Settings Habits, not Goals

So I’ve been noticing a trend with the way I try to set goals lately. It all started with my obsession with going to the gym. I go to the gym 6 days a week and I realized that, my physical fitness was not due to a singular state, but rather a result of consistent, repetitive action. It’s what we call habits.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. — Aristotle

I knew this was true for a while and I’m sure this is nothing new to most people, but there’s a difference between knowing and applying. I truly experienced the power of habit when I consistently started going to the gym. And now, I’m using this realization to set habits, not goals, for everything in my life. Just recently I successfully added the habit of flossing my teeth every day. And now, I’m in the process of adding reading to my daily habits.

Changing the way you think about goals

So how do you flip your way of thinking so that you set habits not goals? For example, when I realized that I needed to read more often because the pile of “Books I need to read” was only getting bigger, not smaller, I had to make a change. But I could’ve went one of two ways. I could’ve set a goal: Read one book per month, or finish reading books X, Y and Z in the next three months. But instead, I thought about the habit, the repetitive action I wanted to develop. And so I set a habit: read 15 minutes every weekday. Even from reading the two different statements, one sounds so much easier. What would you rather do:

  1. Read 15 minutes every weekday, OR
  2. Read 3 books before the end of June.

What sounds more achievable? Which one sounds like the smaller task.

Triggers

The other thing with setting habits is that because they are daily / weekly actions, you can more easily create triggers that cause you to act a certain way. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I recommend reading this really good post about how to successfully create habits. The post talks about the three key ideas to successfully creating a habit: Trigger, Routine, Reward.

I specifically want to talk about triggers though. It’s been the single most effective tool to help me build a habit. For example, notice that I’m developing the habit of reading 15 minutes every weekday. Why did I choose only weekdays? Because the weekday has a specific consistent trigger that I can depend on: commuting to work. I commute to work every day. It’s essentially another habit. So why not build off this existing habit? As soon as I walk out the door, I start listening to my audiobook. This trigger is consistent and I’m noticing that I’m actually starting to subconsciously start listening to the audiobook as I walk out the door. I’m basically building off of an existing habit. And now you can start to see how you could start to chain several habits together to build many successful habits!

Routine

So you might be wondering why I’m listening to an audiobook instead of reading a book. I noticed quite early in the process of developing this habit that reading my kindle on the bus wasn’t very effective. Many times the bus was too crowded to pull out my kindle so I couldn’t read, essentially breaking the habit. So I had to re-examine the routine that I was trying to build and change it to something that I will more successfully do. Listening to the audiobook was the perfect solution. Not only can I listen on the bus, but I can also listen on the walk to and from the bus. So I’m actually reading closer to 30 mins instead of 15 mins of day.

So this is just an example of how I’m building a habit with a good trigger and a routine that can easily be done. I’m not going into detail about the reward here. For me, the knowledge I’m gaining from reading the book is rewarding enough, but for some habits I may need to introduce an additional reward to keep me going. Again, I highly recommend reading James Clear’s Habit Triggers post to learn more about this.

But the point I really want to make here is that, you should be focused on building habits. Forget about the goal. You actually don’t care about losing 15 pounds. Seriously, think about it. Do you want to lose 15 pounds? Or do you simply want to look and feel better? It’s the latter, so what’s going to get you to looking and feeling better? Losing 15 pounds isn’t going to get you there. Being active and eating healthy every day is going to get you there. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but at least if you start in the right place, which is the habit, not the end goal, you’ll have better chance for success.

Successful people are simply those with successful habits — Brian Tracy
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