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 our bed in the morning, that first cup of coffee, grabbing a toast on our way to work, listening to our favourite music on the train, are some instances. And while we tend to use the words “habit” and “routine” interchangeably, they both mean two distinct things. Understanding their definitions can help us design good routines and build good habits.

Shades of consciousness

The main difference between habits and routines is how much aware and intentional we 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 sandwich, or smoking a cigarette.

In contrast, routines require deliberate practice. Making our bed in the morning, going to the gym, going for a hike every Sunday, meditating are all routines that require conscious practice to keep them alive, or they eventually die out. Our brain will not go into automatic mode and walk us to the gym. 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 and the classic habit loop.

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 our part. This is why we 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 showering, I will change into my workout clothes and meditate for ten minutes before starting work.”

But how can we 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 our bed or taking a shower — rituals are viewed as more meaningful practices which have a real sense of purpose. A routine is a systematic, functional group of actions that we have to complete. There is no emotional attachment. We carry out the actions in a routine because we have to. The ritual, on the other hand, is there because we want to. Rituals, like routines, are a collection of habits, with two clear differentials:

What matters with rituals is our subjective experience. With rituals, we 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 ourselves. Whatever the ritual, mindfulness is a very powerful tool to design our life and avoid living it on autopilot. Some instances to facilitate understanding are:-

The Science of Habits and Creating Routines

A routine can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. High achievers tend to find routines that work for them and then stick to them — it’s typically something they credit as a core to their success.

Ways to Build a Habit Stacking Routine

We all know it’s not easy to add multiple new habits to our day. Habit stacking is a strategy we can use to group together small changes into a routine that we follow daily. The key to consistency is to treat a habit stack routine like a single action instead of a series of individual tasks. Building a habit requires many elements if we want it to stick, like scheduling time for activity (a block of time), identifying a trigger, planning what you’ll do to complete the action, etc. If we treated each component of a stack as an individual action, then we will have to create a reminder and track each behaviour, which can quickly become overwhelming. However, if we treat the entire routine as just one habit, then it will be easier to remember and complete on a consistent basis. Some ways in which this can be achieved are:-

A) Start with a Five-Minute Block:-

The simplest way to stick with a new habit is to make it “stupidly simple” to complete, which is a valuable lesson. Example: If we want to write every day, then we create a goal of writing just one paragraph per day. As long as we have written this paragraph, we can consider this a complete task for the day. The core idea is to set a simple goal that overcomes inertia.

B) Focus on Small Wins:-

These are the small wins that will build “emotional momentum” because they’re easy to remember and complete. Building our routine around habits that do not require a lot of effort. Actions that require little willpower, like taking a vitamin, weighing ourselves, filling a thirty-two-ounce bottle of water, or reviewing our goals.

C) Picking a Time & Location:-

Every routine may be anchored to a trigger related to a location, time of day, or combination of both.

D) Anchor Our Routine to a Trigger:-

Triggers are important because sometimes we cannot remember a large number of tasks without a reminder. So, a trigger can push us into taking action. There are two basic types of triggers. The first are external triggers (cell phone alarm or Post-it note on refrigerator). External triggers work because they create a Pavlovian response that when the alarm goes off, we complete a specific task.

The second type are internal triggers, which are the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that we relate to an established habit. For instance, if we have ever compulsively felt the need to “check-in” with social media, then this action was the direct result of an internal trigger. These triggers can be addictive because they act as a “reward” for posting content that people appreciate.

E) Create a Logical Checklist/ Schedule a Frequency:-

It will help to remove any guesswork about what we need to do to complete a specific action. We should try to put the small actions together in a way that they seamlessly flow into each other without wasted effort.

Ideally, these routines should be “check-in habits” that we know are important but are easy to forget, like reviewing our credit card statements, completing safety checks, and planning fun activities. By putting them into a routinely scheduled activity, we will make sure these tasks get completed without them weighing on our subconscious as yet another project that we have not finished.

F) Be Accountable:-

If our natural tendency is to lounge around before starting the day, then we will need an extra “push” to force into action. People often fail at building habits because it is easier to stay resting than it is to do something new and potentially unpleasant.

It’s not enough to make a personal commitment. The big things in life require a solid action plan and a support network to tap into whenever we encounter an obstacle. There are varieties of ways to be accountable, like posting our progress on social media accounts, or telling the people in our life (appointing auditors) about our new routine.

G) Create Small, Enjoyable Rewards:-

Giving ourselves a reward can be a great motivator to complete a daily routine. This can include anything, like watching our favorite TV show, eating a healthy snack, or even relaxing for a few minutes. We must, however, try to avoid any reward that eliminates the benefit of a specific habit.

H) Focus on Repetition:-

Repetition is key for the first few weeks when building a routine. Consistency is more important than anything else. Repetition builds muscle memory. And when we complete the routine often enough, it will become an ingrained part of our day, like brushing our teeth.

It’s not the end of the world if we miss the occasional day, but we must never, ever miss two days in a row. Try not to break the chain in the process. The purpose of not breaking the chain is to eliminate our excuses. Sometimes it’s easy to think of creative reasons not to get started. We are tired, busy, overwhelmed, sick, hung-over, or depressed. The important thing is to set a goal that can be achieved even when you have an off day.

I) Expect Setbacks:-

Setbacks are good things. They teach us resiliency. We should expect challenges to come up with this routine. When they do, we have one of two choices: give up or find a way to overcome them.

J) Scale Up our Routine:-

This scaling up doesn’t mean we haphazardly add a bunch of small habits. Instead, we need to make sure we are consistently completing the routine and not experiencing resistance to this activity. It is wise not to ignore any feelings of stress, boredom, or overwhelm when it comes to our routine. If we feel that it is getting progressively harder to get started (e.g., procrastination), then we should either reduce the number of habits or start asking ourselves why we want to skip a day. The more we understand our lack of motivation, the easier it will be to overcome it.

K) Building One Routine at a Time:-

One of the biggest debates around is how long it takes to build a permanent habit. Some people say it’s twenty-one days, and others say it’s a few months. In fact, in a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it was found that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days for an action to become a permanent habit, with the average being 66 days. It is wise not to try to build more than one habit at a time because each additional new action will make it increasingly difficult to stick with your stacks. When we feel that a routine has become a permanent behavior, which is when we can add a new habit to our daily routine.




Complex quantitative concepts translated into easily understood life and business implications.

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Dr Shoury Kuttappa

Dr Shoury Kuttappa

Complex quantitative concepts translated into easily understood life and business implications.

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