Stop Confusing Habits for Routines: What You Need To Know

Trying to build good habits can often backfire. Here’s why it’s important to know how habits are formed and when it’s better to stick with a routine instead.

Habits are hot. Self-help articles extol the power of habits and books on the topic sell by the millions. Yet, like many pop psychology topics, the conventional wisdom about the effectiveness and application of habits is frequently outdated, misapplied, or flat out wrong. Building habits to change behavior the right way can be a wonderful tool to improve your life. But false notions about what habits are and what they can do can backfire.

The idea of building a habit is very appealing. The popular notion that tasks can be put on autopilot makes habits sound effortless. Wouldn’t it be great if you could simply make a habit out of doing tasks like exercising, journaling, paying bills, or running a side business? Unfortunately, you can’t. Habits don’t work that way.

What are Habits?

According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a habit researcher at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are a type of learning. By forming a habit, the brain frees the mind to do other things without deliberation.

As a child, you needed reminding to wash your hands after using the toilet. Children must focus on the task of turning on the water, dispensing the soap, lathering up, and cleaning their hands. As an adult, you do this automatically (hopefully) and you’re able to think about other things as you take the steps to wash your hands.

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