Habit Vs Routine: What’s the Difference?

And How ADHD Plays a Role

Published on
December 8, 2023
  • Habits are simple, single actions that, once formed, tend to happen on ‘autopilot’
  • Routines are a series of actions performed in a particular order, and we have to maintain focus on them; they can’t be done on ‘autopilot’
  • A habit feels uncomfortable when we don’t do it; routines can feel uncomfortable (e.g., difficult, tiring, tedious) when we do them.
  • Some actions/behaviors can become habits, while others can’t; this is determined by motivation.
  • Online ADHD Coaching can help with managing ADHD related challenges with routines and habits

If you have ADHD, chances are you’ve got a love-hate relationship with habits.

It can be so easy to develop unhelpful habits, and frustratingly difficult to develop desirable ones. While this is true for most people, it can be especially difficult for those of us with ADHD. I’ve found that one of the biggest reasons for this is that most people don’t have a clear understanding of the difference between habit and routine (myself included, until I created a learning module on habits for the Shimmer app). They are not synonyms!

In this post we’ll cover the difference between habits and routines, why it matters, and how ADHD plays a role.

What is a Routine?

A routine is “a series of behaviors frequently repeated in performance of an established procedure.”

For example, when you were a kid, adults had to remind you at first to wash your hands after using the bathroom. You had to focus on all the steps - turning on the water, wetting your hands, soaping up, rinsing, turning off the faucet and drying. At this point, washing your hands was a routine.

What is a Habit?

A habit, on the other hand, is “a behavior or action that you do often and regularly, so that it becomes nearly or completely involuntary.”

Habits are a type of learning; by forming a habit, our brains are able to free up processing power to focus on more complex tasks - like “muscle memory.”

In the handwashing example, eventually, you no longer needed a reminder. You didn’t need to focus on all the steps involved in order to remember how to do it. You began to wash your hands automatically, without really thinking about it. That’s when it became a habit.

Why Do I Need To Know the Difference Between Habits and Routines?

One of the main reasons people struggle with habits - ADHD or no ADHD - is an expectation that with enough practice or repetition, anything can become a habit. And that would be great, right? If you could turn things like journaling, exercise, or doing the laundry into a habit - again, meaning that you do them on ‘autopilot’ - life would be so much easier!

Unfortunately, habits don’t work that way - and when we go into habit building with the expectation that eventually the action or behavior will ‘sink in’ and become easy and effortless, we set ourselves up for failure. We think, “I’ve been trying so hard to do this, but it hasn’t gotten easier,” and assume that there is something wrong with us - which saps motivation and adds to our wall of awful, making the task harder instead of easier.

While there are some things that can become habits over time, it’s not going to happen with every behavior. What determines this is motivation.

Neurologically, motivation comes from the desire to avoid or escape pain and discomfort. For example, we feel hungry, and we eat. We feel lonely, and reach out to a friend. The pleasure we get from a behavior comes after we’re prompted to act by the motivation to alleviate discomfort. Habits and routines follow this same rule.

Remember the example of learning to wash your hands? At first, you may have experienced discomfort from doing it. “Ugh, I have to do this instead of going back to my toys.” Now that it’s a habit, you probably experience discomfort from not doing it.

So a habit feels uncomfortable when we don’t do it; routines can feel uncomfortable (e.g., difficult, tiring, tedious) when we do them.

Often, we avoid tasks that cause discomfort (paying the bills, doing the laundry, opening the mail) with procrastination. We avoid the task and experience relief (if temporary).

Procrastination is a good clue that the task is a routine - something that causes discomfort to do - instead of a habit. In fact, the habit in this case is the procrastination - because the action (doing something else instead) brings relief.

Another challenge - adopting a new habit often also means unlearning an old habit. And our old habits still exist because they’re helpful to us in some way; they provide some measure of relief or pleasure, even if they also create challenges.

For example, maybe you know you struggle to remember things, so you adopt a habit of completing a task as soon as you think about it. This old habit is still helping you get the thing done - but it also makes you more prone to distraction and involves a lot of task switching, which decreases efficiency and causes fatigue.

Where Does ADHD Come In?

