Routines Are Habit Forming

I was surprised to learn, Tuesday morning, that I was out of milk. I was quite certain that milk was on my weekly grocery list, and I was equally certain that I had walked out of the store with a jug of fodder fuel in my hand.

Nevertheless, when I opened the refrigerator door, in the spot on the upper shelf where gallon milk jugs have stood tall for most of my life –– or at least for most of my refrigerator’s life –– no milk was to be found.

After briefly considering the irony –– that after decades of using milk cartons to locate people, there is no vehicle for people to locate missing milk –– I set out to find the lamming liquid.

It wasn’t hard.

In the cool spot where the milk once stood was my favorite Carefree Nordic™ Syracuse china cereal bowl. I recognized it, because it has a chip in the green abstract leaf. That chip distinguishes it from the un-chipped “company” bowls. I trot those out for guests when throw-away paper bowls overstate how long I’m hoping they will stay.

If my favorite cereal bowl is in the refrigerator, I thought, then there’s a good chance that the milk is in the … sure enough. Upon opening the cabinet door, there stood an almost full gallon of milk, sweating like Joe Frazier in a title fight.

For nearly all of my adult life, my morning routine has been to take my bowl out of the cabinet, tumble in a cup or two of crunchy cereal, and then submerge the grains in a deluge of milk from the fridge.

However, here lately, I’ve been trying to eat a healthier breakfast, and slow the consumption of carbs. Somehow, in breaking my breakfast routine, I managed to also break the habit of putting the milk back in the right place.

My diet is just one of the many habits I’m trying to change. I’m trying to see if changing habits can really change my life.

Habits are different than routines. For one thing, they are more popular. James Clear’s Atomic Habits has resided atop the New York Times Bestseller list for weeks. So, too, has Dean Graziosi’s Millionaire Success Habits and Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, PhD.

Good. Bad. Ugly. Naughty. We are obsessed with habits.

Why not? Who doesn’t appreciate the idea of putting some tasks on autopilot, so we can use our cognitive brain power on important stuff? But herein lies the problem. We tend to equate a habit with something that comes effortlessly. It’s just the opposite.

Habits and routines are easily confused.

According to research psychologist and “habitologist” Benjamin Gardner, habits are behaviors we do without thinking. Routines are actions we regularly follow. And, while all habits start out as routines, all routines cannot become habits. It takes time and effort for a habit to form.

The easiest test to distinguish the two is to decide if you have to think about them. For instance, Gardner’s example of fastening a seat belt when you first get in your car is a habit, because it is a behavior that has become second nature. Going to the gym everyday, or writing this column before the deadline are routines. I have to think about doing them.

As my old farmer friend, Red, commenting on quitting his smoking habit says, “Habits are hard to break, because you have to work really hard to acquire them in the first place.”

We’ve been told that cultivating the right habits can lead us to becoming virtually any kind of person we want to be. I’ve still got a long way to go.

Luckily, I haven’t yet soured on the idea.

John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media.