Make Habits Your Goal

Goals vs. HabitsSince starting the Monthly Experiments project, I’ve been thinking a lot about habits.

In many ways, our habits define us.

Habits can mean the difference between being rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, happy or unhappy, stressed out or stress-free.

Habits vs. Circumstances

Oddly, I don’t hear many people talking about their habits. I usually hear people talking about their circumstances.

People say “I’m broke and in debt” instead of saying “I have some bad financial habits that I need to change.”

Of course, our habits aren’t the only thing that determine our circumstances, but they do play a greater role than many of us realize.

If there is something you want to change about your life, it doesn’t actually do much good to focus on your circumstances. Instead, you should focus on what habits you can change that would result in better circumstances.

The first step is to examine the habits behind your circumstances.

  • If you’re in debt, you might have some bad spending or budgeting habits.
  • If you get stressed out about your job (like me), you might have some workaholic habits.
  • If you’re out of shape, you might have some poor diet or exercise habits.
You get the idea.

The Problem With Goals

When you want to make a change in your life, you might think about setting a new goal. Goal setting can be a powerful tool, but it’s not always the best solution. In fact, goal setting can be problematic in some ways.

1. Goals Are too Specific

Goal setting works best when you want to achieve something really specific. But what if you want to achieve something that isn’t so specific, like “being healthier” or “improving your finances”? Those aren’t really specific enough to be goals.

If you set a goal of “improving your finances,” how will you know when you’ve met your goal? When you have $10k in the bank? $100k? “Improving your finances” isn’t specific, and it doesn’t do you any good to chase a goal that isn’t specific.

Sometimes it’s too stressful to have a specific goal. I’ve never had a specific goal on how much money I should have in the bank, or how much I should weigh. Those things fluctuate all the time, and I’m totally okay with that. If I felt like I always had to be meeting a specific goal, I’d probably get stressed out about it. Goals can put too much emphasis on a specific outcome.

2. You’re Not Truly Satisfied Until You’ve Met Your Goal

What if your goal takes a long time to reach? Let’s say you want to lose 25 pounds. That’s a specific goal. Maybe you change your eating and exercise habits and after a few months, you’ve lost 20 pounds. That’s a fantastic accomplishment, and you should be happy about the progress you’ve made!

But somehow, because you haven’t quite done all you planned to do, you might not feel like you can really celebrate yet. Even if you’ve changed your habits and are on your way to meeting your goal, you’re not really done until you’re done. This can be really disheartening, especially if you like to set ambitious goals. There’s no point in being hard on yourself, and it’s much better to celebrate your accomplishments, however small.

3. You Can Fail to Meet Your Goal

Failing sucks. I’ve set all sorts of goals for myself that I’ve failed to meet. Each time I fail to meet a goal, I feel at least a little bit disappointed.

If you step back and look at that, it’s really a sad thing that I’ve done to myself. There’s usually no life-or-death consequences when you don’t meet a goal. It’s just an arbitrary objective. If I come close, but don’t quite meet a goal, it feels like a failure, and I don’t appreciate whatever I’ve actually achieved.

That’s why I recently wrote about how to never fail at anything. No one is perfect and no one succeeds all the time. We should be kinder to ourselves and not put so much emphasis on success or failure.

4. Goals Aren’t Permanent

Let’s say you set an ambitious goal, and you meet your goal. Woohoo! Congratulations! Seriously. That’s fantastic…

But now what? You’ve met your goal, so what incentive do you have to keep doing whatever you were doing to meet that goal?

If you’re like a lot of people, you’ll lose a lot of the momentum you built up trying to reach your goal. You might even slip back into old habits and eventually end up back in the same circumstances you started in.

Goals are temporary. Circumstances are temporary too, for better or worse.

This is why so many people go in and out of debt or see their weight go up and down and up and down. One of my friends recently lost 10 pounds, and then celebrated by binging on junk food. His goal only changed things temporarily. He didn’t change his habits.

