We all want to achieve our goals in 2019, yet there’s something much more important in developing an approach to achieving success in life.
When I started my first business as a PhD dropout, I thought the most important thing to do was set big and audacious goals. I even wrote an article in Forbes about why you need to think big to change the world.
Setting big goals worked. For a while. But over time, I became exhausted. I was never able to live up to my expectations. My audacious goals soon became my Achilles heel as they continued to remind me how far I was from being the success I wanted to be.
My goals quickly turned me from a visionary into an abject and self-defeated failure.
Then I discovered the crucial difference between goals and habits, and have completely redesigned how I aim to achieve success in life.
Forget inspiration, focus on persistence
We all have goals, big or small, that we want to achieve in our lifetime. Sometimes we set short term goals, like slimming down to a certain weight, or finishing an article we started writing. Other times we have big and audacious goals, as Peter Diamandis from Singularity implores you to set. Think of Elon Musk’s goal of creating a space colony on Mars. In my case, I created the site you’re reading this article on with the mission of organizing the world’s collective intelligence.
When we’re trying to create something, setting a goal is the most important first step. It helps you to visualize what you’re trying to create and then create a plan for how you’re going to get there.
Goals are the first step, but you won’t get very far unless you create habits in your life that support the achievement of your goals.
As written in Farnam Street, “habits are processes operating in the background that power our lives. Good habits help us reach our goals. Bad ones hinder us. Either way, habits powerfully influence our automatic behavior.”
The difference between habits and goals isn’t academic. They both require completely different kinds of focus:
- If you set the goal of slimming down to a certain weight, you’ll want to create the habits of eating healthy food for each meal and exercising at regular times during the week.
- You want to run a marathon. You’ll want the habit of running every day.
- You’re single and have the goal of being in a long term relationship. You could plan to swipe right 10 times every day on Tinder, or you could cultivate the habit of spending more time getting to know new (or existing) people in your life.
- You want to create a digital media platform with millions of monthly readers (a goal). Every single day, over a morning coffee, write articles and share them with your user base (habits).
The problem with setting goals
While setting goals are an important first step, many people spend too long focusing on their goals without designing their lives to achieve success.
Let me explain.
When I first started Ideapod, I began by telling people about my audacious goal of organizing the world’s collective intelligence. The goal was big enough that it regularly inspired people, and I was confident enough that many people thought I’d be able to achieve it. I was coming out of a PhD in international politics, so talking about big ideas was relatively simple for me.
It became addictive to speak about this big goal and receive positive. Being seen by others as a “visionary” became a part of my identity. But it distracted me from doing the actual gritty work that’s required in building up a technology platform.
I confused myself and believed that the positive feedback I was receiving was a sign of achieving my goal without actually doing enough to turn my vision into a reality.
This leads me to the first problem with setting goals:
1) Goals can make us complacent and reckless
Studies have shown that telling people about your goals can lead to a false sense of achievement, which in turn often results in dangerous or unethical behavior.
I’ve seen this first hand in business, when the gap between a vision and the reality on the ground becomes so pronounced that people feel compelled to distort the truth.
Your audacious goal may motivate you to get started, but it needs to quickly give way to a different mindset that focuses more on what’s happening in the present.
2) Goals rely on willpower and self-discipline
I wrote about this in an article titled “Willpower doesn’t help you to achieve anything” and concluded:
“When you force yourself to think positively, you’re fighting against yourself. Instead, it’s much better to direct your ability to make decisions towards consciously designing your life. Instead of focusing on yourself, relying on willpower, focus on your environment. Your environment, and the people who are in it, is the clearest indicator of the life you’ll live.”
Perhaps Charles Duhigg says it better in The Power of Habit:
“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder. So there’s less power left over for other things.”
3) Goals have an endpoint
In 2012 I was living in Belgium and decided to register for the Brussels marathon which was three months later. It would be my first marathon and I set the goal of completing it in under 4 hours.
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My goal motivated me and I ended up running 5 times per week over 10 km, and in the final month increased a few of these runs to 20-30 km.
On the day, I was probably a little underdone but my willpower got me to the finishing line in 3 hrs 41 mins. Reaching the finishing line is one of my proudest moments.
The problem is that once the goal was achieved, my running stopped. I was in fantastic shape, and I’ve only run sporadically since then.
If I had have shifted my focus to the habits required to be a marathon runner, rather than continually visualizing the achievement of my goal, I’d probably have run many marathons since then and be in much better shape than I am now.
4) Goals rely on factors that are beyond your control
It’s unfortunately unavoidable that things beyond your control may prevent you from achieving your goals.
A financial crisis may wipe out your investments, sabotaging a financial goal. An injury may stop you from running that marathon. A technological development may render obsolete a product you’re building, destroying your goal for your business.
It’s a reality that there are many factors in life beyond your control that may get in the way of you achieving your goals.
The power of habits
“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit is persistence in practice.” – Octavia Butler
Once you’ve cultivated habits, they operate unconsciously. You don’t need to decide to do anything. Everything happens automatically.
This is powerful. When you don’t have to think so much, you’re able to just get things done and operate more instinctively. You’ll be in doing mode as opposed to thinking mode.
To achieve the power of habits in your life, they need to be cultivated carefully to ensure you’re reaching your goal in incremental steps. The benefits of adopting a systematic approach to designing your habits include the following.
1) Habits are easier to achieve
As Duhigg wrote:
“Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”
After about 30 days of practice, our brains change to make them easier to perform. They become unconscious and automatic, which makes them much easier to achieve.
2) Habits stick with you for life
All of your life is basically a mass of practical, emotional and intellectual habits that have been acquired from your life experience. They become ingrained, and the habits you cultivate now will be with you for the rest of your life.
Goals, on the other hand, seem harder to achieve but are gone once you’ve either achieved them or changed your goals. At this point you’ll be embarking on a new set of goals.
Habits, on the other hand, transcend the particular goals you’re working on. Developing a rigorous work ethic, for example, will translate to whatever work project you’ve got. Developing habits around monogamous commitment in relationships (if that’s what you want) will serve you well not just in your current relationship but also in subsequent relationships (if that comes about).
3) Habits mean you can overshoot your goals
If you’re a novelist and you set a goal of writing a book, you’ll have such an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment when you finish that things may stop at that point.
If you cultivate the habit of writing 1000 words every day, on the other hand, you’ll be producing a new novel every 3-6 months.
4) Habits can be as small as you need to be
As Farnam Street says: “A common piece of advice for those seeking to build a habit is to start small. Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg recommends ‘tiny habits,’ such as flossing one tooth. Once these become ingrained, the degree of complexity can be increased. If you want to read more, you can start with 25 pages a day. After this becomes part of your routine, you can increase the page count to reach your goal.”
Why a focus on routines and process works best
This quote (attributed to Goethe) is one of my favorite:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
I used to read this quote as recommending me to think big, as though the strength of my goals will bring the right people and circumstances in front of me.
Now, I see it differently. Committing to something is about performing the tasks that are necessary, every single day.
Warren Buffett, for example, reads every single day to build the knowledge he needs to make good investment decisions. Stephen King writes 1000 words a day, every day of the year (he describes it as a “a sort of creative sleep”).
Habits are automatic, and paying conscious attention to cultivating habits that help you achieve goals will literally change your brain (and your life).
When you think of the changes you want to make in your life, spend as much (if not more) time thinking of the positive habits that result in continued progress in achieving what you want, as opposed to a specific goal. This is what has completely transformed my life, and I’m sure it will be the same for you.