Focus on Creating Habits rather than Setting Goals

Creating Habits rather than Setting Goals


It’s that time of the year again. It’s that time when we stop – sometimes not long enough – to think about the ways we want this new year to look different from the last one. We usually think about setting goals that we want to achieve by December 31, 2022. I want to set you thinking in a different direction. I want to suggest that creating habits is much more effective and productive than setting goals.

There is plenty of anecdotal and researched evidence that tells us that most people abandon the goals they set within a very short time of making them. Life gets in the way and we revert back to the people we were last year, doing things the way we did them then. Why does this happen?

If we keep doing what we are doing,
we will keep getting what we are getting.

A Common Goal for Leaders – You have to be Fit to have a High Performance Year

It’s at the beginning of a new year that you as leaders focus in on the fact that if you are going to have a high performance year you need to be fit, physically and psychologically. You know that exercise will play a big part in achieving both of those. Your goal then is to exercise every day. You set a goal to go to the gym 5 times a week, or ride your bike 20 kms a day, or go for a run along the river, whatever fits best for you.

It all begins to fall apart if you go no further than that. You need to be much more specific. When will you exercise? How will it fit around family and work responsibilities? Will it be a non-negotiable?

Let’s say you answer all those questions and make your goal more specific. You decide to get up at 5.30 every morning and exercise. You think about all the predictable things that may get in the way of that – getting kids off to school, having clothes ready, wet weather, a sleepless night. You make decisions about the management of those issues so as to eliminate any reason that would prevent you achieving that.

You are highly motivated and start off with a very positive mindset. You work on your goal in a committed way for 4 weeks. You begin to believe it is all possible.

What Happens When the Unpredictable Rears its Head?

But suddenly one day, out of left field, comes the obstacles. The unpredictable rears its head. Your organisation says you are to work from home. The school wants the kids to stay at home and prepares home schooling material. You are trying to work from home and home school. In fact both your partner and yourself are. The age care facility where your father is calls wanting you to come in and talk about his health issues as a matter of urgency. You go out to get in the car and it won’t start. Roadside assist can’t come for an hour and a half. In the meantime, your CEO calls saying that one of your key clients has been trying to contact you and could you call them immediately as they appear to be in a heightened state of concern about the report you sent last week. You are out of bread and milk and need to get to the supermarket, especially with the kids being home all day eating you out of house and home. Sound too over the top? It isn’t. This is exactly the situation one of my mentees put to me mid last year by way of asking for help in better managing the unpredictability of his life. And Omicron hadn’t even reared its head at that stage!

Of course, when all this happens, things coming out of left field, or some other version of it, your goal goes out the window. You can see no way of maintaining your commitment to it for the foreseeable future. You are hopeful that given a couple of weeks you will get back to it. What happens, however, is that the loss of momentum sees you rationally confirming to yourself that you can’t do it. In the big picture of your life the possibility of achieving this goal overwhelms you.

Don’t Give Up. This is the ‘new normal’. Recalibrate.

  • You haven’t given up the desire to be a high performance leader this year.
  • You haven’t given up the belief that to do that you need to be physically and psychologically fit.
  • You haven’t given up the belief that exercise is a good way to achieve both of those.

What you have given up on is the “HOW” you set for yourself. But what if there is another “HOW” that makes it all possible and doesn’t overwhelm you? 

What if instead of thinking about getting fit through exercise as a goal, you think about establishing a habit of doing things that make and keep you fit?

It’s a change in mindset.

What’s the Difference between Creating Habits and Setting Goals?

James Clear, in his book “Atomic Habits – An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones”, says that “a habit is a routine or behaviour that is performed regularly – and, in most cases, automatically.” (If you haven’t read his book, it is a must read!) Check out what he is saying – make something a routine, do it regularly, until it becomes automatic, done without thinking.

Stay with your goal to get up at 5.30 in the morning and exercise, but accept that, at least for the time being, you may only be able to do it once a week on the week-end. Make a habit of doing it once a week.

Now start thinking about creating habits that sustain your fitness when life gets in the way.

When you get out of bed, have a set of stretching exercises you do automatically, for example.

Buy a set of dumbbells and put under your desk at work and use them 3 times a day for 2 minutes at a time.

Park the car a couple of blocks from the office and walk to work from there.

And there are so many more activities like this that can become habits. In fact, James Clear implies that you take one of these very small things at a time and do it over and over again until it becomes automatic and therefore a habit. He says that if you stick with it for months and years, it “will compound into remarkable results.” He talks about making 1% improvements over time, that massive success does not require massive action. Habits, he says, “seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous.” Read his book to find out his system for how to do this.

There are so many habits you can create around engaging better with your team – one small change at a time.

What about creating habits around how you manage email or phone calls?

The danger when we think and act small is that because we don’t see that massive change, that tangible result, we give up again. We don’t persist. It is worth remembering that the people with the most talent are not always the most successful. Those that are ultimately successful are those who bring persistence and grit to what they want to achieve in their lives. There is lots of research that demonstrates that.

So start thinking about a habit you can begin to form today that, if you persist with until the end of the year, will change your life in the long term.

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