How to create routines that work

Jun 4, 2018

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A while back a friend asked me,

“You’re a coach — explain the difference between a habit and a routine.”

I was stymied. Truth was I didn’t have a good answer handy. I realized I often conflated the two when I thought about them. I used the words interchangeably. I eagerly encouraged clients to create better habits even though what they really were doing was setting up different routines.
I hadn’t taken the time to parse out the difference between a habit and a routine.

So I decided to begin at the beginning—with the words themselves, by looking at the etymology of "habit" and "routine" to explain the differences.

What’s in the words?

Habit is defined by Merriam-Webster as an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.

The word derives from the Latin words habere, meaning "have, consist of," and habitus, meaning "condition, appearance." The term originally meant religious attire, later coming to denote a physical or mental constitution.

The word steadily declined in usage beginning in the 1930/40s through about 2000 when there was an uptick in usage—not surprisingly as the self-development movement began to kick-off in full force.

Routine is defined by Merriam-Webster as habitual or mechanical performance of an established procedure (e.g. the routine of factory work).

The word comes from the French word route, meaning "road." Its usage has been on a steady upswing since about 1900.

Ok, but now what? That’s great, you say. But I still don’t know the real difference between a habit and a routine. In the last few years, there’s been a ton of behavioral research on habits and routines—with more needed.

Today, I think of a habit as a behavior we do automatically without thinking about it. According to Dr. B.J. Fogg, a behavior psychologist and director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab and one of the most well-known researchers on habits, there is an emotional payout with a habit.

We engage in habits because there is some kind of payoff. They give us pleasure—sometimes only temporary—but nonetheless we get some physical or emotional pleasure from engaging in the habit. Sometimes the habit payout is physical: we work out, our bodies look better. Other times the habit has an emotional payout: we develop a habit of reading, we feel better about ourselves.

It does need to be noted that not all habits are beneficial—think drug habits, alcohol habits or watching TV habits—but even in these cases there is a pleasure payout, if only momentarily.

Routines, on the other hand, are a set of behaviors in a particular order that we do with some frequency but not automatically.

Generally, routines aren’t thought of as "fun" or "pleasurable," but they make our lives better—things like doing laundry or backing up your computer. Both are done on a frequent basis but not automatically—and neither would be characterized as fun.

Often routines don’t directly improve our lives. But, I’d argue, routines can help us avoid disaster and unpleasantness at some future time. Doing laundry keeps us from losing friends because we smell bad and backing up our computer saves us the unpleasantness of losing files.

Dr. B.J. Fogg has argued that designing and individualizing great routines can lead to significant personal growth, but more work needs to be done to better understand routines and how our brain processes and manages them.

Most of the self-development literature is focused on habits; but I think the real work comes when we focus on routines. I see a lot of self-development potential for many clients when they focus on designing the best routines. If I can get clients to think about their routines and design them for their individual use, there’s potential for great growth.

Begin with your routines

Most of the articles, books, and blog posts that pop up focus on the development of morning routines. I’m all for a strong morning routine and follow a fairly formalized morning routine myself—but I’d suggest that thinking about routines more broadly throughout your day can propel more growth.

For instance, do you have a routine for handling emails? For handling frequent and repetitive client requests? For managing breakfast, lunch, and dinner at your house? Do you have an evening routine? Is there a time of your day you regularly get derailed? Can you develop a new routine to help minimize the train crash?

Given what we do know, here are my tips and some suggested steps you can implement today to design better routines.

Be clear and specific about the routine you want to implement

For example, say you want to read more. Get clear about those specifics. Just saying you want to "read more" is too vague. This vagueness will easily allow your mind to slither out of the routine on day’s you're stressed, in a bad mood, preoccupied or tired. So before you go further, get specific.

Do you want a routine that’s daily? Weekly? Monthly? What is realistic for you? Will it be measured by time: 30 minutes a day? 3 hours a week? Or do you want to set a number of pages to read: 10 pages per day? a chapter a week? a book a month? Do you have an overall end goal: 3 books per quarter? 100 books by the end of the year?

I know you’re feeling overwhelmed with all these questions, but taking time now to answer them will help you implement a great routine that you can keep.

After you’ve identified a specific routine you’d like to implement, write it down in your planner, journal, or whatever mechanism you have to keep yourself accountable for your goals.

Know your purpose

Research studies show that when people have a why—when their routine is part of a bigger purpose or mission in life—they are more likely to stick with the routine.

For example, if you want to read more, ask yourself why. What do you want to achieve with your reading?

Hopefully, it’s not just to tally up a large number of books and impress your friends with your book count. As impressed as they may be when you announce at the annual New Year’s Eve party that you read 157 books that year, this grand feat will only be truly impressive if your reading adds power to your overall purpose.

Take a moment to revisit your goals to understand how this new routine will advance your overall purpose. If your new routine doesn’t advance your purpose, it’s unlikely you’ll stick with it over the long haul.

Break the routine into component parts and have your accoutrements ready

(Don’t you love the word accoutrements?) Routines sound simple, but the truth is they can be complex systems—especially if you’re trying to set up a new one. We humans are hardwired to stick with the tried and true, even if it’s bad for us. Your mind is going to want to go back to what it knows. If you’re able to break down the new routine into the smallest possible elements, you are more likely to see success.

