Habits vs. Goals

Cultivating good habits is one of the best ways to become a better person. We all set goals for our lives that we want to achieve before a certain date. Someone may aim to become financially independent by the age of 35. Someone else may aim to retire at 55. Someone may want to write a book within the next year. We set goals because a goal represents our desired outcome, and is the first step toward reaching that outcome. However, setting goals may not always be the best idea. Habits are mental models that run in the background and work automatically, which means we don’t have to worry about constant maintenance. Goals, on the other hand, require our continuous attention: what do we have to do to achieve our goal, did we do everything we could yesterday?

Habits and goals are often categorized as similar concepts, but they have a series of distinct differences. The first is that a habit is a process — something that you do on a certain cadence. Goals, on the other hand, is a one-time outcome that you want to achieve: read a book, spend more time with your friends, reach a certain weight before you go on vacation. Goals also require continuous iteration as we get closer to the goal, and we need to continue to ask ourselves “what do I need to do to achieve X by my desired finish date?”. Habits are automatically recurring tasks that make it easy for us to achieve our outcomes without having to worry about frequent evaluation — our brain takes control over our habits. These distinctions are best illustrated with an example. We may want to write a book this year. We could set a goal to write the book by the end of the year. Or we could say that we are going to write 500 words each day — we are going to form a habit.

The Limitations of Goals

When we want to achieve a certain outcome, we usually set a goal for what we want to achieve, and by what date we want to achieve that goal. However, contrary to many articles on the subject, goal-setting is often not the best idea. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that when you have achieved a goal, you have no incentive to keep going. Let’s say your goal is to write a book. After you have written that book, you don’t have anything else to keep you writing each day after you publish the book — you have reached your goal. If you were to set a habit then you would keep going because you would be aiming to write each day, rather than achieve one certain outcome. When people make goals, they often go back into their old routines after they have achieved their goals for this reason — they have no more motivation to keep going.

Goals require continuous maintenance and consume our willpower. Our goals require us to frequently evaluate our progress toward that goal, and each time we need to work toward our goal, we need to consume willpower. For example, going to the gym to reach your weight goal requires you to have self-discipline and get up and go. But if you don’t feel like going to the gym, it is easy for you to skip your exercise. Whereas if you aim to go to the gym each day in the morning, then your mind knows that after you have eaten breakfast and prepared for your day, you have to go to the gym. The impulse is automatic. You don’t need to think “when will I go to the gym” and will not be able to use excuses for not going. Your mind will automatically want you to go. Habits make big outcomes easier to achieve because you don’t have to use up all of your willpower on each goal — a habit tells your mind to keep going something.

Goals are easy to stop working toward. When we set goals, it can be easy for us to get off-track and justify our not working toward our goal with a quick excuse. We can say that “we didn’t feel like going to the gym” when we think about why we didn’t go. Habits dictate that we have to do something at a certain time, which means that we are more likely to turn up. Further, setting goals often rely on things we cannot control. We may aim to save $2,000 for a vacation, but your car may break down which means that you have to tap into your savings account. This may cause us to give up on our goal because all of our work has been consumed by one unexpected expense. If we set a habit, though, then external factors become less of a problem. Our goal could be to save $100 each week. If external factors result in your spending some of your savings, then you know that next week you can keep going. You have a compass to direct you.

Benefits of Habits

Setting habits has a number of benefits. Many successful people have remarked on the fact that success is not a goal, but rather a habit. In essence, successful people have attained their level of success because they have cultivated a set of habits that help guide them through their day. Habits occur automatically, which means that you can spend more time focusing on the things that matter to you. You don’t need to ask “when can I find the time to read today” — your mind will automatically tell you when it is time to read.

Habits make us more likely to continue doing something. For example, let’s say you want to read a book. You decide to read 10 pages each day before you go to bed. However, some days you may become attached to the book and continue to read on. And after you have read a book, you will be more likely to start another one. When I wanted to read more, I aimed to read for 45 minutes before I went to bed. After I finished a book, I wanted to move onto a new one because my mind knew that before I go to bed I should read for 45 minutes. I continued to read even after I read the first book.

Habits are easy for us to cultivate but have a major impact on our life. When we build a habit, our minds adjust toward executing that habit. If our goal is to write 200 words each day after we have eaten breakfast, our mind knows that we should write at that time. And over time, our habits become stronger. If one day we wake up feeling unmotivated, we are more likely to continue because we have a past history of executing that habit and our brain is used to doing so. Small habits like reading a few pages a day are very easy to get started with, and can be worked on over time. In a month, we could aim to read 25 pages a day, because our brain has started to work on developing a reading habit, and is ready to extend our reading time.

Habits benefit from compounding. All of the best things in life come from compounding. Building one habit can yield great results over time. Let’s say that you aim to read 10 pages a day. As you continue to read more, you will acquire more knowledge that will allow you to have more informed discussions and communicate better throughout your day. When you consume more content, you will have more topics to discuss. In a year, you may have read 20 books and have a new repository of knowledge into which you can tap. Bad habits can also compound. If you eat a chocolate bar every day, in a month you will realize serious effects to your weight. Overall, habits become more effective and powerful over time. When you achieve a goal, though, you are back to square-one — your aim is now to set another goal, not continue with a process.

We should move our focus away from setting specific goals for our life and instead favor creating long-term habits. These habits allow us to work toward becoming a better person each day, and do not require a lot of willpower to execute. Habits become automatic, unlike goals. And over time they become more powerful and we develop a stronger attachment to that habit. Many successful people have been known to cultivate strong habits, and attribute much of their success to their habits.

Warren Buffett aims to read for most of his day, which allows him to make more informed investments. Serena Williams was famous for waking up at 6 am to practice tennis. Steven King aims to write 1,000 words each day. When people ask how King can produce so much content, the answer is his strong writing habit. He turns up every day and works toward becoming a better writer. Each day, I try to write 1,000 words for this blog, in an attempt to become a better writer. I don’t have any goals for this blog — I only have the habit of writing a blog post early in the morning.