So many of our behaviours and characteristics seem to ‘happen’ without the slightest awareness from our side. They are sooo natural! Or at least seem that way. But… some we instinctively call habits, some are routines (or even rituals), some are classed as addictions and some are written off as instincts. Why, we might wonder? What are those key differences that set habits aside from addictions, instincts, or routines?
Each of these notions assumes a certain level of consciousness and control over the behaviour, ranging from relatively high awareness and control for routines, to almost none for instincts. Naturally, with varying degrees of awareness, comes a variety of approaches and tools to dealing with habits, addictions, instincts and routines. To break a bad habit or change a routine, you are likely to use coaching or self-help. Addiction is going to require something a little more professional and direct. Your instincts are natural and are usually perfect the way that they are.
So what’s the difference between them and how can we benefit from an awareness of these differences?
Habits are the unconscious behaviours that we display every day with little thought. They can be anything from the brand of coffee that you drink every morning, to the way you sit in a chair. The key thing is that they ‘happen’ quite naturally, feel very comfortable, almost unbreakable, and are ‘performed’ promptly and accurately, because you’ve engaged in them over long periods. They feel like second nature (or first).
That’s now. But in the beginning, before specific behaviour became a habit, you actually had to apply some awareness to build them. Either purposefully or not. You had to consciously choose your coffee brand before you started just ordering it. You had to decide on or find a comfortable position in that chair before you started just sitting down. At those times habits were routines and gave you an opportunity to ‘program’ yourself one way or another.
In comparison to a habit, a routine is much more of a conscious action consisting usually of a few steps. It requires concentration and effort, as well as a bit of planning and control. Also, these steps should be followed regularly to be called a routine; otherwise it’s just a one off activity.
Some habits are initially routines, because you need to think to complete the steps, but with time your new routine finds its way into your subconscious and you start doing it without thinking. A new habit is formed.
Not every routine, however, can and should become a habit. Would you really like to go through your journaling or getting the kids to bed without being aware of the time spent?
Addictions get a lot of bad press and it is easy to see why. When you say addiction, you think of alcohol, drugs or food. And to an extent, the negative stigma is well earned. Addictions are related to habits, because they are also mindless and feel unbreakable, but habits become addictions only when the behaviour is carried out excessively and to a damaging degree.
Someone might have a habit of going for a drink after work on a Friday. Occasionally they’ll miss a week – but they’ll be ok with that, maybe just feel a little guilty for not seeing their friends. Someone who is addicted to this behaviour will, however, feel agitated and a ‘need’ to be at the bar on Friday night (and it’s not only about alcohol for them).
If your habit doesn’t pass a “Will have to miss it, but that’s OK” test, think carefully and maybe ask for a professional consultation.
When it comes to instincts, we have very little, if any, control over them, even if we’ve developed a certain level of awareness. They are not our personal behaviours that we have chosen or built into our lives, but evolutionary and sort of part of our DNA. Instincts are nestled deeply within our reptilian brain and as such, changing them is almost impossible and probably not necessary.
However, becoming aware of our natural instincts might help us to stop and think before letting them run wild in ‘difficult’ circumstances, like a first kiss or being surrounded by strangers. Otherwise, they are our natural allies in life.