Habits vs Routines; Do you know the difference?

With 2022 just around the corner, are you thinking about goals for the new year? How about the habits you would like to change? Habits are always a hot topic this time of year. Building habits to change behaviour the right way can be a wonderful tool to improve your life. But false notions about what habits are and what they can do can set you up to fail.

What is a habit, exactly?

It’s one of those words we hear constantly, but we never really stop to think about what it means. Simply put, a habit is a behaviour that starts as a choice at some point in our life, and then become a nearly unconscious pattern. For example, when you were learning to drive, and you wanted to back your car out of the driveway, it took a lot of concentration: you had to check the rearview and side mirrors for obstacles, remove your foot from the brake, mentally estimate the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned and monitoring for oncoming traffic, calculate how reflected images in the mirrors translate into actual distances between the bumper, and so on. Now, however, you do all of that automatically. The behaviour has become a habit.

Why do habits matter?

Habits free up our brains to carry out other more complex tasks like solving problems or making decisions.

What is a routine?

Behaviours that require concentration, deliberation, or extended effort, are not habits. But if the behaviours that require conscious thought, like cleaning your apartment or writing in a journal daily, are not habits, then what are they? They are routines. A routine is a sequence of actions regularly followed.

Does the differentiation matter?

Ahem, yes. This isn’t just semantics. We shouldn’t try to form a habit with a task that can never become one. If we do, we will be sorely disappointed—we are literally setting ourselves up to fail. When we fail at forming a habit, we tend to blame ourselves, rather than the bad advice we read from someone who doesn’t really understand what can and cannot be a habit. For example, journaling. A habit? The act of sitting down to journal can be, but the writing part, unlikely. Why? Does it require thought to write? For most of us, the answer is yes. Even over time, will writing still require thought, even after 1000s of times doing it? Probably, yes. When I think about what to write in my journal, or what's on my mind etc, I ask myself a bunch of questions. By asking questions, what am I doing? Thinking and making decisions. The opposite of what a habit is.

Is there a shortcut to tell the difference—Habits vs Routine?

When we make a decision about behaviour — whether we are going to do something or not — we can be sure it’s not a habit.
Why? If we are making a decision, then the action or behaviour is not automated. If it is not automated, then it’s not a habit.

Habits are something we do automatically.
We do them without thinking.
Habits do not require extended effort.
Habits do not require deliberation.
We are not making decisions.

A routine is something we do with some level of frequency, whether it be:
Every day,
Every other day,
Every week/once a week, or
Every month.
They usually require some level of concentration or thought. There is a distinct difference.

When it comes to habits, we focus on AUTOMATICITY: How automatic is the behaviour?
When it comes to routines, we focus on FREQUENCY: Do we do this behaviour a lot? Does it require some level of concentration or thought?

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Here’s the curious part: Starting the behaviour can be automatic.
For example, getting ourselves to the gym straight after work, or before work. We might go on autopilot and get ourselves there, but, once we are doing our workout, we make decisions around what we are going to do.
In this case, there is a combination of habits and routines.

As you think about what you may like to change, what goals you may like to achieve in 2022 and beyond, remember this:

All goals are achieved by what? Action. Behaviour. Doing something.
The behaviour could be a 1-time behaviour, require regular routines or habits, a combination, outsourced, or otherwise. There are many ways to reach any destination. I prefer the most efficient, effective, strategic, resource and cost-effective way. What’s your preference?

Ready to win at life and get set up for 2022? Want to learn more about habits or put them into action? Schedule one of my Goal-Getting or Habits Workshops now.




I help people unlearn stuff that isn’t workable and design behaviour which guides them towards fulfilment, freedom & flow.

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Kristy Bertenshaw

Kristy Bertenshaw

I help people unlearn stuff that isn’t workable and design behaviour which guides them towards fulfilment, freedom & flow.

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