Habits Versus Ruts: What’s the Difference?

Virtues and vices sometimes feel very similar. Think about it. What’s the difference between being patient and passive, spontaneous and impulsive, or optimistic and naïve? There is a good bit of nuance in differentiating the alternate dispositions. Most people who are expressing the unhealthy disposition would tell you they’re expressing the positive one.

We can ask the same question about the difference between habits and ruts. Most spiritual disciplines are rooted in habits. But we’ve all had the experience of a well-practice spiritual discipline going dry and feeling like a lifeless rut.

Whatever the answer is, the difference between habits and ruts is not personality or preference. Yes, by personality, some people instinctively love the order and predictability of habits, while others feel squelched by routines. But for someone with either preference, good habits can be a life-giving blessing (we all benefit from a morning routine) or merely a sequence we’re a slave to.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Habits

The reality is that you are going to forge habits whether you intend to or not. Routines and patterns develop as we go through life. Habit-forming is inevitable, but intentionality can make it beneficial.

This is where we begin to identify an answer to our question. When rightly understood and applied, habits foster creativity. This is good news for those who love to think outside the box. For example, in marriage, when a couple forms the habit of a regular date night this, if done well, sparks creativity. No longer is energy spent wondering, “Will we go on a date?” Instead, the anticipation of a regular date advances the question to, “What will we do this time?”

Ruts are the fossils of habits. Fossils once had life. But the animal died, and its most solids parts became fossils. The same thing can happen with life-giving habits if we don’t pay attention. The habit initially had vitality but over time that vitality died. Then the practice that remained was simply a fossilized rut.

When Habits Become Ruts

How does this happen? Habits become ruts when they become mindless or superstitious. We’ve all probably done this with daily Bible reading. We begin the habit because it is life-giving to ingest the Word of God. Then we set a bar and believe we need to read a certain number of chapters or for a certain number of minutes each day. Eventually, we begin to mindlessly fulfill this task as a duty. Or we begin to believe that God will be upset with us if we don’t fulfill our duty and we explain any bad thing that happens as God punishing us for not reading our Bible. This is the fossilization of a formerly life-giving habit.

We can do this with any habit, even those that are not spiritually nourishing. We can do this with exercise, planning our week, or engaging our favorite hobby. Each can begin as a life-giving habit but slowly degenerate into “that thing we do or we feel bad, so we do it to not feel bad as much as because we enjoy it.”

For some of us, that is why we have a bad relationship with habits. We feel betrayed by the promises that habits-turned-ruts did not keep and left us disappointed. Hopefully, you realize that the problem wasn’t with Bible reading, exercising, planning, or your hobby. The problem was with what we allowed those good habits to degenerate into.

Engaging Habits Well

We need to engage habits well to get from habits what they can give. That’s not mind-blowing—it’s a concept that holds true in many parts of life. We must engage marriage well to get from marriage what God wants to give through marriage. We have to engage school well to get from school what education has to offer. “I showed up,” doesn’t get it done.

We engage habits well by (a) remembering why we started the habit in the first place, (b) being mindful and creative in how we implement the habit, and (c) maintaining delight in the outcome the habit was meant to cultivate. This is what prevents guilt from becoming the dominant motive for perpetuating our habit and maintains the positive satisfaction to keep us motivated to continue with each intentional practice.


Where is your marriage? Newly married, in a rut, coming off a major transition, or coming out of a period of crisis or conflict? Regardless of your situation, it’s never too early—or too late, for that matter—to build habits that will strengthen and grow your marriage. 

About the author

Brad Hambrick

Brad Hambrick, ThM, EdD, serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, and has authored several books including Making Sense of Forgiveness, Angry with God, and served as general editor for the Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused curriculum. He is also the author of the minibook Building a Marriage to Last: Five Essential Habits for Couples.

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