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.


  1. Love this distinction!

  2. Karen, you do a superb job differentiating between habits and routines and explaining the practical value in doing so. Without seeing the distinction, we’re so much less likely to put the right strategies into practice!

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