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.

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