Why Developing Good Habits Is More Effective Than Setting Goals

Goal-setting can be hit-and-miss for individuals and organizations. Focusing on the science of habit formation rather than goal setting, however, can improve goal attainment.

We’ve all set personal or work goals for ourselves. If you’re like most people, you struggle to achieve them. And if you don’t achieve your goals, you can feel like you’ve failed. Yet achieving or not achieving those goals often has nothing to do with willpower, motivation or talent. It has a lot to do with the system you’ve chosen – goals – rather than getting rid of bad habits and/or establishing new, good habits.

A habit is a behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. It is a fixed way of thinking or feeling acquired through previous experience repeated over an extended time period.

A goal, on the other hand, is a desired result or outcome that a person envisions, plans and commits to achieve. Many people endeavour to attain a goal within a finite time by setting deadlines.

The downside of relying on goals

One of the problems with focusing only on goals is that people rely too much on self-discipline but don’t form helpful habits. Here are three problems associated with goals:

  • Goals are temporary and don’t last. Assume you’ve set an ambitious goal, and you meet the goal. You’ll likely feel good for a while, but then you lose motivation and slip back into old bad habits.
  • You feel you’re not successful or happy until you reach your goal. For example, you’ve set a goal to eat healthier or make more sales. While you may have made some progress, you didn’t reach your goal. Rather than feel good about it, you might feel deflated and a failure.
  • Goals rely on willpower and self-discipline. Charles Duhigg wrote in “The Power of Habit” that “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.” Committing yourself to a goal requires constant diligence and willpower. But that may be hard to sustain when other demands in our lives drain our energy, and the goal is put on the back burner or has to compete with other demands.

What are the advantages of developing good habits instead?

  • Good habits allow you to exceed a goal. If you’ve set a goal to lose 20 pounds or increase your sales by 20 percent, your measurement of success is binary. Either you did or you didn’t reach the goal. In contrast, if you’ve developed the habit of exercising 30 minutes per day or making 10 sales calls per day, the likelihood is that you will exceed your goal because you’ve developed a daily habit you can sustain.
  • Habits are often easier to accomplish than goals. Because habits are habitual repetitive behaviors usually on a daily basis, they are easier to sustain, which, in turn, provides a constant source of positive motivation.
  • Habits are for life. According to Duhigg’s research, habits control 40 percent of our conscious activities. These often minuscule actions add up and make us who we are. Once a habit becomes ingrained, it can last a lifetime.
  • Small habits are manageable. Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg recommends “tiny habits” that are repeated every day. Once these become automatic, you can add more complex or demanding habits.

How long does it take to develop a habit?

Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a prominent plastic surgeon in the 1950’s, noticed it a patient about 21 days to get used to seeing his or her new face. Maltz reflected on his own behaviors and concluded it also took about 21 days to form a new habit.

Since Maltz, it has been conventional wisdom that it takes 21 days to build a habit. However, there’’ no conclusive research evidence. Other research proposed a different period of time. Researchers Phillippa Lally and colleagues at the University College of London published a study which concluded the median time for 95 percent of their study’s participants to form new habits was 66 days, with a range from 18 to 254 days. It’s reasonable to conclude that everyone takes a different amount of time to form a habit.

How habits are formed

Habits are formed by repetitive actions, thoughts or feelings that are reinforced over time until they become subconscious, or automatic. Imagine a habit loop, which consists of a cue or trigger, a routine or system and a reward.

The cue is the object that causes the habit to form; it’s the trigger of the habitual behavior. This could be anything that one’s mind associates with that habit, and one will automatically let a habit come to the surface. The routine or system is the behavioral habit that one exhibits, and the reward, a positive feeling or reinforcement, is what continues the “habit loop.”

An example of a bad habit is eating snack food every time a sports game is over on TV. The loop is the TV program ending or going to commercial (cue or trigger). You then go to the fridge (routine or system) and eat a snack (reward). In order to change this bad habit, you must recognize the cue, change the routine and then substitute a better reward.

Why it’s so difficult to eliminate bad habits

Everyone has some bad habits – you’re not alone. Bad habits have been hard-wired because they have been repeated over a long time. These kinds of habits are automatic and don’t require you to think about them.

Researchers argue that old bad habits never entirely disappear from your brain, they just become masked or replaced by new habits. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology reveals that approximately 54 percent of people who pledge to break a bad habit fail to stick with the transformation beyond six months, and the average person makes the same resolution 10 times with no success.

Strategies to eliminate bad habits

  1. Learn the habit loop system of cue (trigger)-routine (system)-reward. Identify the bad habit, and draw the loop so you understand how it works.
  2. Track your bad habits. Record each time you repeat the bad habit. This will raise your awareness and can help you cut down on the bad habit.
  3. Set small goals. Big, long-term goals take time and can be demotivating until they are reached.  Begin with small, reasonable goals.
  4. Replace your bad habit with a good habit. For example, if you bite your fingernails, having a pack of gum with you so that every time you think about biting your nails, you can pop a piece in your mouth. If you crack your knuckles chronically, twiddle your thumbs or clasp your hands until the urge goes away.
  5. Celebrate small wins and successful milestones. It’s important to celebrate your progress between milestones in small steps. It’s important that you reward yourself each time you practice your new habit. Engaging in positive self-talk after each exercise activity or crossing off items on your to-do list are examples. Remember, little successes build up to big ones, as Stanford researcher B.J. Fogg has found.
  6.  Forgive yourself if you revert back to old habits or fail to master a new habit. You’re going to screw up. That’s okay. In Richard Wiseman’s study of people who achieved their goals, he realized one should expect to revert to old habits from time to time. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion (being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure) is associated with more motivation and better self-control. Remember, you are not perfect, and you don’t need to be.

Establishing and maintaining good habits and eliminating bad ones is a more effective way to achieve what you want rather than the narrower and unpredictable focus on goals. You can think of goals being achieved within your habit system, and there’s no better time to start than right now!



This article was written by Ray Williams, Master Certified Coach and widely regarded as one of Canada’s top executive coaches. He is President of Ray Williams Associates, a company with offices in Vancouver that provides executive mentoring, coaching and leadership training services.

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