Habits Over Goals

Photo by Anastasia Petrova on Unsplash

Just as culture eats strategy for breakfast, habits will define your life more than goals ever will.

Everyone has goals, but very few of them ever happen. 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. Most goals are simply well-intentioned wish lists. Even well-laid SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based) goals often crumble beneath the weight of poor habits.

I set goals every year. I have a 30-year plan. Goals are particularly powerful when they’re integrated with habits and values into overarching systems for living. However, if I had to choose one, I’d start with habits. I’ve spent the last several years intentionally investing in my habits like my morning routine. Habits aren’t as attractive as goals, but it’s habits that have transformed my life. Habits have helped unlock my creativity, kept me afloat in difficult periods, and made me a better human being.

Habits over goals, hands down.

All of us have habits. The first things we do in the morning, the way we process our email, how we wind down for the evening. Ample research finds that 40–50% of our days are driven by habit. On repeat. Unconsciously looping through our days. I’d love to think of myself as a fully autonomous human, but we’re mostly creatures of habit. Questions worth asking — Do these habits serve us? Are they taking us where we want to go? Can we leverage habits towards the lives we’re seeking?

Habits are in your hands.

Habits are about the present moment before you. Goals are often in the distant future. Habits are in your grasp to act upon. Goals rely on external circumstances out of your control.

Goals are binary, hit or miss. If you’re familiar with the 4DX (4 Disciples of Execution) framework, goals are like lag measures. It’s too late to change anything when the goal’s deadline arrives. Habits are like lead measures. They are key inputs in your control that can drive you towards where you’re heading. Habits are essential building blocks that you can count on adding value to your life, whether you have goals or not.

Nothing’s stopping you from working towards the life you want today.

Habits are far easier.

Willpower is a very limited resource we all steward each day. Rather than mustering up the energy each day to making choices, well-developed habits tap into your unconscious patterns to build momentum for you drip by drip.

There are so many times I’ve found myself at the gym and couldn’t even recall how I got there. There was no struggle on if I should go, or debates on when I should leave, or decisions on what I should bring. Habits almost effortlessly brought me there.

Habits will serve you over and over without you even realizing it. Habits allow you to redirect your energy into breaking new ground, creativity, and doing the work that matters.

Habits help your mental game

With goals, you live with constant dissatisfaction, guilt, or underachievement until you reach them. With habits, there’s joy and satisfaction in working through habits each day despite what the day throws at you. Goals can be all or nothing, whereas even if you miss a habit, you’re given new and achievable chances each day to win again. Goals are one-off moments that may or may not happen at all. Habits are high-yield investments that will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

Habits are who you become

You are what you repeatedly do. Each time you carry out your habit, you build reinforcing feedback loops for yourself. You may never have been a morning person, but each time you wake up early, you create tangible proof in your subconscious that you are an early riser.

Every Saturday, I do a financial review. I have a spreadsheet of numbers I fill, I track investments, square up bills, and make notes for next week’s review. I know my numbers, and I have my financial act together. It’s part of who I am now. When habits seep into your core you can start living out of the kind of person you now know you are to get you through the humps. Habits shape identity.

Getting started with habits

Habits are about playing the long game. When my wife and I were married we probably had goals of a great marriage. But that’s too vague. We’ve made our weekly date nights an unquestioned ritual for the last 16 years. It’s been priceless and it’s saved us from God knows what.

There’s a ton of great insights you can find online on habits. Here are a few tips that have helped me

  • Start with one small micro habit. Scope it so small that it would be almost ridiculous not to be able to do it. BJ Fogg has a classic example of flossing a single tooth. Keep it small, specific, and repeatable.
  • Select a habit that gives you life. If you hate yoga, please don’t do yoga.
  • Try keystone habits. Some habits are flat out better than others. Habits like exercise generate halo effects into multiple areas of life — besides personal fitness, it ripples into brain health, mood, disease prevention, energy, longevity, to name a few.
  • Once you’ve decided on a habit, start within the next 24 hours.
  • Stick to it for 30 days. Find a small way to acknowledge or celebrate it each time. Track it with paper, a calendar, any system that works for you. I’ve been using the Habitify app.
  • Set a date to assess how it’s going and give yourself plenty of grace to adjust or experiment with different habits as you discover what works for you.
  • Don’t worry about perfecting or optimizing habits. Just get started. Have fun with it and trust that you’re becoming a better version of you each day.

If you want to get more into habits, Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit, dives deep into the mechanics of the cue-routine-reward habit loop and James Clear’s Atomic Habit is quite accessible and comprehensive. Personally, I’ve been reading Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits for the past decade as a student of habits.

Habits compound.

A habit is like breathing — it can be completely involuntary, but you can also mindfully direct it. You get to decide what makes it into your daily rhythm. Little by little tiny actions lead to massive results. You already have habits, make sure they serve you.

If you shift your life by even a single degree, stretched throughout a lifetime, you’ll end up in a drastically different place. Goals are fixated on accomplishments. Habits are about who you become in the process.

Habits over time shape destiny.

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