Habits Are Better Than Goals

In recent months I’ve noticed a trend among a few bloggers I read. Perhaps because it’s early in the year, when people traditionally make plans and goals, or because minimalism and simplicity are so huge right now. Whatever the reason, the idea is this:

Stop setting goals.

Yeah, you heard me.

It sounds pretty radical, because nearly every single book ever written on the topic of success, whether in finances, health or any other aspect of life, recommends setting goals.
The advice is typically something like this: set reasonable goals (attainable with a little stretching, but not so difficult that the discouragement from the inevitable failure cause you to quit), make sure they’re measurable and specific, so you know when you get there, and finally goals should be action oriented. Goals can be short term, long term, and inbetween. And they’re supposed to be written down.

So why would someone recommend not setting goals? I don’t remember the specific reason given by the writers I alluded to earlier, but generally speaking the idea is that goal setting keeps your head in the future instead of enjoying the present moment. As I read these blog posts I kept thinking one thing:

Funny, goals rarely worked for me either.

The only goal I’ve ever set that I can remember hitting was the goal I had, several years ago, of getting out of debt. Other than that, most goals I’ve set for myself haven’t worked. It’s not that I’ve never been successful at anything or haven’t gotten what I wanted out of life. I have, many times.

But I realize that the things that I’ve succeeded at that are important to me weren’t goals. I didn’t write them down or find an accountability partner or any of that. They were intentions. And I think there’s an important difference.

The word goal has become so common that it’s probably almost useless. Impotent really. Setting an intention feels more powerful. Goals are something you “try”.

I’ve also come to another important realization, namely:

Habits are better than goals.

Looking back, I realize that the intentions I had that came to fruition became habits. That’s why they worked so well. When I set the intention to lose weight after my last baby, I had no specific number of pounds in mind (I did want to fit into my old clothing though). But I began the habit of walking daily.

Lately when I decide I want something for my life, I ask myself: What would I be doing every day if I had that?

In other words, what habits would I have that would bring about that result naturally, without my setting a goal?

It’s not that I won’t ever set goals again, or write things down, or whatever. It’s just that in my experience, habits and routines have a more powerful impact on my happiness.

I don’t have hard data on this, but it seems to me that habits are more powerful than goal setting. I would bet that people who bounce checks don’t have the habit of balancing their checkbook (a good habit). I would also guess that people who have debt don’t have the habit of automatically transferring money over to their savings account every month (another good habit). And people who have the habit of eating in front of the TV weigh more than those who don’t (bad habit!).

One problem I have with goals is that they are so discouraging when I meet with failure. And they make me feel as if I don’t have permission to be happy until the goal is met.

I mentioned that most goals I’ve set flat out failed, even when I did the work required to meet the goal. Another problem is that some of the goals I set require other people to take some action – something I can’t control. For example, as a blogger, my income is in part dependent on other people doing stuff – visiting my site, clicking on Google ads, buying through affiliate links, etc. It’s not just a numbers game. Or, maybe I’m in the wrong line of work! ;-)

Perhaps goals work better for some people (and if this is true, why would this be?). My husband set a goal to earn a lot more money in February (commonly a slow month for him) than he is accustomed to. And he did it! It wasn’t a small uptick either, it was significant.

I read a book recently in an effort to learn more about habits. It’s called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. While the book wasn’t as helpful as I thought it would be as far as teaching me how to harness the power of habits, it was an interesting read.

One of the points I bookmarked was this: some habits are “keystone” habits. Meaning that these habits lead to improved results in other, seemingly unrelated areas of life. Keystone habits create spillover. They’re key actions that start a chain reaction.

One of these is as simple as making your bed in the morning. It takes all of 60 seconds, tops. But it somehow also makes you more productive, enjoy a greater sense of well being, and stick to your budget. (References are in the book, don’t take my word for it!)

Another biggie is exercise. Studies have shown that when people add exercise to their routine, other patterns start to show up. They also eat better, get more done, spend less on credit, and show more patience.

Obviously, it’s worthwhile to establish good habits and routines.

What do you think about habits, goals and routines? Do you set goals, and do they work for you? What are some of your personal “keystone” habits?

(I think one of mine is getting up before my kids.)


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2 Responses to Habits Are Better Than Goals

  1. This is great. I don’t make long lists either to do. In fact I get more done not making lists. I also just do things as I see them. Sure I look ADHD but the problem is that I will forget it if I don’t do just when I think of it.

    Also lists make me feel bad if I don’t get them done. And while journaling is good to release the inner yankings, if I write something down it will disappear from my radar.

    Thanks for this!

  2. diana says:

    Carrie, this really got my attention and would like to explore Ir more with you.
    I “stumbled” over your blog??? While looking for “deeper – personal” meaings of “keystone”.
    I wrote down all I could think of to find you, and your ? Article?. I know NOTHING about blogging etc, or andthing about Natural moms ……..etc., not social network savy etc. Afraid to close this fear of not brief able to find it again. Guess it would not be wise to put my email address here. How can you find me???? Maybe Facebook – I don’t use it often, if you look to “friend” me, Diana Sanzone (I’m from Maine) I think I will get an email notification.
    I hope you get this – if it get buryed in March I’m problebly out of luck – here goes….

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