posttitle = Habit Models: Routines vs Reflexes titleClass =title-long len =34

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
  • workout routine: the days of the week you go to the gym, or the set of exercises you typically perform while there
  • going-to-bed routine: the set of actions you typically perform before sleeping… brushing teeth, reading in bed, writing a journal, stretching

Kinds of habits

  • speech reflexes: how you articulate certain things
  • eating reflexes: the way you eat (fast, slow, etc)
  • body position reflexes: posture, gait, and how much you stand vs sit
  • thinking reflexes: patterns of thought: the kinds of things you think of and how you think about them (including everything from mindset to mindfulness)
  • conversational reflexes: the words you use (which will vary with context) as well as tone and how long you allow silences or how often you interrupt
  • stress-response reflexes: smoking, binge-eating, chocolate
  • web browsing reflexes: sites you compulsively visit / your proclivities for link clicking
  • smartphone reflexes: which apps you use to solve certain problems or as a response to certain triggers (such as boredom)

You’ll notice that routines seem to be related to a “when is it / where am I?” question, whereas reflexes are more closely linked to “what am I doing / how am I doing it?” There is definitely a contextual aspect to reflexes, but the context doesn’t act as a trigger in the same way.

How to Change Your Routines

Routines are part of the structure of your story, which means that you can chain them together quite effectively. They also tend to be very closely tied to the big details of your life—in particular, where you live, and what you spend most of the day doing. As a coop student, I’ve spent the last 4 years alternating between taking classes and working for various companies. This means that every 4 months I’ve had to move somewhere else and get used to a new set of forces that affect my day.

It also means I have a great chance to establish a new set of routines, provided that I’m conscious and intentional around this. If not, I’ll mostly just lose my old routines and they’ll get replaced with random patterns based on whatever I end up doing for the first few days and weeks. Which is typically not going to be very growthy because it’ll just be whatever’s easiest.

As I said, routines form the structure of your story, which means that if you link several together in a consistent order, they can actually support each other. I recommend, if you’re doing this, to take a minimum enjoyable action approach, so that you don’t end up with a routine that always takes half an hour (because then you’ll be prone to ditching it if you wake up and you’re running late). Better a routine that sometimes is a bare minimum but remains ingrained than a more ambitious one that you ditch within a week.

I would also say that if you feel conflicted about part of the routine—it feels super hard or possibly-not-even-a-good-idea—then it might not work well to chain it together. It’ll only make the other items more aversive. But you might be able to find a minimum enjoyable action for it that integrates smoothly, at which point you have the basic habit in place and you just need to gradually strengthen it.

So how does routine-forming work? Well, the basic steps are:

  1. Spend some time planning some new routines. I typically spend an hour or two on this every 4 months. Ideally before I move—fairly often, on the plane—so that I really clearly link this routine with my new context. Create an actual list of what you’re going to do, in order. So your morning routine could be something like:

    • turn off alarm clock before hitting snooze
    • go outside and jog in place for at least 3 seconds
    • do at least one pushup
    • make some tea
    • meditate while tea is boiling/steeping

  2. Pick the exact date you’re going to start. Preferably, a day that has external changes, because these cues will help reinforce the new routines.
  3. On that date, start!
  4. For at least the first week, check the list every morning to make sure you do at least a minimum enjoyable action for each of the routine’s items.
  5. Check in every week to make sure the routine isn’t slipping.

Eventually these routines become mutually-reinforcing, so that your brain knows that the next action after turning off your alarm clock is to go outside and run, or that the next action after washing your breakfast dishes is to brush your teeth. This is why routines work well in sequences.

If you don’t have a move or job change coming up, create a big shift on your own. Okay, I know that’s a lot to ask. But… this is worth it. And the shift doesn’t have to take a lot of time. For example, I think you could produce enough external change to make morning and evening routine changes much easier, just by rearranging the furniture in your bedroom.

If you’re interested in reading about the daily routines of famous writers and other creatives, check out the book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. You can even just download the Kindle sample and read the first half-dozen for free, to get a taste of it.

How to Change Your Reflexes

Reflexes, by contrast, are best changed individually, with intense focus for a shorter period of time, because their triggers occur frequently and so you can’t rely on the structure of your day but rather you need a kind of constant vigilance. This was the theory behind my 1-new-habit-per-week challenge for 2014, and it seems to have borne out in the fact that I’ve managed to successfully install 8 habits in 5 months, well under the maxim of “30 days”. That’s still not the best success rate, but I think that’s for other issues, which is supported by the fact that the successful habits seem to be clustered (ie. it’s not like every few weeks a habit was successful). These “habits” are reflexes.

So how do you do this? My strategy is to focus really hard for a week. Some habits might take two or more weeks: Hands Off Face, for example, was really hard because there are a lot of strong triggers for face-touching, ranging from itchiness to psychological discomfort. Quitting smoking would require more than a single week as well. But the point is to have a single such behavior change on your mind that is allowed as much willpower as it needs. Normally we can’t do this, because we have a bunch of things on our minds, and so we slip.

So say you’re trying to install a better default gait or posture. If it’s not of extreme focus, then sometimes you’ll notice but you’ll be like “well, I’ll fix it next time.” I’d been aware of my out-toed gait for nearly a decade, and that whole time my general intention had been to fix it. But I didn’t actually make any progress until I took a week in January and said “all of the other behavior changes can wait—this week, I fix my gait.” And then I basically succeeded, with just one week of concerted effort.

This kind of singular focus also means you beat yourself up less, and feel less akratic, because you don’t have a massive list of ways that your behavior “should be” different than it currently is. You still have a list, but you only have to be concerned day-to-day with the top item on that list. So you can notice other “bad habits” and not expend an iota of willpower on them, because it’s not their turn yet. You might even decide to make the “good choice” anyway, but it becomes a free decision rather than one where you have a bunch of pressure. If you’re familiar with applying Timeless Decision Theory, this means that you don’t have to worry that certain behaviours will propagate forever, because you know you have a plan to deal with them in the future, but you don’t have to deal with them all at once.

For more specific information on specific techniques you can use for shifting your reflexes, check out my most recent post, What I Learned From 20 Weeks of Habit Hacking.

Imagine if you try a new reflex every week for a year… even if only 1/3 of them fully stick, that’s still 17 shifts in your behavior! Who could you be with a bunch of little shifts in your default patterns?

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


ze » 9 Jun 2014 » Reply

“Defaults, by contrast, are best changed individually, with intense focus for a shorter period of time, because .”
I think you accidently a word or something there. 😉

Otherwise, an illuminating strategy, thankyou!

Kelle Abrams » 23 Jan 2016 » Reply

Thank you.

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