Have you ever set out with the goal of actually sticking to a new behavior only to find yourself not doing it at all one week later? I know I have.
Why is so hard to form good habits? Why is it so difficult to make consistent change? How can we have the best intentions to become better, and yet still see so little progress?
And most importantly, is there anything we can do about it?
Your Life Goals are Not Your Habits
Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We’re proud of you for having them. But it’s possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that’s really frightening you—the shift in daily habits that would mean a re–invention of how you see yourself.
— Seth Godin
We all have hopes and dreams. If you don’t, you’re probably not the type of person who would be reading this article. And most of the time, we have at least a general sense of what those goals are: the way we want our bodies to look and the good health we want to enjoy, the respect we want to receive from our peers and the important work we want to create, the relationships we want with our family and friends and the love we want to share.
Overall, this is a good thing. It’s nice to know what you want and having goals gives you a sense of direction and purpose. However, there is one way that your hopes and dreams actually sabotage you from becoming better: your desires can easily lure you into biting off more than you can chew.
Here's what I mean:
- You get inspired by The Biggest Loser, head to the gym, bust your butt to the point of exhaustion, and take the next three months off to recover.
- You finally get that urge to write your book, write all day over the weekend, and then go back to work on Monday and never come back to it.
- You’re motivated by your friend’s stories of traveling to new countries, so you start to plan your own around–the–world trip, only to end up overwhelmed by all the details and stay at home.
Too often, we let our motivations and desires drive us into a frenzy as we try to solve our entire problem at once instead of starting a small, new routine.
I know, I know. It’s not nearly as sexy as saying you lost 30 pounds in 3 months. But the truth is this: the dreams that you have are very different from the actions that will get you there.
So how do we balance our desire to make life–changing transformations with the need to build small, sustainable habits?
Good Habits: Dream Big, But Start Small
If you’re serious about making real change — in other words, if you’re serious about doing things better than you are now — then you have to start small.
Imagine the typical habits, good or bad: Brushing your teeth. Putting your seatbelt on. Biting your nails.
These actions are small enough that you don’t even think about them. You simply do them automatically. They are tiny actions that become consistent patterns.
Wouldn’t it make sense that if we wanted to form new habits, the best way to start would be to make tiny changes that our brain could quickly learn and automatically repeat?
What if you started thinking of your life goals, not as big, audacious things that you can only achieve when the time is right or when you have better resources or when you finally catch your big break … but instead as tiny, daily behaviors that are repeated until success becomes inevitable?
What if losing 50 pounds wasn’t dependent on a researcher discovering the perfect diet or you finding a superhuman dose of willpower, but hinged on a series of tiny habits that you could always control? Habits like walking for 20 minutes per day, drinking 8 glasses of water per day, eating two meals instead of three.
I think the following quote from BJ Fogg, a professor at Stanford, sums this idea up nicely.
If you plant the right seed in the right spot, it will grow without further coaxing.
I believe this is the best metaphor for creating habits.
The “right seed” is the tiny behavior that you choose. The “right spot” is the sequencing — what it comes after. The “coaxing” part is amping up motivation, which I think has nothing to do with creating habits. In fact, focusing on motivation as the key to habits is exactly wrong.
Let me be more explicit: If you pick the right small behavior and sequence it right, then you won’t have to motivate yourself to have it grow. It will just happen naturally, like a good seed planted in a good spot.
The typical approach is to dive into the deep end as soon as you get a dose of motivation, only to fail quickly and wish you had more willpower as your new habit drowns. The new approach is to wade into the shallow water, slowly going deeper until you reach the point where you can swim whether you’re motivated or not.
Focus on Lifestyle, Not Life–Changing
Too often we get obsessed with making life–changing transformations.
- Losing 50 pounds would be life–changing, drinking 8 glasses of water per day is a new type of lifestyle.
- Publishing your first book would be life–changing, emailing a new book agent each day is a new type of lifestyle.
- Running a marathon would be life–changing, running 3 days per week is a new type of lifestyle.
- Earning an extra $20,000 each year would be life–changing, working an extra 5 hours per week as a freelancer is a new type of lifestyle.
- Squatting 100 more pounds would be life–changing, squatting 3 days per week is a new type of lifestyle.
Do you see the difference?
Life goals are good to have because they provide direction, but they can also trick you into taking on more than you can handle. Daily habits — tiny routines that are repeatable — are what make big dreams a reality.
A version of this article previously appeared on JamesClear.com.