What’s more important when you’re trying to make changes to your life, health, and career: Setting goals or building habits?
For most of us, we’ve been taught it’s the former. Goals help us stay focused and keep us moving in the right direction. But while goals are certainly important, more research is showing that it’s our habits that ultimately decide what we do and who we become.
According to researchers from Duke University, up to 40% of our behaviors on any given day are driven by habit. That’s nearly half your day spent on autopilot doing things that either help or hurt your progress.
With so much of your actions controlled by habits, it only makes sense to spend more time and effort guiding your unconscious mind, rather than simply setting goals.
Why what you do is more important than what you want
There’s no denying that having goals is important for anything you want to do in life. Whether that’s losing weight, writing a novel, or starting a business. Goals help you to visualize where you want to go. But unfortunately, they’re not very good at helping you get there.
Goals fail for a number of reasons. More specifically:
- Goals are an end, not a beginning: When you’re setting a goal, you’re really just setting a desired outcome. However, studies have shown that only focusing on the end result is less likely to keep you motivated and focused.
- Goals rely on too many factors outside of our control: Our lives are chaotic and more often than not something or someone will get in the way of achieving your goals. Without solid habits in place, it’s all too easy to lose motivation to keep working towards your goals.
- Goals take more willpower than we have: It takes a tremendous amount of mental energy to work towards your goals every day. However, our brains were designed to be lazy and conserve energy as much as possible, meaning it’s easy for those “just once” exceptions to start creeping into your day.
Simply put, goals just don’t provide you with the tools you need to make real change. On the other hand, habits—small, repeated actions—compound over time, giving you results you never could have imagined by simply setting a goal.
As Atomic Habits author James Clear writes:
Here’s an example: Think back to a year ago. What habit do you wish you’d started then and stuck with? If you had decided to write 500 words a day, you’d now have enough for almost 2 novels. Or imagine if you’d gone to the gym every single day for an entire year? The changes feel astronomical, but the actions it takes to get there aren’t on the same scale.
How new habits form (and stick)
While it’s easy to talk about wanting to build new habits, the reality is that they’re hard to start and even harder to keep. So how do you not only build a new habit but make it stick? The first place to start is understanding how habits form.
By their definition, habits are a small action that is repeated regularly and often automatically. In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explains the 3 steps required in order for a habit to be formed.
- Cue: A trigger that initiates the habit
- Routine: The action you take (your habit)
- Reward: The benefit you get from taking the action
Or, as Duhigg puts it:
This sounds simple enough in theory. But how does it work in the real world? Let’s start with an example of a bad habit most of us have developed: Checking our phone too much.
- Cue: Your phone buzzes, alerting you that some new notification or update is available.
- Routine: You take your phone out of your pocket, swipe open, and search for the source of the notification. Is it an email? Text? Twitter or Instagram?
- Reward: You find out what the notification was, satisfying your curiosity that was triggered when your phone buzzed and potentially giving you a hit of dopamine (a “good feeling” chemical released in our brain) from being tagged on social media or seeing a message from a friend.
Here’s where the power of habits comes into play. Once you go through this loop enough times your brain will automate the process to the point of not even needing a buzz or notification as a cue—you’ll just mindlessly reach for your phone throughout the day.
Now imagine if you replaced that bad habit of checking your phone with a good one? With the right habits, you can make sure you write 500 words every morning or floss your teeth every night, or go to the gym at 5 pm every day. Once you understand the framework that causes a habit to be formed and stick, you can start to use it to build the positive lifestyle you’ve always wanted.
The importance of starting small
Just like the example of building a habit of checking your phone started with a tiny action (phone buzzes, you check), building good work habits needs to follow a similar playbook.
The big changes you want to make in your life (writing more, stopping smoking, getting in shape) are just the culmination of thousands of tiny actions. And the more you can automate the decision to do that action and build a habit, the more likely you are to get there. It’s not easy to form these habits (or break bad ones), but it is doable.
Here are a few tips to help you get started building better habits:
Make the action obvious
The cue that triggers your habit sometimes needs a little help getting started. It’s all well and good to say you’re going to eat healthier, but actually following through is another thing.
First, start by actually scheduling your habit cue. If you want to eat healthier foods throughout the day, set a timer or a reminder for when you’re most likely to want a snack. Rather than let your bad habit continue unconsciously, you can preempt it.
Next, create “if-then” statements for your day. Most habits aren’t time-based but are triggered by another action or observation. For example, “when you sit down at your desk then you start writing” or “when someone sends your a Slack message then you respond right away.” If the action you’re taking in these situations isn’t what you want to do, you can reprogram yourself. Write your new “if-then” statements (such as, “when I get a Slack message then I will set my status to away until I’m ready to respond”) and put them on a sticky note.
Make your routine as easy as possible
We often give up on our goals because we’ve been over-ambitious in what we achieve. And if we’re not careful, that same issue can creep into our habits. To stick with them until they become automatic, our habits need to be small and ridiculously easy to do.
Instead of working out 5 times a week, which involves scheduling, travel, showering, and cleaning your gym clothes, start by doing 5 pushups or squats, or going for a 5-min walk around the block. As behavioral economist BJ Fogg writes:
The power of good habits is in their compounding ability. The more you keep them up, the bigger the return.
Eliminate bad options and make good ones more
Our environment is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to building habits. Until a habit becomes automatic it’s still a choice, which means you have to sort through the other, more immediate options.
Trying to eat healthier, but your morning meetings ran late? Just grab a slice of pizza. Want to work on your novel but you’re already on the couch at home? Just toss the TV on for a bit. You deserve it!
When social psychologist Kathleen Vohs studied the science of self-control, she found that making repeated choices depleted the mental energy of her subjects. And it didn’t even matter if those choices were mundane or relatively pleasant. The easiest way she found to negate this was to simply get rid of the other options.
Don’t want to eat unhealthy food? Don’t keep it in the house so you have to go out and drive to the store. Don’t want to watch TV? Unplug it and put it in the closet. Want to start waking up earlier? Use a simple timer outlet to automatically turn off your internet router at a certain time.
The more you can make your routine not only the best option but the only option, the more likely it will become automatic.
For better or worse, tiny actions can have massive results
There’s nothing wrong with having big, audacious goals. The act of goal setting is a great way to solidify the direction you want to go in and what your priorities are. But it’s not the best way to actually change your life. Instead of going after the big changes, look at the small, tiny, non-obvious actions you take every single day. Do anything for long enough and you’ll see incredible changes to your life.
Want more help building better habits? Check out this guide to building good work habits (and getting rid of bad ones).