Since 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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