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Make habits, not goals

First we make our habits, and then they make us

John Dryden, poet and literary critic

Are you perhaps planning to make a new year’s resolution to run a marathon? Or are you committing to a new sales quota at work for the year 2024? If you haven’t achieved the goal by July 2024, will you be unhappy? Will you give yourself some slack and simply postpone the goal? And if you exceed it, will you immediately make a new goal? Would you feel happy about it?

Most people are really bad at setting and reaching goals. First of all, people seldom reach their goals. In environments where people consistently achieve their goals, it is usually because the goal was set too low to begin with. In rare cases where goals are set high and then met, or even far exceeded, the fact that the goal existed or the level of the goal doesn’t seem to make any difference.

As I see it, thinking about goals isn’t healthy. I find it a much better approach to think about habits. Habits focus on the immediate action instead of a long-term outcome. People tend to be much more efficient and also happier after adopting habits. For example, if you want to run a marathon, start by adopting a habit of running 10 km twice a week instead of the sporadic running you would do otherwise. If you work in sales – or if you manage a team of sellers – don’t think about the annual sales quota but instead focus on adopting a habit of reaching out to, for example, 10 new customers daily.

Habits are better than goals because:

  • Habits are adopted immediately. You know in a matter of days if you are keeping the habit or not, while goals make it too easy to postpone doing the work.
  • Habits are easier to plan. Selecting a goal that is concrete and measurable is hard. Even if a good metric exists, it is hard to choose a level low enough to be reachable and thus motivating to work towards, yet high enough to be admirable and to fuel people to make extra effort. For a habit, you pick something concrete, and just do it consistently.
  • Habits are easy to track and measure. It is immediately evident if somebody is not sticking to a habit. There is no denial, just effort to get back into the habit. Goals are vague, and not meeting a goal is evident only when it is too late to do anything about it.
  • Habits can be sustained for years and years. Goals often compel acts of heroism, which are not sustainable in the long run. As Bruce Lee once said, “long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity.”
  • Habits make people happier. If you forget or are unable to do something, just get back into the habit the following day. If you fail to meet a goal, you just feel miserable and have no immediate way to rectify the failure.

First step: Adopt a new microhabit

The smaller the step is, the easier it is to take. Microhabits are a concept of improving something, one tiny step at a time.

An example of a microhabit could be the act of drinking a glass of water every morning. This is something I have been doing myself for almost 3 years now: Every morning, I go straight out of bed to the kitchen and drink a glass of water. Only after that do I allow myself to brush my teeth and do other things that are part of the usual morning routine.

This is a great microhabit, as after a full night’s sleep, one is bound to have a dry mouth and a little bit of dehydration, for which water is the best cure.

Starting the day with a glass of water gives a nice head start into a larger habit of drinking water frequently. People typically don’t drink enough plain water, even though it is cheap (practically free), and ensuring good water balance takes away all symptoms of dehydration, such as headache and tiredness. For some reason, modern humans tend to prefer other drinks, such as beer or coffee, which can actually make dehydration worse. Water is essential for all life on earth, and we need to stress the importance of it. Humans can go without food and fast for 2–3 weeks, but without water, we perish in only 3–5 days. Water has zero calories, and the sensation of fullness from drinking benefits weight control.

Second step: Don’t give up, stick to the habit until it becomes effortless

If you lapse from a habit one day, don’t worry, just get back into the habit the next day. Think of ways to remind yourself of and strengthen the habit. The above example of drinking a glass of water every morning can be strengthened by keeping a water purifier filled with water on the kitchen countertop. Every time you walk past the kitchen, it will remind you of the habit. This setup also minimizes the effort required to perform the microhabit, as you always have the water easily at hand. Personally, I also think water at room temperature feels healthier than drinking ice cold water directly from the tap.

The fact that you decided to do this, and you keep doing it after weeks and months will help strengthen your willpower. Studies on neuroplasticity show that it will physically help to rewire the circuits in your brain into making a decision, and sticking to it. Once you master this one microhabit, you’ll find it easier to adopt other habits that take more effort to get into.

As explained in a review article in Frontiers in Neuroscience of 63 meta-analyses, this occurs because of an increased ability to exert effortful control in our brains. Simply put, as with all biological organisms, our brain has evolved to save energy and only think in situations where that extra energy consumption is necessary. Most of the time, our brains run on autopilot, which means not only that the existing pathways keep getting reinforced, but also that the pathways of the pathway control system itself stay weak, as new pathways don’t need to be formed. Hence, when we take on a new habit and exert the mental effort to repeat the routine with conscious intent over and over, it leads to creation and reinforcement of pathways related to the habit. The day a habit has grown strong enough to become part of our brain’s autopilot program, the system that decides what goes into the autopilot and what goes out is also at its strongest.

Third step: Increase the number of microhabits

After successfully adopting your first intentional microhabit, the next step could be to either expand the first microhabit to make it more complicated, or to adopt a second microhabit.

  1. An example of expanding the first one could be taking a multivitamin pill with the water, or adding salt to the water to follow the Huberman routine.
  2. An example of an easy second microhabit would be to drink a cup of warm water every evening before going to bed. Since it is just water, you can drink it even after brushing your teeth. It feels somewhat filling, and helps me avoid drinking or snacking on anything else, which is likely unhealthy. The warmness of the water feels good, and I think it is plausible that it has similar health benefits to drinking tea, just without any flavor or sweeteners.

Get into a habit now

Get into good habits. Keep them for the rest of your life. Change them only if you find a new, better habit to replace the old. If you slip from your habit one day, forgive yourself, and get back into the habit the next day. By keeping the good habits, you will eventually reach your goal – and eventually also far exceed the goal. Make habits, not goals.

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