Habits Are More Powerful Than Goals

Habits aren’t temporary the way goals are. Habits literally change the way our brains are wired.

By definition, habits are effortless. Think about that. If you have a habit, you don’t really have to try to keep the habit going. You just do, habitually. 🙂 There’s a huge power in the effortlessness of habits.

The best part is that you can create a habit around almost anything.

It’s true. No matter what your circumstances, you can create almost any habit you like.

So, if you feel like setting a goal, why not make habits your goal?

That’s what this project is all about.

I used to work way too much. It made me unhappy and stressed and tired. I was a workaholic, and I didn’t want to be a workaholic anymore. So, for my first Monthly Experiment I stopped working late. I didn’t say “my goal is to stop working so much”. I made two simple rules: No working after 5:00 and no working on weekends. That’s it. No goals, just two little rules. Two rules that I hoped would become my habits.

It wasn’t easy at first, but it got easier and easier. Then, it became effortless and my life changed in amazing ways.

Even when the experiment ended at the end of the month, I didn’t go back to being a workaholic. I didn’t have to keep trying to work less. It just became a habit. In fact, it became effortless. It’s now 9 months later, I still don’t work late.

Make Habits Your Goal

If there’s some circumstance in your life that you want to change, instead of setting a goal, try setting a habit. Do it as an experiment.

It’s easier. It’s faster, and the results can last forever.


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  1. Whoa, John, this really hits home. Here’s my professional synopsis, “Hmm, goals kinda suck.” Habits are smaller, easier to swallow, more likely to succeed. That’s where the “monthly” part of your experiments comes in so strong: it’s temporary, give it a try, see where it leads you, see what happens. What do you have to lose? If it becomes a habit (or even improved a bad habit), you’re already on your way.

    It really hit me with the weight topic. I’m as bad as a Hollywood starlet with my weight. I recently lost 27 pounds and was on top of the world because I reached my goal weight. Then summer kicked in and I gained 9 pounds back. I’m not going to be “satisfied” again until I’m back down to where I was. My habits are good (well, good again, in the summer they weren’t), but it’s going to take time and I’m impatient. But I have to stop kicking myself because I’m not at my old goal. Hey, I still lost 19 pounds! I know I won’t be completely satisfied, but I’ll try–and your article here on habits will help. Thanks for writing.

    • Thanks for the awesome comment, Bradley!

      One of the things I hit on in the post was that goals don’t really define us, even if we meet them. When you lost 27 pounds, that was an outcome, but also a temporary one. What really matters is what your habits are now; that’s what defines you, but it’s so easy to get hung up on that goal and how we’ve slipped back from it.

      It doesn’t even really matter whether you lost 27 pounds or gained 9 pounds back or even that your net total loss was 18 pounds. That puts too much emphasis on your (arbitrary) starting point and end point. You could just as easily say “whoa, I’ve put on 15 pounds since college”…. it’s not a helpful thing to focus on. You’ve just invented a way to be tough on yourself.

      By the way, your friends don’t think “Bradley lost 27 pounds, then gained 9 back.” They think “Whoa, Bradley’s gotten some really healthy habits.” That’s what really matters, and that’s what inspired me about your juice fast. Not the outcome, but the habit. Thanks man! 🙂

  2. This is really wonderful. And really rings true for me… especially going back and reading the workaholic posts. I’ve done a great job making fitness and eating healthy a habit, but work? Yikes. There’s a whole different story. I love this way of looking at things– building habits instead of goals. Because no matter what happens, if you have better habits in place, you ‘win’, regardless of outcome. Thank you for this!

  3. A Good Sign: I really wanted to find this post (and read it again). Great, right? But I couldn’t find it on your site. I even knew the title. You have enough content on here now that you need a search function. Your fans will appreciate it!

  4. Excellent post. I had this exact same thought and implemented the concept independently of anyone. Or so I thought. Great minds, John.