For example, if you want to read more:

  • have a group of books available
  • know where you do your best reading
  • have your reading pre-scheduled (non-negotiable) in your planner
  • set up the reading materials you need.

I always want pens, 4x6 notecards, pink markers, and post-it flags available. I keep my reading accoutrements in a basket that I grab when I’m ready to read. Having my little basket always available gives me fewer excuses to get sidetracked when it’s time to read. It’s also a gentle reminder when I see the little basket that I’m taking this new routine seriously.

What are the component parts to your new routine? Write them out on a list, arrange them in an order that will work for you, and begin to set yourself up for success.

Spend as much time planning your new routine as you do choosing a new restaurant.

Set up a process you’ll enjoy

If you don’t enjoy the process of your routine, science says it's highly unlikely you’ll stick with the routine over the long haul. So, make it fun.

For example, choose your books like you choose your dates or your restaurants—match your interests, your style, your wavelength. Find books you’re attracted to. Have more than one book available. If you’ve been following me, you know I strongly advocate having several different books ready to read.

Plus, make sure the environment you’re working in works for you. In this example, it’s not just about the "right" book—the process also includes finding the best reading location. I recommend you have several. I’ve got several favorite spots where I read. Finding the right location for anything—reading, workouts, dinner with friends—can have a tremendous impact on the success of the endeavor.

If you don’t like the workout club you belong to, you’re not going to make the trip to the gym. So be mindful of the location where you’re going to build your new routine.

Set up compelling triggers wherever you’re in danger of ditching the habit

Most of us focus on setting up a cue to start a routine. I think we also need to have triggers we can use in the middle of our routines. Given human nature, until our routine becomes a habit, we’re in danger of letting our minds default to the path of least resistance—so have multiple triggers built into the routine that will help you stick with it.

When I started my exercise routine several years ago, I put my shoes and workout clothes on the floor right next to my bed so I tripped over them when I swung out of bed. When my feet landed on my workout clothes, it was an immediate trigger to go do a workout.

I also set up my coffee machine the night before so all I had to do was flip the switch. I guarantee you that if I’d had to put water in the machine, measure out the coffee, find my cup and then flip the switch—there would have been many a morning I would have just given up on the workout.

Plus, I made sure I had a podcast loaded on my phone the night before so I wouldn’t get sidetracked in the morning. Having a podcast I really wanted to hear during my workout was one of the best triggers I implemented in my new routine.

As silly as it sounds, these small triggers were key to my success with my workout routine.
These triggers made it less likely that I’d scrap my routine on those mornings I just wanted to stay in bed. Small triggers throughout the process can be significant when building a new routine.

Schedule the new routine

Add your new routine to your planner and be sure to leave enough time for the routine. In the beginning, you don’t want to rush your new routine. Rushing the new routine will make it negative. Think of your new routine like a gourmet meal—you wouldn’t want to rush through a beautiful plate of food.

Measure your results

I like data, so I keep track of the results of any new routine in my planner and journal. Measuring my results also allows me to see other elements that might be impacting my new routine.

By tracking my daily reading, I noticed that reading at the end of the day was less successful. When I switched my reading to first thing in the morning or after a break of some sort (nap or exercise) I got more read and remembered it.

Have an accountability partner

But, as useful as data is, for most of us, we also need a human element to our accountability system—a mentor, coach, mastermind group, trusted friend. Having someone you don’t want to disappoint can be indispensable for keeping you accountable.

Set up a reward system

Behavioral research has shown that it’s important that we mark our wins with rewards. How you measure yourself is up to you, but be sure to pick a measurement and a reward that will motivate you and mean something.

Using time as a marker to measure a new routine is common. Set up a reward system if you maintain a routine for a certain period of time. Make the reward meaningful and escalate the reward as you improve on your routine. Be sure to take a few minutes to bask in the glory of your success.

Final thoughts on designing great routines:

  • It’s all about you.
    There’s a ton of behavioral research on routine design that you can learn by reading the likes of of BJ Fogg and Charles Duhigg, but in the end you need to design the routine subtleties that will work for you. Treat yourself like you treat your clients. Make it work for you.
  • Think outside the box and experiment.
    Give your routine a chance but be willing to make tweaks. Sometimes it’s the smallest change that can make a difference. For example, several years ago when I decided I wanted to read more, I also determined that I was going to only use a pink highlighter. This may sound crazy, but making that determination and investing in a box of pink pens made it easier for me to stick with my new routine.
  • Trust your gut.
    How does it feel to you? Routines you hate—exercise you can’t stand or books you don’t want to read—will never be successful and will set you back, so check your gut. Make sure you’re not weaseling out of a routine because you got lazy or it got hard, but make sure it’s a routine you really want to implement, too.
  • Eliminate distraction and stay in the driver’s seat.
    When you start working on a new routine be aware that your mind is going to want to go back to what it knows best. It’s important to understand that your mind doesn’t like to work too hard— that requires energy—so wherever your brain can save energy by going back to the tried and true, it will.
  • Mark your wins—even the smallest ones.
    When you’re discouraged go back to your purpose. Think about the overall reason you’re undertaking this new routine. In the end, it should be to improve your life—and thus the lives of those around you.

Heidi is a life strategist and certified coach with decades of experience in the corporate and non-profit sector. She uses the power of books to help individuals and teams reach their next chapter. To get free resources and a weekly newsletter visit: