Just another blog post on habits and routines?
Luckily not… Understand the difference between both concepts to set yourself up for success!
It’s kind of cliche to talk about habits and routines with the start of the new year right? Everybody knows by now that January is typically the time to set new year’s resolutions, just so that we can abandon them again one month later… if we even make it that far. We think about sticking to a better diet, going to the gym, being kinder to our partners, and maybe calling dear mum more often. But somehow really keeping up those resolutions and building strong habits is harder than we want.
Instead of writing just another post on how to set new year’s resolutions, we want to dive a little deeper into the definitions of habits and routines and thus try to understand why designing and building them is hard but can still be done with the right mindset and tools.
So first of all, let’s talk about the difference between habits and routines. In everyday life we use those words interchangeably, but actually there is a clear distinction. They mainly differ in the level of awareness when performing the one or the other. But what does level of awareness mean in this context?
When performing a habit you kind of work on autopilot. There is usually a trigger for a habit and you don’t really think about actually doing it. It just happens. With routines, much more consciousness and deliberate action are involved. So even though for both concepts we talk about regular repeated actions, habits require much less intention and effort than routines.
So what does that mean for our new year’s resolutions? Well, even though we talk about making it a habit to just go the gym or to eat the apple instead of the chocolate, our bodies will not just automatically grab the gym bag and walk out of the door without any conscious decision from our side. Expecting that those resolutions become habits quickly already sets us up for failure. And we all know, as soon as we fall off the bandwagon once, we are likely doing it again.
That doesn’t mean however that it is impossible to build a habit out of a routine, but this takes time and patience. When reading scientific literature on the topic of habits, the basic common ground they all agree on is The Habit Loop:
Trigger: you need to have a cue reminding you to perform a certain action, i.e. getting up in the morning and directly seeing your neatly packed pile of gym clothes and sneakers for you to put on.
Routine: consciously deciding to act on that trigger and perform the desired action, i.e. putting on those prepared gym clothes and going to the gym for your exercise session.
Reward: making sure to reward yourself in some way or another to teach your brain that this specific habit loop is worth remembering and performing again in future, i.e. feeling all the endorphins running through your body after a good workout session and feeling fit and strong, ready to take on your day ahead.
When first designing and acting on this habit loop you realize that indeed your resolution is no habit yet and you need to invest quite some effort and intent to act on it. With time however, the routine will become easier and easier to perform and much less willpower is needed to act on your trigger or cue.
What are the 3 key take-aways from this blog post:
- Before being able to build a strong habit, you need to design a routine which requires a much higher level of effort and intent.
- When setting up your routine, make sure to include all three elements of the habit loop: next to the routine itself, also having a trigger and a reward are success factors.
- Work on your expectations: knowing the difference between habits and routines and understanding that building a habit takes quite some time, don’t set yourself up for failure by expecting your routine to be done on autopilot.
Give yourself time and be kind to yourself. And when falling off the bandwagon, know that you are not alone and that you can just as easily jump on again.
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