between habit and routine is consciousness. A habit is a behavior you do automatically, almost without thinking. This can be both positive and negative, such as brushing your teeth every morning or biting your nails when anxious.
However, routines require conscious effort and intention to perform a series of actions in a specific order. For example, having a daily skincare routine or following a strict workout regimen.
We have the human brain to thank for the distinction between these two terms.
The brain is wired to conserve energy, meaning it’s constantly looking for ways to automate tasks to be more efficient (1). This is where habits come in. They allow us to complete daily tasks without using too much mental energy.
If you’ve got good habits, then you’re in luck. Doing positive things on autopilot can help you achieve your goals with minimal effort.
However, if you have a bad habit, breaking it can be challenging. Think about those mornings when you roll over, grab your phone, and start scrolling through social media. It’s a habit that may not serve you well in the long term, but it’s so ingrained that stopping it requires conscious effort.
This is where routines come in. They require us to consciously make decisions and take action. They give you a chance to break free of unproductive habits and create new, positive ones.
For example, before you go to bed, you could set your phone to do-not-disturb mode, charge it outside of your bedroom, and read a book instead. By actively creating a routine that deters you from using your phone before sleep, you’ll build new habits that serve you better.
Routine comes before habit. It’s the scaffolding that helps build structures of good habits. By consciously following routines, you can create new neural pathways and strengthen them until they become second nature – a habit (5).
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What Are Examples of Habits and Routines?
To better understand the difference between habits and routines, let’s use an example.
Say you want to become more physically fit. You may decide to incorporate a morning workout routine into your daily life.
At first, it requires conscious effort and intention to wake up early, put on your workout clothes, and do the exercises. Over time, as you stick to this routine, it becomes a habit. Your brain expects and anticipates this activity, which makes it easier to complete without much thought.
In contrast, if you decide to start eating healthier, it may require more conscious effort and intention on a daily basis.
You may need to actively plan your meals, shop for healthy options, and resist the temptation of fast food or sweets. This is where creating a routine can help – by setting designated times for meal planning and preparation, you can build the habit of healthy eating into your daily life.
Habit vs routine examples aren’t only positive and they also apply to negative behaviors. For example, you may routinely drink beer while watching TV every night or get cravings and order a greasy, unhealthy dinner. Over time, this becomes a habit that’s difficult to break.
Does Habit Mean Every Day?
No, habits can be developed with daily repetition, but they don’t necessarily need to occur every day in order to be considered a habit. Habits are simply actions that become automatic through consistent repetition, whether on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
The same applies to routines – it’s not all about how often you do them, but the intention and consistency behind them.
When Does a Routine Become a Habit?
A routine becomes a habit when the activity becomes ingrained in your brain and you can perform it without much thought or conscious effort. This typically occurs following a consistent period of repetition.
Not every routine will turn into a habit, because not all routines are designed to be repeated indefinitely. Some routines may have a specific goal or timeframe, such as a pre-vacation workout routine or a daily skincare routine during flu season.
Why Does Knowing the Difference Matter?
Understanding the difference between habits and routines matters as this allows you to approach self-improvement more strategically.
You realize that you’re not completely helpless and can actually shape and change your behaviors through the creation of new routines and the breaking of old habits.
You also learn that habits can be both positive and negative, so you can evaluate which ones serve you well and which hinder your progress.
Knowing the difference between the two terms also highlights their interconnectedness. By creating productive routines, we pave the way for building good habits, and by breaking bad habits, we open ourselves up to the creation of new routines that support our growth and success.
Why Habit and Routine Are More Effective Than Motivation
Motivation is often seen as the driving force behind success, but it’s actually habits and routines that play the most significant role.
Motivation can be fleeting and unreliable, whereas habits and routines provide structure and consistency.
Motivation is an emotion, and as with all emotions, it’s temporary. It can fluctuate and be influenced by external factors such as stress or fatigue (4). At the same time, habits and routines are actions that we have control over and can repeat, regardless of our current emotional state.
