Goals vs. Habits

Popular belief tells us that in order to achieve something, to improve your life or to do anything of substance at all, really, one must set goals. People like this idea, because goals are high-sounding, exciting, give a temporary ego-boost and the impression of something grandiose. Unfortunately, this is not how it works. In order to achieve anything long-term, to improve your life/health, to do any real progress you must have appropriate habits instead. Habits differ from goals in several key aspects: goals are finite, confining, limiting, external, narcissistic, exhausting and prone to failure, while habits are the opposite of all that. Below I will explain why that is so.

Goals always require lots of willpower, and willpower is a limited resource. That is why most of the time for majority of people pursuing their goals is exciting in the very beginning, but it gets harder and harder very soon. That’s why they “cheat” on their goals and usually never reach them. Or if they reach them, they can’t hold on to them and almost immediately go back to square one — this is exactly what happens with all the New Year’s resolutions to start working out and losing weight and getting in shape and so on. That’s because people who do such resolutions are usually people who don’t have healthy habits (otherwise they wouldn’t need such resolutions). They start imagining themselves in shape, all sexy and confident, and they get very excited about their new goal, they truly believe they will go through with it, they buy gym subscription, they start working out frantically 5 times per week, and 3 weeks later they quit. That happens because it’s very hard to do a 180 degree turn in your regular routine that you are used to. Even when such people manage to get in better shape, they may be very proud and happy at first, but soon they go back to where they started, because all goals are finite. And finite is temporary, something that you achieve once, put a check mark on it, forget and go on with your life as usual, returning to “normal”.

Habits, on the other hand, don’t sound nearly as cool, they are not so exciting, and you can’t brag on Facebook about them, but they are many times more effective than goals. They don’t have any particular “deadline”, there’s no clear “finish line”. They are slow to form, but once formed they are likely to last for most of your life without requiring serious efforts in willpower. It’s unlikely you would just quit on your habits. Habits are stable, reliable and simply become a part of your routine, to the point that you don’t even think about it when you do it. It becomes a part of you, something that is internal, as opposed to goals that are always external and alienated from the “self”.

Goals are limiting. That is, when you set a goal, all you see is that goal. You lose your peripheral vision, you tend to ignore other possibilities and opportunities. At least that’s what most people mean by “really focusing on your goals“. You see only one path before you, you focus on the end of it there in the distance where this figurative pot of gold (that is your goal) awaits. And you have little to no freedom, you are inflexible. Goals also represent a very naive belief that you know what you want in life. Naive, because very few people actually do know. The rest of us would probably be much luckier and happier if we’d just say “I will do my best and see where this thing called life takes me“. But once you set a goal, you don’t need to do your best. Instead, you need to do exactly what needs to be done to reach that goal, and that’s extremely limiting.
You need to realize that you can feel very comfortable just simply “walking the path” not knowing where it leads. That’s what I’ve been doing more or less all my life. To some it may seem I am a poor guy who is lost, unfocused and doesn’t know what he wants from life, but I can tell you that my attitude of “it’s all about the walk and not about the destination” gives you great freedom, calmness, and may lead to surprising places you didn’t dare to dream of reaching.
Goals are a way of externalizing your desires. Placing that “pot of gold” somewhere far away from you and putting the world in between, so that you have to struggle to reach it. It’s turning a journey into a fight.

You can’t fail habits. If a person sets a goal of doing something XX times per week, or achieving certain result in YY days, and then he skips one time/does not reach a result in time, he immediately feels as if he failed his goal, gets demotivated and feels down. It becomes even harder to continue because of this ruined motivation and lowered self-esteem. It’s an uphill battle. But if instead of setting goals you simply keep consistently developing your habits, then there’s no such risk: you slowly but surely inch forwards and there are no sudden set-backs. You take all the time you need, you don’t ruin your motivation by “failing” some irrelevant arbitrary goal, because what you are doing is shaping your entire behavior and attitude for life (or bigger part of it). Sure, results arrive much later and there are no exciting “I just reached my goal!” moments, but those are only required if you want to flatter yourself and caress your ego (or put selfies with P. Coelho quotes on Instagram).

You can build goals on top of habits. I know that many famous people in many motivational speeches talk about the importance of goals and how you absolutely need goals to become as famous, successful and nipple-twisting awesome as they are. I have absolutely no objections to that. Yes, certain people need goals to achieve certain things, but what they don’t tell you is that any goal can only be built on top of a stable foundation of right set of habits. If you don’t have proper day-to-day habits to support your goals, you’ll never reach them. And if you do have right habits, then often you don’t even need goals. One reason they don’t tell you that could be because those habits are so ingrained and so automatic in them that they themselves no longer notice them or just take it for granted. Other reason could be that, as I’ve written here before, habits are not that exciting. In fact, they are rather boring. And you can’t afford the risk of boring people during your amazing and exciting motivational speech. It’s much easier to get people all thrilled and emotional and motivated and hysterical talking about bombastic goals.
But the mundane truth is that having right habits is many times more important and majority of people would be much better of focusing on slow and boring process of habit forming rather than getting psyched about ever so exciting (but limited and finite) goals.
Sometimes good habits come naturally to people, without any conscious plan, they’re just a part of the personality. If such people use right goals to combine the power of habit with the focus of right goal (the one you know you want), they become hugely successful. Unfortunately, that’s only a tiny minority of cases… Most of the time goal-setting is promoted by kinds of people to whom I wrote this post.