Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Humans are creatures of habit and routine. We can't help it.

Knowing how habits and routines (good, bad and everything in between) develop, evolve and are broken is important to understand when setting permanent lifestyle goals.

Habits, by definition, are behaviors that are repeated frequently, often without a second thought.

Habits can include anything from nail-biting and smoking to grooming, snacking and exercising. They are commonly established due to factors such as laziness, stress, boredom, pleasure, meaningful results, and social pressures/norms. These, along with additional factors such as time of day and preceding events, later act as triggers. The reward achieved by performing the behavior acts as motivation to repeat it. Rewards vary depending on the habit, but often include reduced stress, improved health, efficiency, enjoyment/pleasure, pride or acknowledgment. Collectively, our habits make up a large chunk of our identity as a person.

Routines, by definition, are sequences of actions completed in a fixed order, often at a set time, and followed regularly. Habits, good, bad or annoying, are included in routines.

Whether you realize it or not, much of your day is structured by different types of routines.  Routines are usually followed automatically, with little thought. They help take the guesswork out of what comes next, which saves time and frees up our mind to focus on other things. Without routines we would be lost and terribly inefficient.

Think about what you do each morning. When you get out of bed do you ponder whether you should turn off your alarm, shower, brush your teeth, comb your hair, eat breakfast, pack your lunch, check your phone or drink your coffee, or do you have a set order you automatically follow each day? When you leave the house do you

Developing healthy habits

When setting goals, it is healthy habits we want to develop, and it doesn't happen overnight. Without conscious effort, planning, motivation and patience, it is challenging to develop a new habit. All of these factors are essential, and it takes time. It could be weeks or months before you start to perform the behaviour automatically, without so much as a second thought, as part of a routine.

New habits are best achieved when they are incorporated into a good routine. Not just any routine will work. Think carefully about where you will fit your new habit and how you will make it work. Sometimes it takes some trial and error, and that's okay!

Incorporating a new habit into a routine can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months (or longer!) to establish permanently. The large variance is due to significant differences in the complexity of new habits, how often we perform the habit (ex. performing it daily will be a lot quicker than weekly), and our individual motivation to get there.

Most personal goals we have are multifaceted and require a number of steps, or smaller goals, to cumulatively develop small habits in order to reach and maintain the end goal. Adopting or changing one small habit may not seem like it will make a difference, however, the compounding effect of multiple habits will, and this takes time. Check out the goal setting page for more information on setting small accumulative goals. 

Do whatever you can to make it easier on yourself! Find a friend or family member who will support you, give yourself prompts or reminders to trigger the habit (and remove prompts/reminders for habits you are trying to break), and pick out a reward to celebrate your success when your desired habit has become routine.

How do you know when your habit has become routine?

  • You do it naturally without thinking about it.

  • You don't dread or worry about doing it.

  • You don't need to convince yourself to do it.

  • You are intrinsically motivated to do it.

  • It feels more normal to do it than to not.

  • You are staying on track and not missing days or making excuses.

  • You find benefit and enjoyment in doing it.

If you have been at it for a while (at least a few months) and it is not becoming routine, ask yourself why. Is your motivation enough? Are you scheduling it appropriately? Are you doing it enough? Is it too ambitious? Is something else taking precedence? Is more time needed? Go back and modify your goal if you need to, but don't give up.

Breaking bad habits

Routines may help save time and free up our mind to focus on other things, however, they are not always good. Going out for a smoke at 10 a.m. every day, watching hours of TV every evening, binging on unhealthy snacks after your kids are asleep and having a few alcoholic beverages before bed each night would all be considered unhealthy habits that are routine.

The best and easiest way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a healthier habit. This way the routine of doing something at that specific time can remain, and just the activity needs to change.

Determine which habit you want to break and identify WHY you are performing that habit. There is usually something that triggers the behavior, however the actual reason is often more complex.

For example, flopping onto the couch to watch hours of TV is likely triggered by the preceding event (ex. kids finally being in bed) and/or the time of day. However, the habit you have developed is likely related to feelings of physical/mental fatigue, stress, boredom or laziness. Depending on how long this has been a habit you may not even experience these feelings regularly, but the habit has become so routine you do it naturally without even thinking about it.

The best way to change this type of habit is not to change the trigger (you can't change the time of day or preceding event in this case), but to change the response to the trigger. At that specific time of day, what habit can you do instead, or beforehand, that will address those emotions in a healthier way? Activities such as walking, gardening or working out can help increase your energy level, reduce stress and clear your mind.

Unfortunately, the healthiest option is almost never the easiest option, which is the biggest barrier you need to overcome.

For other bad habits, hiding or making some of the triggers less obvious is also beneficial. For example, if you are trying to stop smoking, simply seeing a pack of cigarettes or other people smoking could trigger you to go out for a smoke. If you have a tendency to binge on junk food, having it around will probably increase your chances of eating it. When adopting a healthy habit, do the opposite. Make the triggers more obvious. Put your exercise clothes on when you get home from work, fill your fridge with healthy foods, leave the recipe you want to try on the counter. Either way, planning ahead is critical.

In addition to removing some of the triggers and finding a suitable and healthier alternative to your bad habit, it is important to find intrinsic motivation. If you are not intrinsically motivated to make the change you are unlikely to stick with it long term. Do your research and determine exactly how your bad habit is impacting your health and well-being, and what the benefits of changing it will be. The more motivation you have the more successful you will be.

Key points to remember when setting goals and developing new habits and routines

  • Habits are mental shortcuts established to satisfy a need (healthy or otherwise) and are performed repeatedly due to any number of triggers.

  • Collectively our habits make up a large chunk of our identity.

  • Healthy habits and routines require conscious effort, planning, motivation and patience to develop.

  • Focus on developing smaller habits in the short term to reach bigger goals in the long term.

  • Small habits, as insignificant as they seem, cumulatively compound into meaningful changes.

  • Routines make up as much as half of our day. Determine how any new habits will fit into your existing routines and what needs to change to best accommodate them.

  • Most routines can be modified to be more efficient and/or effective.

  • Habits become routine when we complete them naturally without thinking or worrying about them, we are intrinsically motivated to perform them, there is associated benefit and/or enjoyment, and they are not dreaded.

  • The best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a healthy habit that satisfies the same need, eliminate triggers for the bad habit, develop specific obvious triggers for the new habit, and ensure you have ample intrinsic motivation to make the change.

  • When working to develop a new habit start slow and build upon your successes rather than aiming high and risking failure.

Now that you are an expert on routines and habits, head over to the Goal Setting page to set some goals and turn them into routine habits!