    I had (and have) gotten so tired of goal setting b.s. being thrown at me (how to achieve your goals in 10 easy steps!) People read these advise posts and after a short time only see their own ineptness; their own failure. The failure becomes bigger than the goal and consumes it.

    I came up with the idea that I’d feel much better if I created a habit of something rather than tried to achieve something; a life rather than a trophy.

    So I exercise every day. Every day I exercise. Really exercise, as in I pay attention to my body and listen to wtf it is telling me. I’ve become an intuitive exerciser: If I don’t feel well, I skip it. If I need more, I do more. I’ve started creating a writing habit the same way.

    Again, great post. Thanks!

    • avsprasad says:

      There is so much written on the value of goals on the internet that I wondered if I should even bother. However, I feel this article is somewhat misleading – or has the potential to mislead people. It’s a standard part of goal setting that you break it into smaller goals, and celebrate achieving any one of them. So the part about setting your goal at losing 30 pounds but losing only 12 and feeling dissatisfied, is really is not how goal-achieving works.

      If you read the book by Dame Kelly Holmes, two time olympic gold medallist, she talks about how each intermediate goal was thrilling, and always celebrated. Would it not be absurd to imagine, that just because she set her heart on the Olympics,she was not thrilled at winning the Commonwealth Gold, or some such? In my experience too, achieving any intermediate goal brings with it a big thrill and a great dose of motivation to move onwards… after a period of rest, patting oneself on the back, and celebrating.

      “Habits are effortless” – are they? I think once one forms a habit, doing those things is effortless – and that too, especially so if it’s a bad habit! To form the habit itself is not easy! That’s not to say it’s not worth the effort. One of the best ways to form a good habit is to set a goal which requires you to develop the right habits. Set yourself a goal of winning a race, and the habits must follow!

      Indeed, the entire point of setting a tough goal is that it forces you to persist, keep doing what you have to do, and in the process, you develop good habits. If you set a goal of winning an olympic race, you can’t do it without forming a strict daily routine for months or years – eating well, working out, resting…even celebrating! – which soon become habits.

      Without a clear goal, even all the components needed are not clear – for eg, just saying “good financial habits” might mean saving up, investing carefully. But buying a house includes this, and brings much more into focus, Even if you is unable to get exactly what you want, you get something close, and are always pleased with yourself for you know best how hard you tried.

      The metaphor of a goal comes from sports – and it would be good to go back there. A person without a goal might develop good habits – like say dribbling the ball, passing it to team mates, working on fitness and so on. When she will score a goal is another question – but perhaps that’s not the purpose of all the hard work?

      • Mate you are half right! Not all issues and matters in life aim to the same result. Buying a house as a goal makes sense and it ends there as a goal. But having a healthy nutrition plan for the rest of your life to maintain your body in the same weight can’t be a result of a goal…how would you interpret it? I will be in my deathbed and check the goal of maintaining my weight?
        No! you will try to establish habits that will maintain that goal effortlessly (or at least with less effort). Goals aim to change a situation in life for the better usually and once you succeed that goal you set another one.

        Meantime, habits are what maintain the goals you earned. Reach your goal without maintaining the habits and you can go back to square one.
        Let’s say you buy the house but you suck at good economy, maybe you will loose your house. You loose the weight and you go back to bad habits, the weight comes back…and so on!

        And changing your habits will definitely change things. You say that having habits does not mean that you have goal. Well yes is true, but changing your habits mean that things will change and this is a subconscious goal because why would you want to establish new habits if you don’t want to change anything? That change is your goal! It does not have to be as precise as “i will buy a house” but it can be “to improve my abilities in total” so whatever i have been doing i want to do it better!

        So in my opinion you can change habits without setting a clear goal but you cannot set a goal without changing your habits, they go hand in hand. And as a follow up you need to maintain certain habits to maintain certain earned goals.


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