Habit Models: Routines vs Reflexes

I feel like it’s valuable to distinguish between two types of behavior change: routines & reflexes. Both of these are based on creating a new pattern of action given a certain trigger. The distinction I’m making is that routines occur with a very predictable frequency (usually daily, also weekly/monthly) and so they have a kind of cyclic nature. Reflexes, by contrast, are conditioned responses to triggers that might show up dozens or hundreds of times in a given day, or sometimes not even once.

The reason I think it’s valuable to disambiguate between them is that I find that they are nearly polar opposites in terms of what approaches are effective for intentionally changing them. I’ll explain those approaches in the second part of the post.

Lexical/semantic note: I had been using “habit” to refer to reflexes, but it turns out that many people also use “habit” to refer to daily routines, so that would be immensely confusing. I think there can be value in redefining words, but in this case I’ve opted to concede “habit” as a more general term for behavior change, which includes both sporadic, frequent habits (reflexes) and cyclical habits (ie. routines). Edit: I originally published this as “Routines vs Defaults” instead of “reflexes”, but Brienne proprosed “reflexes” and I like that word better.


The follow examples are designed to help you map out the clusters of concepts, if you don’t already have an intuitive sense of the distinction I’m talking about. While not exhaustive, they might also be helpful starting points for brainstorming some habit changes you’d like to make.

Kinds of routines

  • morning routine: probably starts with waking up; from there, varies widely
  • breakfast routine: for some people, this is tightly coupled with their morning routine… for others,
  • commute routine: the route / mode of transportation, as well as what you typically do during it (read, listen to audiobooks, etc)
  • when-I-get-to-work routine: what you do when you arrive at the place you work/study… not everyone will have one of these
  • lunch routine: where and when you eat lunch, how you acquire it
  • supper routine: etc
  • » read the rest of this entry »

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I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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