As much as we wish for each day to be different, the cycle of repeating the same actions day after day is pretty common. Habits and routines are an important part of our lives. Making your bed in the morning, that first cup of coffee, grabbing a croissant on your way to work, listening to your favourite podcast on the train.
And while we tend to use the words “habit” and “routine” interchangeably, they both mean two distinct things. Understanding their definitions can help you design good routines and build good habits.
Shades of consciousness
The main difference between habits and routines is how much aware and intentional you are. A habit usually manifests itself as an automatic urge to do something, often triggered by a particular cue. The stronger the connection between the trigger and the habit, the more ingrained the habit.
Waking up, commuting, walking past a particular store, starting a meeting at work are all common cues that can trigger actions such as drinking coffee, buying a croissant, or smoking a cigarette.
In contrast, routines require deliberate practice. Making your bed in the morning, going to the gym, going for a hike every Sunday, meditating are all routines that require to keep on consciously practicing them or they eventually die out. Your brain will not go into automatic mode and walk you to the gym for your weekly HIIT class.
Both habits and routines are regular and repeated actions, but habits happen with little or no conscious thought, whereas routines require a higher degree of intention and effort.
With enough time and the right techniques, routines can turn into habits, but it is not an automatic, unconscious process. One needs to want to turn a routine into a habit for the process to happen.
Turning habits into routines
Much has been written about habit creation—like many, I have read the excellent Atomic Habits by James Clear, as well as the original The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In the end, it boils down to the classic habit loop.
- Cue: choose a trigger to tell your brain to start the routine you want to turn into a habit.
- Routine: execute the routine, ideally starting with a small, actionable chunk. Don’t go for an overly ambitious new routine from the get go.
- Reward: do something enjoyable, which will tell your brain that this particular habit loop is worth remembering for the future.
The hardest part is obviously to execute the routine right after the cue. As we discussed, habits are automatically triggered by cues, whereas routines require a conscious effort on your part.
This is why you can use some tricks to make it slightly easier to go from cue to routine and build a lasting habit loop. A popular one is habit stacking: designed by Professor BJ Fogg, this approach consists in taking baby steps by anchoring a new tiny habit to an existing one. For example: “After brushing my teeth, I will change into my workout clothes and walk for ten minutes.”
If you are interested in productivity, you’re probably already aware of these hacks. But how can you take it to the next level and go beyond creating high level routines?
From routine to ritual
The difference between a routine and a ritual is the attitude behind the action. While routines can be actions that just need to be done—such as making your bed or taking a shower—rituals are viewed as more meaningful practices which have a real sense of purpose.
Rituals do not have to be spiritual or religious. What matters is your subjective experience. With rituals, you are fully engaged with a focus on the experience of the task, rather than its mere completion.
Applying mindfulness to daily routines is a great way to create rituals for yourself.
- Showering can become an opportunity to become mindful of your body and its connection to your mind. Focus on the sensation of the water on your skin and the way your thoughts seem to flow more easily.
- Research shows that mindful eating can indeed improve the flavour of your food, making you feel more satisfied. Pay attention to the textures and the way you chew.
- Even cleaning the house can be used as a way to become more aware of your body movements and sensations in your muscles and joints.
One of my favourite rituals is journaling. It’s one of the cornerstones of my mental gym. Science has shown that just writing one thing you’re grateful for can have significantly positive effects on wellbeing.
Whatever the ritual, mindfulness is a very powerful tool to design your life and avoid living it on autopilot.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, and learning.