Habits vs. Routines: Knowing the Difference Can Improve Your Productivity

Recently I’ve seen lots of blog posts and magazine articles about habits and how they can improve your productivity. But when reading past the headlines, I realize that often what they are describing are routines, not habits.  In my last blog post, I encouraged people to create new routines in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. I deliberately wrote about routines instead of habits because, despite being very similar, they are not the same thing. Since that post was published, several readers have asked me about the difference between a routine and a habit.

Habits and routines are both regular, repeated actions, but habits are a specific type of routine. Habits involve an automatic response, with little conscious thought, to a specific cue. Routines, on the other hand, require a more conscious effort. The difference is choice and intent.  

Habits are a type of routine, but not all routines become habits.

Nir Eyal

How does knowing the difference impact your productivity?

There is no question that habits and routines can help improve productivity. Knowing the difference between the two helps you understand which repeated behaviors that are more suited to become habits, which are more suited to become routines, and which one is the best choice to help you accomplish your goals. 

Routines are necessary building blocks to habits. To create productive habits, you must first be able to create productive routines. Skipping this step only sets you up for failure. Once you define the routine, you still have to intentionally choose to do it. Do it consistently enough over a long enough time period, then maybe, maybe, it becomes a habit.

It’s important to understand you can’t make everything a habit. The appeal of habits is to make certain tasks automatic where you don’t spend time or energy thinking about it. Tasks require deep thought, deliberation, or evaluation aren’t good candidates to become habits.

Knowing the difference between habits and routines also helps highlight the importance of intention in productivity. One of the things I work on with my clients is being intentional in their actions, to consciously think about their goals and whether their current actions are moving them closer to that goal.

Intentionality is a necessary component of productivity. You need to stop and take a look around occasionally and evaluate whether your actions are still helping you achieve your goals. Habits, by driving you to do tasks unconsciously and automatically, can keep you from doing that.

The goal of this post is not to get people to stop using the words habit and routines interchangeably (although that would be nice!). The goal is to help you understand the difference between the two and how to use that difference to your advantage.

3 Steps to Creating a New Pandemic Routine

The Importance of Routine

As a business organizer and workplace productivity consultant, I often encourage my clients to adopt a routine. Routines offer several benefits, including making us more efficient and helping to build habits. The new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on some of the health benefits of routines. Right now, people are worried, stressed, and paralyzed with indecision. Having a routine can make you feel proactive and in control, even with all of the uncertainty around us.

Work and school provided the foundation that most of us built our routines around. And COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way we do both. Without cues from our work or school schedules, it can be hard to create a routine from scratch. 

If you’ve never created a routine or haven’t created a new one since the pandemic hit, now’s the time. It doesn’t look like COVID-19 is going away anytime soon, so working from home and virtual learning will be the default for the foreseeable future. The pandemic has forced a lot of things to change, but the fundamentals for creating routines haven’t changed.

Woman working on laptop at dining table with a notebook and a cup of coffee
Establishing a routine during the pandemic can help you manage stress and feel more in control.

How to create a routine

  1. List and prioritize your goals and responsibilities. 

Take some time to list all of your goals and responsibilities, i.e., the things you want to do and the things you have to do. Pay special attention to tasks you do regularly. Once you’ve listed everything, you can prioritize the most important ones and delegate or delete the others. 

Since the shutdown orders in mid-March, I have prioritized two responsibilities: keeping my family safe during the pandemic, and adapting my business so I can continue to help my clients. Focusing on those things helps me to determine which tasks are essential. 

  1. Structure your day or week and set boundaries.

Once you have your goals and responsibilities, structure your day or week around them. Start with your regular tasks from step one and pick a specific day and time for them. Take your personal preferences and unique situation into account. Try to schedule your most challenging tasks when you are most productive. When are the people you need to talk to available? What time are the kids asleep or busy?

Get as specific as you need to but build in some flexibility. Meetings are scheduled at inconvenient times. Things don’t go as planned. Interruptions happen. Be flexible enough to deal with the curveballs. 

My preferred routine is to do creative work early mornings, have client meetings just before or just after lunch, and do administrative tasks in the afternoons. Sometimes a client wants to meet later, or a class is scheduled during my creative work time. That’s ok. I can skip administrative tasks that day or push my creative time later.

  1. Experiment. 

Try out your routine. See what works and what doesn’t. If the new routine isn’t working for you, it’s okay. Trial and error is a part of the process. Experimenting is about trying new things. Routines aren’t permanent fixtures. They’re meant to be adjustable. 

