Habits, Routines and Rituals

Ever since I read The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg, I've held a fascination with habits. Before then, I'd viewed them with a negative connotation. Maybe it was my upbringing, always having my bad habits brought to my attention - I don't know. Still, it wasn't until I finished this book that I realised there were a lot of positive habits that I'd picked up over the years, as well as scope to create some more.

I then read an article by Thanh Pham over at Asian Efficiency that described how habits were not as effective as rituals. This spun me for a bit of a loop when I first read it - here was a piece talking about how to take your habits to the next level! I wanted to dig a little deeper. That is, until I reached the bottom of the article and Thanh started to talk about how rituals were different to routines.

I had to stop at this point. Habits, Routines, Rituals - all words that seem to have similar meanings, all stemming from the same area of productivity yet each of them can ellicit a different perception.

I'd like to take the time to summarise my take on each of these and how I now utilise them all to improve the quality of my life and my actions.


I like to look at habits as singular actions I can take that will help drive me towards a particular goal.

Do I want my teeth to be clean and healthy? Then I need to develop a habit of brushing and flossing. Perhaps a habit of drinking water instead of fizzy drinks.

Do I want to improve my level of knowledge about a certain topic? Developing a habit of researching articles on that area on my smart phone while I'm waiting for something, rather than playing Hearthstone or Injustice would be a definite step forward.

How about running in the morning? If I leave my running gear and shoes by the door before bed then that could help lessen the friction I feel when I'm tired and getting my bearings.

Habits are predominantly singular actions, performed automatically and, when you've have repeated them enough, almost involuntary. If you are consistently applying these actions, your brain doesn't have to think about them anymore and there is space in your head to form new ones. It's a win-win.

To create the habit, you need a cue. This is the behaviour that will prompt you to take action. So in the example of laying out my running gear, the cue is the behaviour of going to bed and walking past the front door. It may be that to help me start the habit off, I use a habit tracking application such as Streaks to remind me at a certain time every day (I use this tactic a lot to help kick start a habit formation).

Once the cue has presented itself, it's time to take action and complete the habit. Not much explanation needed there!

Once you have carried out the action, it's time for the reward. When you brush your teeth, it's that sensation you have on your teeth that tingles ever so slightly and makes you feel fresh. When I've laid out my runners, it's the satisfaction that I've zero friction in the morning when it comes to going out for my morning run. Consequently, I'll get the reward of feeling fitter and healthier once the run is complete.


So how would I describe a routine? I used to look at my morning routine as a series of actions that I can execute in any order. I guess you could equate a routine to being a collection of habits. In the morning I will drink a glass of water, brew my coffee, meditate, read, review my calendar for the day and then kick the day off knowing I am in full control.

It's difficult, however, to avoid the negative connotations attributed to the work routine. I catch myself using the phrase "stuck in a routine" more often than I would like. It's rarely used in a positive light at all. It's almost as though a routine is something you need to avoid. This is where the word ritual takes over and why I no longer have a morning routine. The morning ritual has taken over.


Rituals, like routines, are a collection of habits. I see them as having two clear differentials.

1) The actions contained within a ritual are executed in a certain order. I don't mix and match the actions in my morning ritual as I won't have my morning coffee until I've drunk a pint of water. I won't have my coffee sitting there cooling while I'm meditating - I like it to the side of me whilst I read. These actions need to take place in a certain order.

2) There is a clear and definable benefit to the actions created. The actions aren't there for the sake of being there, they are there because you have chosen them and you have a deep connection to them. It could be the desire to feel nourished, or because you crave the feeling of self-improvement. For me, I have a morning ritual to help ensure I have the feeling of control over my day that I may otherwise have lost.

I feel this differs from a routine in that a routine is a systematic, functional group of actions that you have to complete. There is no emotional attachment.

You carry out the actions in a routine because you have to. The ritual, on the other hand, is there because you want to.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!