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The Lever #038 - Creating Routines That Stick

Everyone talks about building habits and creating routines.

Both are used to improve your results.

But do you really understand the difference between them?


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Remember the time that you signed up for a new gym, bought a treadmill, or said you were going to start running?

You said you would build a fitness habit.

The idea is good but your execution was flawed. This is because you didn't understand the difference between two things, and how to leverage them for success.

Habits and routines.

They sound like the same thing but are actually very different.

Some people say that a routine is just a series of interlinked habits, with the previous action triggering the next one. This is a nice idea.

But it is wrong.

What Is A Habit?

A habit is a single action or behavior that happens with little or no conscious thought.

The key words here are "single action", and "little or no conscious thought". Habits are small things that run on autopilot.

These can be good for you:

  • Waking up early

  • Holding the door

  • Brushing your teeth

Or they can be bad for you:

  • Biting your nails

  • Stress eating

  • Smoking

Most of your habits are things you didn't plan to be habits at all. In fact, 45% of your daily behaviors are habits:

  • Meals you eat

  • Routes you drive

  • How you get dressed

These actions are turned into habits through repetition. They are instinctual and happen without much thought.

That makes them EASY.

What Is A Routine?

A routine is a series of behaviors that is repeated frequently.

Keywords are "series of behaviors" and "repeated frequently". Routines are longer sequences of actions taken, that are regularly done in the same order.

Routines can be consciously created, with one behavior leading to the next:

  • Morning routine

  • Writing routine

  • Gym routine

These routines can be created mindfully or they can occur naturally over time. But they are there.

A naturally occurring routine is likely sub-optimal when it comes to driving the results you are looking for in life. Because the individual actions aren't planned mindfully there is probably a lot of waste.

Any series of actions you repeat frequently will become a routine. And this routine can be optimized for the end state you are trying to achieve.

Creating and executing a great routine takes effort.

They are HARD.

Easy Vs Hard

Habits are single actions that take little thought.

Routines are linked tasks that requires effort.

Not everything can become a habit.

Some routines can become a habit, but not every habit can become a routine.

Because habits are easily activated, when you try to make something hard a HABIT there is a high probability that you will fail. And you'll think that YOU are the problem, leaving you worse than when you started.

Routines on the other hand acknowledges this difficulty factor. Changing your actions and driving big results is supposed to be hard.

Once you recognize this and accept it you are in a better place.

Your Body Knows the Difference

Performing a habit is like slipping easily into a groove. It just feels right.

When you DON'T perform a habit it feels uncomfortable. This is why quitting bad habits is so hard.

The opposite is true of routines.

You could have the best routine in the world, but it takes effort and can be uncomfortable to do.

Not performing the routine means you stay comfortable. Which also means you are not working towards your goals.

Use this to your advantage.

Turn the Routine's TRIGGER Into a Habit

A routine is a series of linked tasks, one moving to the next.

Identify those actions, their sequence, and the effectiveness of each step.

Then create an environment where the first step is as easy as possible, even HABITUAL.

By turning the routine trigger into a habit you make the entire routine that much easier to start. And with repetition it gets easier and easier to complete.

The best way to do this is by linking an existing habit to that routine. And how do you do that?

By leveraging the science behind habit formation

According to research, all habits have four stages:

1/ Cue

A trigger or signal that initiates the habit.

This can be a time, location, emotion, or can be triggered by a proceeding action.

Its essentially a reminder for the brain to engage that habit.

2/ Craving

Response to the Cue that creates a desire for the habit.

This is driven by anticipation of a reward, relief from stress, or promise of pleasure.

The reward becomes associated with the cue, creating a feedback loop.

3/ Response

The actual behavior performed.

It can be an action, thought, or emotional response.

This is often automatic, repetitive, and done with very little thought.

4/ Reward

The positive reinforcement or satisfaction that follows the habit.

A dopamine hit that satisfies the craving and reinforces the habit loop.

It feels GOOD to complete the habit, which encourages repetition.


To purposely create a habit you need to remove as much friction from each of those stages, so that the habit is really easy to do:

  • Make the Cue obvious

  • Make the Craving attractive

  • Make the Response EASY

  • Make the Reward satisfying

In this case the routine is the reward. So to make starting the routine a habit you need to identify the very first step in the sequence.

Example: I wake up at 5am, roll out of bed, and put the coffee on.

That triggers my "3 minutes of mindfulness" that gets done while the coffee brews.

When the coffee is ready, I sit down at the computer and start writing.

My coffee ritual is the first step. Its obvious, attractive, easy to do, and oh so satisfying.

Set an Implementation Intention

A second way of creating routines that stick is to set an implementation intention. This just means doing what you said you would do, when you said you would do it.

The best tool for this is your calendar.

Routines need time to complete. If you don't create time you wont get them done.

Block out the time it takes to do your routine. This sets the intention.

Then when that time comes, do it.

Routines That Stick

Knowing the difference can mean success or failure

This is why building a workout habit will fail. Because going to the gym takes effort, and habits don't.

But creating a workout ROUTINE will succeed. Because a routine acknowledges the effort it will take.

You can then increase your chance of success by linking your new gym routine to an existing habit, such as drinking your morning glass of water. That could be the trigger to get out the door.

And you can double those chances with an implementation intention - by doing what you said you would do, when you said you would do it.

Get it on the calendar, start that time block with a habit, and link that habit to your routine.

Do this with intention and there is no limit to what you can accomplish.


When you are ready, here are a few ways I can help:

1. Subscribe to The Lever (if you haven't already)

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