Don’t be afraid to try something new or a little unconventional. For example, I usually do my grocery shopping at 6 AM. People sometimes look at me strangely when I tell them that. But I’m already up early to walk the dog, and the grocery stores are open. I can shop and have the groceries put away before anyone in my house is awake. It works for me. 

When the stay-at-home orders here in Houston were first issued, I started going to the store later because there were long lines at the stores when they opened. I briefly changed my routine because of the circumstances. As things calmed down and went back to normal, I’ve gone back to my normal routine too.

It can feel counterintuitive to have a routine when so much in our lives is uncertain, but that’s precisely when a routine is most needed. Take some time to create a few new routines and see how it helps you get things done and feel more in control in these unsettling times.

Backup Your Business for the Real World

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID19 has disrupted businesses and industries worldwide. The disruptions highlight the importance of having backup plans in your small business.

Now I’m not talking about digital backup plans, which you should already have in place. I’m talking about emergency or disaster backup plans. A typical plan assumes normal situations while a backup plan is specifically for unique situations that can cause major disruptions in your business procedure.

It’s important to have a plan for emergencies so you and your business can stay productive. When emergencies hit, the keys to making a backup plan work with minimal loss or damage are preparation and communication.


Years ago, I worked part-time in a retail store while I was studying for the bar exam. One day when I was working, the power went out in the store. Once it was apparent that the power was going to be out for most of the day, several of my coworkers started speculating that the managers would have let at least some of us go home early. With the power out, the registers weren’t working and we couldn’t ring up customers’ purchases or swipe their credit cards for payment.

Not so fast. We were shocked to find out that the store managers had a backup plan. With an efficiency that still blows my mind today, the store managers pulled out everything we would need to ring up purchases and process credit cards manually. Each cashier was given a solar calculator, sales slips, and a credit card imprinter. For those of you who don’t know what a credit card imprinter is, it is a non-electric, manually-operated piece of equipment that uses 2- or 3-part sales slips to make an imprint of the raised numbers and letters on the face of a credit card.

photo of manual credit card imprinter
A manual credit card imprinter and sales slips

We had everything we needed to continue to ring up purchases. At some point in the past, someone, or several someones, figured out what tools would be needed to ring up customers manually and gathered those tools together in preparation for the day when we might need them to keep the business open.

Lesson: Ask yourself what tools you would need to run your business in an emergency. Get the tools together and put them somewhere accessible, but out of the way of your day-to-day activities.


Perhaps even more important than the calculators and imprinters was the communication from the managers. Not only did they take the time to show us how to calculate sales tax and use the imprinter but they acknowledged the extraordinary circumstances and reassured us that it was okay if we made mistakes like math errors or listing the products incorrectly on the handwritten receipts. The priority was to keep ringing up customers. Having the correct price or item number was secondary. We were able to keep our store up and running while neighboring stores sent customers away.

Lesson: Communicate the instructions and priorities of your backup plan. Explain what is the priority and what is secondary.

So what’s your plan to keep your business up and running through the unexpected?

3 Questions to Help Find the Best Organizer for You

Which organizer is the right one for you?

Now that February has begun, I have to ask: how are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? If you’re having trouble getting organized or being more productive at work, you should consider hiring a professional organizer or productivity consultant.

Hiring an organizing or productivity professional is a significant time and financial investment so here are three things to look for to help you make the right decision. (NOTE: I use the word organizer as an umbrella term covering both professional organizers and productivity consultants.)

Cost – What’s your budget?

The first thing most people want to know is how much it costs to hire a professional organizer or productivity consultant. Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends.” It depends on several factors: what part of the country you’re in, the organizer’s experience level and specialty, and perhaps most importantly, the size and type of project.

Rates for experienced organizers in the Houston area ranges from $50 to over $200. There are some organizers who charge by the project instead of hourly. If you find an organizer you like that is beyond your budget, see if they have a blog or YouTube channel where you can get general advice and ideas. Or contact the organizer and let them know your limitations. Many organizers offer DIY or virtual options for those whose budget may not allow for in-person organizing services.

Specialties – What kind of help do you need?

There are two primary types of organizers: Residential and Business. A lot of organizers do both, but some may choose to work in one area exclusively. In addition to residential and business, many organizing and productivity professionals have sub-specialties that they focus on.

For example, I’m a business organizer who specializes in technology and digital organization. There are numerous sub-specialties, everything from closets and garages, to team productivity and workplace operations. Any space or life stage you’re in, I can pretty much guarantee there is an organizer who specializes in it.

Fit – What kind of approach or style works best with you?