In addition, motivation often requires willpower in order to maintain it, which can be depleted throughout the day. However, once a habit or routine is established, it becomes second nature and requires less conscious effort to maintain.
Interestingly, habits and routines can trigger motivation. As you work toward your goals through consistent action, you will start seeing progress and feel motivated to continue.
How to Use Routine to Build Habits and Stay Motivated
Here’s how you can effectively use routines to build habits and stay motivated:
Align Your Routine with a SMART Goal
What do you hope to achieve? Is it losing weight, saving money, or learning a new skill? Whatever your goal is, make sure it’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (SMART).
Once you have a clear goal in mind, create a routine that is in alignment with it. For example, if your goal is to save money for a trip next year, create a routine of setting aside a certain amount of money each week.
Start Small and Build Gradually
Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to establish too many routines at the same time. Start small with one habit you want to build, and create a routine that supports it. Once this becomes second nature and you feel motivated to continue, you can add another routine for a new habit.
Identify Internal Resistance and Create Accountability
We may sometimes resist establishing new routines as they require a change in our current behaviors. We mentioned earlier that the brain is hard-wired to resist change, so internal resistance is natural, not to mention the pleasure we may get from indulging in our old routines.
Internal resistance may be rooted in a fear of failure, self-doubt, or simply not wanting to put in the effort. In order to overcome this, you need to create accountability by sharing your goal and routine with someone you trust, or you can join a group where people support and motivate each other.
Identify External Distractions and Create Boundaries
External distractions can hinder our efforts to establish routines.
Identify what they are – whether it’s social media, TV, or other people’s demands on your time – and create boundaries that limit their impact on your routine. This can mean setting specific times for checking social media or saying no to certain requests that clash with your routine.
It’s important to remember that habits and routines are not created overnight. It takes time and consistent effort to establish and maintain them. Don’t give up if you miss a day or two; just get back on track and keep going.
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Avoid perfectionism when it comes to establishing new routines. It’s okay to miss a day or two, or if your routine doesn’t go exactly as you planned it to. The key is to keep trying and adjust until you find a routine that works for you. The goal is not perfection, it’s progress.
As humans, we are wired to crave rewards for our efforts (3). You can use this to your advantage by establishing a reward system for yourself. For example, after you’ve stuck to your workout routine for a month, you could treat yourself to a massage or new workout clothes.
Which comes first, habit or routine?
A routine typically comes first. It is a sequence of actions that you perform regularly. As you repeat a routine consistently over time, it can become a habit, which is a behavior you do automatically, without much thought.
How long does it take to break a habit or routine?
There is no set time for breaking a habit or routine and it varies from person to person and is dependent on the nature of the habit or routine. However, research has suggested that it takes approximately 66 days to break a habit or form a new one on average.
How do I change my habits and routines?
Changing habits and routines requires consistent and mindful effort. Start by identifying the habit or routine you want to change, understand its triggers, and create a plan to alter your response to these triggers. Remember to start small, be consistent, and reward yourself for your progress.
What is the 66-day rule?
Research has shown that it takes approximately 66 days to form habits (2). However, it’s important to note that this is a rough estimate and the actual time can vary significantly depending on the complexity of the habit and the personal circumstances of the individual.
The Bottom Line
Habits are automatic behaviors that are formed through repetition, while routines require conscious effort and intention. They interconnect in their ability to create positive or negative patterns in our lives.
By understanding and utilizing the difference between habits and routines, we can shape our actions and lead a more productive lifestyle.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Avoiding sedentary behaviors requires more cortical resources than avoiding physical activity: An EEG study (2007, sciencedirect.com)
- Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Neuronal Reward and Decision Signals: From Theories to Data (2014, journals.physiology.org)
- The Behavioral Neuroscience of Motivation: An Overview of Concepts, Measures, and Translational Applications (2016, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)