We may not think about our habits often. But developing the right habits may be more important for success than setting the right goals, according to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits.
Habits are repeat behavior. Serial doing. We stick to our habits because they are familiar. Behavioral comfort food.
Much of the time we chug along on autopilot, driven by mental and behavioral routines. Charles Duhigg claims that 40% to 45% of what we do each day is based on habit.
Not having to think about trivial tasks is good. Imagine the mental gridlock if you had to ponder absolutely everything. I don’t want to think about how to brush my teeth!
But there are times when our habits fail us. We fall into destructive routines such as striving for perfection or seeking praise. We miss unexpected pleasures, such as a world-renowned violinist playing in the subway during our morning commute. Because it is not our habit to stop and listen street musicians. And besides, we’re late for work.
Let’s step back and take a deeper look at goals, habits and routines.
Goals Are Good
Clearly-defined goals get us moving in the right direction. Stretch goals motivate us to learn and act. Heck, they may even be SMART.
Goals, however, are only mileposts on the path to achievement. The journey never ends. Made your quarterly sales targets? Great. A new goal for next quarter is just around the corner. Chasing never-ending goals can make you feel like Sisyphus. The result is burn-out and frustration.
In the words of Roseanne Roseannadanna:
Habits Will Take You Further
Unlike goals, habits are not a one-time affair. We never achieve a habit. We can only strengthen it. Habits are not “in your face” the way a big hairy audacious goal might be. However, by cultivating the right habits and routines, we will accomplish more in the long run.
Let’s say I want to lose weight (I do). Rather than setting the goal of losing ten pounds or running 10k, I try to develop the habits of healthy eating and regular exercise. Framed like this, it doesn’t matter if I run 10k or 5k or only 1k, as long as I show up and make a go of it three times a week. I balance Friday-night pizza with sensible eating during the rest of the week. It may take me longer to lose the pounds but I am more likely to get (and stay) there by focusing on habits instead of goals.
Routines Rule Our Lives
How do you start your day at work?
With whom do you talk regularly?
When and where do you take breaks?
Chances are, these behaviors are driven by routine. For years, I began my day by responding to emails. I would take a coffee break with the same person at the same time every day. If I was running late by lunch time, I would skip exercising. Before I knew it, the day was over. And the next day was the same. Welcome to Groundhog Day.
Time to reflect: Are these routines helping me achieve my goals? Can I substitute more productive routines for those that are not working?
For example, I now reserve the morning hours for “brain” work—such as writing articles 😊. I close my email while working on other tasks. And while I still enjoy a coffee break with the same person every day (my wife), I also strive to have a business conversation with one new person each week.
Think Process, Not Outcome
Here are some habits that work for me. Each is backed by research. Everyone is different, so experiment to find what works for you.
- I make important decisions first thing in the morning to counter the consequences of decision fatigue. When tired, we tend to decide impulsively or avoid decisions altogether by sticking with the status quo.
- To develop new business, I aim to have three business “conversations” every day (via telephone or email or in person). Conversations lead to conversions. What is important is to find the right number of conversations for your business and stick to the routine of having these conversations every day.
- To improve relationships, I listen and ask active, constructive questions when someone shares positive news with me. Instead of just saying “Congratulations!”, I ask a few questions to re-experience the positive with them. “Hey, that’s great. When did you hear the news? What did your partner say?”
- I have learned to challenge my automatic thoughts when faced with a setback. When something bad happens (for example, a client presentation doesn’t go as well as I hoped), I may jump to negative conclusions. “They didn’t like the presentation,” could be my first reaction. Asking myself “Are there any alternative explanations?” will often lead to positive action. I might realize the audience was concerned with an issue that I didn’t mention in the presentation and decide to follow up with a note that addresses that issue.
We Are What We Do (Repeatedly)
Over time, our habits become a part of who we are. This is the main benefit of good habits (and the danger with bad habits). Once we have internalized a habit, we don’t think about it. As James Clear says, if you are the kind of person who exercises, you no longer think about whether you should exercise. You just do it. By making positive habits part of our identity, we no longer have to expend precious willpower to do the right thing.
Our habits become our (mental) habitat. The place where we dwell in our minds—our mindset. Look after your mindset and it will look after you.
So, hats off to good habits!
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. New York: Avery.
Durant, W. (1926/1991). The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. New York: Simon & Schuster.