Fit is perhaps the most often overlooked criteria when hiring an organizer. Organizers not only have different specialties, but we all also have different styles and approaches to the process of helping you become more organized and productive. Talk to the organizer on the phone and get a sense of their personality. Organizer-client relationships depend on trust, so you want an organizer who “gets” you and understands your challenges. This is even more important if you’re dealing with specific challenges like ADHD and hoarding or you’re a creative, Type-B who has rejected all previous attempts to get organized.

If you decide to hire a professional organizer or productivity consultant, answering these questions will help you find the one who is best suited for you and who will help you achieve your goals.

3 Reasons to Start Your New Year’s Resolutions in February

Improve your chances of succeeding at your New Year’s resolutions

As the calendar turns to January, many people begin the annual tradition of making their New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, most of those folks are bound to be disappointed. According to US News & World Report, 80% of resolutions are abandoned by February. (Some stats say 1 in 4 people won’t make it a week!) I think it’s a mistake to start New Year’s resolutions in January. Here are three reasons why you should wait until February to start your resolutions.

# 1 You’re still recovering from the holidays

The first reason you should wait is that you’re probably still recovering from the holidays. Thanksgiving is the start of a six-week whirlwind of activity that doesn’t end until after January 1. The work demands of year-end deadlines and personal demands of shopping, travel, and dealing with relatives can make even the most organized and productive person frantic and stressed. By the time the holidays are over, you feel like a deflated balloon. Take it easy the first few days to allow yourself to rest and ease your way into your post-holiday routine. Which brings me to…

#2 Find your new “normal”

The second reason you should wait to start on your resolutions is that after the holidays, you have to find your new “normal.” The new year often brings change with new schedules and duties. Figure out your new schedule and routines before you add in the challenge of your resolutions.

 #3 Watch and learn from others

The third reason to wait is that if you wait you can watch what other people do for their resolutions. You see what works and what doesn’t and apply that knowledge to your resolutions. 

Back to school shopping for grown-ups

Feel like a kid again with back to school supplies for your office

September is right around the corner and that means it’s time to go back to school. It’s a big deal if you’re a teacher, student, or parents of school-age kids. But what does back to school mean for the rest of us?

Back to school used to mean shopping and lots of new stuff: new clothes, new notebooks, new lunch box. It wasn’t as exciting as Christmas but still, new stuff.

My favorite part of back-to school-shopping was picking out a new lunch box. My new lunch box had to be fun and set the tone for the new school year.

I still love back-to-school shopping, only now I use it to stock up on office supplies instead of school supplies. And like my lunch box, I still choose fun items that set the tone for me and my business.

Here are some fun “school supplies” for your office:

Honest Acronym and Days of the Week  file folders

Colorful file folders can brighten and lighten up the dullest meetings.

Greenroom notebooks

I LOVE this notebooks from Target!! They’re just the right size with cute colorful covers.

Captain Marvel backpack

This backpack would make anyone feel like a superhero at work.

R2D2 Portable Charger

This cute charger will make sure your phone never runs out of juice.

Ravenclaw lunch bag

Show your house pride with this Harry Potter-themed lunch box.

Slow start to 2019? Call timeout

Hands making timeout gesture
Call timeout to restart your resolutions

We’re one month into 2019 and many of our plans and resolutions have already hit the wall of reality. Interruptions and unexpected problems have derailed your progress or maybe even kept you from getting started.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Sixty-four percent of people abandon their New Year’s resolutions before February. So what do you do?

The Super Bowl is this Sunday. Suppose one team quickly scores two touchdowns in the first quarter, putting the opposing team immediately in a hole. What does the coach of the losing team do in that situation? Does the losing team give up on their goal of winning a championship because they didn’t start the game as they’d hoped? No. The coach calls timeout, pauses the game to stop the momentum against his team. He takes the opportunity to remind his players of the game plan and to make any adjustments that might be needed. He sends his team back out onto the field, with the message that they still have plenty left in the game.

So if your resolutions aren’t off to the start you’d hoped for, you don’t have to give up on your goals. Call a timeout. Pause, take a breath and remind yourself of two things: your game plan and the fact that you have plenty of time to get back on track.

How a Productivity Season Can Help You Reach Your Goals

Goal line on football field
Reaching your goals is like reaching the end zone

Sunday night, the NFL season came to an end. What started at the end of July with 32 teams in training camp, finished with one team holding the Lombardi trophy. Those 32 teams, if they haven’t already, will soon start working towards the 2018 season.

[Read more…]

Key to Successful Resolutions: Execution

The start of the new year often prompts people to make goals and resolutions for the coming year. Choosing the goal is usually easy. Sometimes the goal chooses you. (Anyone step on a scale or check their bank balance recently?) [Read more…]

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