Habits vs. Routines

These are both things that you do most days, if not every day. They’re not the same, and knowing the difference can allow you to use them to more effectively help you.

Let’s start by defining these terms:

Habit: noun

  1. a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.
    “we stayed together out of habit

Routine: adjective

  1. performed as part of a regular procedure rather than for a special reason.
    “the principal insisted that this was just a routine annual drill”

Ok, so aside from the type of word they are (noun vs adjective), we can see that both are done regularly, but a habit is something that is more like something you just do automatically, without thinking, and therefore hard to change. Usually, it’s an action that you have tethered to a situation, so they’re “neurologically chunked.” And something that is done out of routine is more just something that is done regularly, but not necessarily a habit.

In short:
Habit = Automatically Performed
Routine = Done Regularly

A routine can become habit, and a habit can become routine, but they don’t have to be both.

Example: Making coffee in the morning can be routine because it’s done regularly. But perhaps you have the HABIT of boiling water first thing after waking up, while you’re still half-zombie because you automatically do it without even thinking. So changing the habit of boiling water first thing could be difficult because you’ve already tethered the action with the situation. If you decided to wait to make coffee after you went for a run, that would be breaking the habit of boiling water first thing in the morning, but the routine would not be changed, because you’ll still be making coffee how you usually make coffee (the coffee-making process didn’t change).

Get it?

Ok, so now for the practical stuff….

This is where you get to do some self-reflection…

Identify (this will work better if you write them down) some habits that you have that are serving you, and some that are not serving you.

Perhaps biting your nails when you’re nervous is a habit that doesn’t serve you, but the habit of brushing your teeth before going to bed at night does. Great.

Give yourself a nice pat on the back for all the positive habits, but don’t be mean to yourself about the bad ones (this is important). Be neutral about those ones, and just recognize that they’re not actually bad. They’re just not what you want for yourself.

Next step: For each of the habits you wish to discontinue, brainstorm another action that you can take to REPLACE that unwanted habit.

The reason why we need to do this step is because if you just get rid of an automatic action that was a response to a situation, your brain will wonder what to do in that situation. Give it something to do, otherwise you will feel a bit lost. So if you want to stop biting your nails when you’re nervous, you could replace it with closing your eyes and taking 5 deep breaths.

So really, we don’t want to “get rid of” bad habits, we want to change them. 

The next thing is to reflect on whether you’re a “slowly but surely” type, or “cold turkey” type. If you’re the first, just tackle one habit at a time, and when you’ve changed one habit, go to the next, making sure that you’ve maintained the new habit. If you’re the latter, you can probably handle more habits at once, but make sure your ego doesn’t get in the way of self-sabotage in taking on more than you can handle and then giving up altogether! Either way, try one at a time first and see how you fare.

Habits are best changed starting NOW. You want to not tie any positive emotions with the bad habits, so no “last hurrahs,” since those are seen as enjoyable. Know why you want to change the habit, and allow yourself to understand that continuing the habit is detrimental to your becoming who you want to be. You can also use some tricks form NeuroLinguistic Programming (“NLP”) to help you further dissociate the habits, making the transition even easier. Instead of saying “When I get nervous, I bite my nails,” disown both the negative emotion and the habit by saying “When I experienced nervousness, I have sensed the urge to bite my nails, but instead of giving into the urge, I like to close my eyes and take deep breaths.”

Yes, I’m well aware that the second one is a little more long-winded, but we need to educate ourselves that we are not the habits that we act upon, otherwise we start to live them as part of our identity.

Later on when you have changed the negative habit into a positive one, you can say something like “When I experience nervousness, I like to close my eyes and take deep breaths.” See? Much shorter.

Now onto Routines….

With routines, it’s easy to make something that is routine into a habit. This is a trap that is easily fallen into. If your routines have become habits, then that means they’re automatic, and you have allowed them to control you. The key is to keep routines as routines that you can fully control and be ok with or without them, at any time.

Reflect on what routines you’ve made into habits. Again, writing them down is pretty helpful.

Again, the thing with routines is that they can induce a sense of control. And when you’re not able to perform something routinely, it SHOULD be fine. But when you have turned them into habits, it can make you feel anxious or some other form of “don’t have control.” Those who are truly OCD will know about this as a daily part of their condition. Those who are “control freaks” will also experience this. And, those who have a hard time “going with the flow” (even if only sometimes) will also experience this!

So, something you can do to keep yourself in check is to change your routines once in a while. Be ok with not making coffee in the mornings sometimes. Go out for breakfast instead of making breakfast (meaning, you have to wait longer to eat, and you may not be eating the quality or types of foods you’re used to). This will help your mental health, so that you are not allowing your behaviors to control you.

Keeping your habits and routines in check are ways that you can make small changes that result in big benefits, especially mentally.

Remember, go easy on yourself when changing your habits and cycling off of routines. Making mistakes are part of being human, and being perfect is an impossible concept.

Best in Health and Happiness,


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