Many of our ADHD symptoms can make adopting a new habit or routine more challenging. For example, we may struggle with:

  1. Impulsivity: Individuals with ADHD often struggle with impulsivity, which can make it challenging to resist immediate rewards or distractions. This impulsivity can lead to difficulty in sticking to a planned routine or habit, as the desire for instant gratification may override the intention to follow through with the planned activity.
  2. Distractibility: ADHD is associated with a heightened level of distractibility. Individuals may find it hard to stay focused on a specific task or habit due to external stimuli or internal thoughts. This can lead to frequent interruptions and a lack of consistency in maintaining routines.
  3. Difficulty with Sustained Attention: Sustaining attention over an extended period is a common challenge for individuals with ADHD. This can hinder the ability to engage in repetitive or monotonous tasks required for habit formation, as attention may shift before the habit becomes ingrained.
  4. Time Management Issues: Individuals with ADHD often struggle with time management, making it difficult to estimate how much time different tasks will take. This can lead to challenges in planning and adhering to a schedule, disrupting the establishment of routines.
  5. Procrastination: Procrastination is a common issue for individuals with ADHD. Delaying tasks or putting off the initiation of a new habit can occur due to difficulty with task initiation and a tendency to prioritize more immediately rewarding activities.
  6. Executive Function Deficits: Executive functions, such as planning, organizing, and prioritizing tasks, can be impaired in individuals with ADHD. These deficits can make it challenging to create and maintain effective routines, as the ability to structure and organize daily activities may be compromised.
  7. Difficulty with Transition: Individuals with ADHD may struggle with transitions between activities. Shifting from one task to another, especially if it involves a change in environment or focus, can be challenging and disrupt the flow of a routine.
  8. Inconsistent Energy Levels: ADHD can be associated with fluctuations in energy levels and motivation. This inconsistency may make it difficult to maintain the effort required for habit formation, as individuals may experience periods of high energy followed by low energy.

Understanding these challenges is crucial for developing strategies and interventions for managing adult ADHD. Virtual ADHD coaching, therapy, and a supportive environment that provides structure and consistency can all contribute to overcoming these obstacles and facilitating the establishment of effective habits and routines.

Can ADHD Coaching Help With Building Routines and Habits?

Yes, online ADHD coaching can be beneficial for individuals who struggle with building routines and habits. An adult ADHD coach focuses on addressing the unique needs and challenges associated with your ADHD symptoms. Here are ways in which Shimmer’s affordable ADHD coaching can help with building routines and habits:

  • Personalized Strategies: We know that if you’ve met one person with ADHD, you’ve met one person with ADHD. No two neurospicy folks are the same! Our ADHD coaches work with members to develop personalized strategies that cater to their specific needs and preferences. For routines and habits, this can involve helping you with breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable steps or finding creative approaches to make routines more engaging.
  • Goal Setting: Many members come to Shimmer knowing something needs to change, but they may struggle to identify or communicate exactly what they want. That’s okay! Our virtual ADHD coaches assist individuals in identifying and setting realistic, achievable goals. That clarity is crucial for individuals with ADHD to identify, set, and maintain the exact routines and habits needed to achieve those goals.
  • Accountability: One of the most common challenges members come to Shimmer for is difficulty getting things done. Often, a barrier is that there’s no outside accountability - no rewards or consequences for not doing the thing. Regular check-ins with your ADHD coach can provide a level of accountability. Knowing that someone is there to support and monitor progress motivates members to stick to their routines and habits.
  • Time Management: ADHD coaching often involves teaching effective time management techniques. If you’ve struggled before with solidifying routines or habits, it may be a time management issue. Your coach can help you with prioritizing tasks, estimating how much time activities will take, and creating habits and routines that fit into your unique life.
  • Identifying Triggers and Obstacles: I can’t tell you how many times I hear the question, “why didn’t I think of that?” in coaching sessions. It can be really tough to know what’s going wrong when you’re so close to the problem, so having an outside perspective is often exactly what we need. Online ADHD coaches help individuals identify the exact triggers and obstacles that impeding the establishment of routines and habits.

Establishing and maintaining the habits and routines you need to be successful is much more complex and challenging than many people realize. For people with ADHD, even more so. The good news? You don’t have to go it alone.

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