Routines and Habits: What You Need to Know

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Routines and habits are a part of our daily lives. We have routines for getting ready in the morning or for activities throughout your day. Some routines become so ingrained in our minds that they become habits. The difference being that when an action or task becomes a habit, it is done with no conscious thought. The building of routines and habits can be positive or negative depending on what you are committing to memory. The routine of exercise, over long periods of time, leads to the habit of being someone who exercises. The same is true of someone who has a problem with alcohol. Over time, the person who drinks makes drinking part of their routine will become a habitual drinker.

Knowing about routines and habits is a good start, but it is wiser to know what to do with this information in order to make routines and habits a productive part of your life. When thinking of wellness, we all have areas we want to improve. Behaviours we see in ourselves that we don’t particularly like or skills we want to learn. Creating a routine around these areas of your life can help to make the changes you want to happen become habit.


Building a routine is the first step on the road to creating a habit. This can be described as a habit loop. Different theorists have different explanations of what constitutes a habit loop but they all have three things in common: cue, routine, reward. In order to know the cues you must first examine the behaviour(s) you’d like to change. Maybe it’s losing weight, or eating healthier, or learning a new skill. Changing a routine involves acknowledging that there is a problem with the habit loop you’re currently engaging in.

Learning from the Stages of Change, we know that by examining our behaviours, we are in the contemplation stage heading into the preparation stage. We must first examine our current routines to look for the trigger or cue.

Let’s use an example:

Mary is trying to lose weight. She’s been on every diet under the sun but finds within a week or two she gives up and goes back to her old eating patterns. Mary is not obese and does not have any underlying health conditions but is overweight. Mary decides to make a new eating routine. She examines her eating patterns. Mary finds that she eats more when she is bored, stressed, or tired. These are her cues.

What do we do with these cues?

Mary’s habit when cued, is to eat go to the kitchen and find something she wants to eat. We cannot get rid of the cues. Her cues are things that happen to all people in life. What needs to change is the routine after the cue. In this instance, Mary could use a technique called prolonged gratification. Prolonged gratification involves allowing yourself to still get the reward but after a new routine or task. Using prolonged gratification, Mary chooses her new routine to be going for a 20 minute walk when she feels triggered to eat outside of normal meal times.

Small Wins

Rome wasn’t built overnight! And neither will a new habit or routine. When looking at a routine change, it can often feel like a major overhaul of your life. But it doesn’t have to! Set SMART goals with a large overall goal but also set smaller, easier to achieve milestones. The achievement of these milestones helps build motivation to continue with the routine change. Willpower is a muscle, if you use it all up early on in the task change, you’ll quickly run out of strength. Like the tortoise and the hare story, slow and steady wins the race. Small, sustainable changes are the key to success. It feels good to achieve our goals. Achieving goals motivates us to be better, stronger, faster, more resilient.

Extended Example:

Let’s revisit Mary. Mary has set her overall goal- to lose weight. Let’s definite this as a SMART goal. Mary would like to lose 10 kgs by Christmas which is 6 months away. This goal is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and has a specific time frame.

Now, let’s break that goal down into milestones. Mary’s goal is to lose 1 kg in the first month. She will implement her new walking routine daily. These shorter, easier to achieve milestones, allow Mary to get a small win every day with her walking routine and after her first full month.

Forming a Habit

The transition from routine to habit is a path that takes time and repetition to develop. Think about learning to write your name. Each time you got a little closer to being able to do it, there was a sense of achievement. That motivation continued as you learned more and became better at writing. Now, you don’t need to think much about writing your name because it’s a habit. 

At what point do you think you started being able to write your name without all your concentration and effort? First time? Second? Chances are it took weeks if not months of practice. And even though we know how to do those tasks, our skill in these areas continue to grow. An example of this is our handwriting skills. We have handwriting better than when we first started out and it continues to evolve through adulthood. How you sign your name today is not the same as when you were a teen.

How do we use a habit to grow?

Because habits are actions that we can do without using conscious thought, it frees our mind up to do other tasks. For instance, you can walk on a treadmill and listen to music at the same time or talk with a friend. Your mind is not spending all it’s energy on building the routine of the habit, it’s already programmed. Safe multitasking allows us to combine a habit with a new routine to enhance our performance. I use the word “safe” before multitasking because there are some habits you do not want to be multitasking with, such as driving.

If we go back to the example of Mary, Mary’s new walking routine is a great example of combining a habit with a new routine to enhance her chances of success. Mary could have a walking buddy and get motivation by seeing/speaking with a friend. She could have a playlist of podcasts or books she is wanting to read/listen to. She could set herself mini goals within this goal of walking a different route each time or extending her walk as she feels ready. By adding onto the original milestone of walking 20 minutes when she was triggered to eat, she has made this routine more powerful by including multiple aspects of her life into the routine. Those additional tasks are mini rewards in the moment for completing her goal.

Moving Forward

Moving forward, the key to success is time and repetition. If you find yourself losing motivation, ask yourself why? What am I not getting from this routine that will motivate me? How can I adjust what I am doing? What works in the beginning may not necessarily work in the end. Always evaluate your goals, check in with yourself around how things are going and what needs to change to encourage success. This is a normal part of the process, as we talked about in the Stages of Change article. Relapses are common and are a way for the brain/body to feedback to you that something is off and needs adjusting. Like taking care of a car, people need ongoing maintenance as well.

What changes do you want to make? What have you already tried? Tell us more in the comments below!

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