Today is January 5th. Dreaming big and new year’s resolutions are very much in the air, so what better moment than to tackle two of my favourite topics: goals versus habits.
Since around September 2014, I’ve had two different systems governing my life: a system for tracking my daily habits, and one for tracking daily and long-term goals.
Part of this was simply a bandwidth issue: I’m doing around 9 habits daily, and on any given day my to-do list and calendar may have an equal number of commitments. Juggling this in a single framework gets mightily complex.
But I believe the distinction between the two cuts deeper than this. Goals and habits are each the vehicle of choice for quite different ‘productivity philosophies’ for lack of a better word. Knowing their differences (and how to take advantage of that) can be very powerful.
Let’s look at both.
Two different philosophies
Reading many psychology and self-help books of the years, I see a rather broad rift between two approaches. On one hand there’s a (relatively recent) subset of the literature that heavily emphasises habits, and another (older) subset that focuses on achieving long-range goals through setting a clear vision. Throughout this post I’ll be referring to these as the habit-camp and the vision-camp respectively.
(Calling the latter the ‘goal’-camp would get confusing, since habits are not randomly but also in function of some goal.)
Let’s start with the vision-camp, which emphasises clearly spelling out your goals by answering questions such as: Where do you want to be in 1,5,10 years? How will you behave?
It’s generally believed that by keeping these goals consistently in mind, all of our intellectual, emotional and unconscious machinery can be mobilised to achieve the impossible.
This theory tends to be metaphysically underpinned, though the exact mechanisms vary: they range from inspiration and charisma (Tony Robbins), to the systematic (Stephen Covey ¹), to the crazy (“The Secret”), to the hedonistic (the concept of ‘bucket list’) and it has been around at least since Napoleon Hill penned “Think and Grow Rich” in 1937.
Together they make an interesting bunch ², and the difference in emphasis each of these different champions makes, is very interesting.
However the general process is that “a burning desire” or an “unshakeable belief” is on the direct road to success. This school uses techniques like visualisation, affirmations, and action planning to keep this desire constantly in mind.
Rather opposed, we have the habit-building camp.
For this camp, setting an ambitious vision (or goal) is a fine idea in general, but it doesn’t provide a very actionable method for getting there. For proponents of this view, new-years resolutions are a yearly reminder that simply setting a goal is much like buying a pair of running shoes: they’re a necessary start, but won’t achieve much just sitting in your closet.
Instead, the habit camp focuses on small actions that can be taken incrementally (day by day, week in and day out): don’t set the goal to read more books, but simply focus on reading 10 pages per day and then the books will take care of themselves.
As I’ve said above, this view has gained in popularity in recent years. James Clear and James Altucher are two famous advocates of this view, and books like the ‘Power of Habit’ have become international bestsellers.
Do New Year’s Resolutions fail because there is no clear enough vision, or because no attention is paid to creating long-lasting habits?
Combine, But Distinguish
Of course, the difference between the two strains can seem rather academic. There’s clearly a merit to both approaches, and both having a clear vision as well as consistent habits can be useful.
However I personally found the two ideas rather challenging to combine. After all, the essence of the vision-based method is that your goal must be permanently in your mind to propel yourself up the mountain; whereas the habit-based approach is more about focusing on setting one foot before the other.
Instead, I’ve found a certain balance by deciding for each goal whether I will take a habit-approach or a vision-approach. The distinguishing test is generally: is this a goal that can be achieved through a set of intense bouts of work and effort, or does it require more of a continuous but steady progress? Set habits for the latter, and focus on vision and action planning for the former.
(Similarly: you can ask yourself the question whether you want to finish with the goal at some point. Staying healthy (with frequently working out as a habit) is something we best never see as ‘finished’.)
As an example: “learn French” can seem a dauntingly large task, but it is made much more manageable by molding it into a habit (such as taking daily Duolingo classes, and a weekly professional class).
On the other hand, a goal like “create and implement a new design for my room” is a quest that will respond much better to setting aside concentrated chunks of time (a week gathering ideas, a specific afternoon planning…).
The distinction between both sets of goals isn’t super scientific or delineated, but it’s nonetheless useful.
Let’s talk about how you can make both of these systems work for you in practice. Note that for this part I’ll be slightly exaggerating the characteristics of either. There are exceptions to each of the points below, but generally speaking I’ve found it useful to keep a strong distinction in mind.
1) Different chunks of time
The first important practice I adopted was to allocate different chunks of time to both categories.
Working on vision-based goals take place during actual “work time” and are intensely focused. They take advantage of traditional productivity methods like Pomodoro, and focusing on one main goal per day.
Conversely, habits aren’t so much done during concentrated working hours; the whole point is that you’ll incorporate them into daily life without much effort! This means they’ll be done during more relaxed time and off-work (though still scheduled and part of a routine).
2) Different apps (aka different spaces of mind)
The mind is a chaotic place. If you’re anything like me then you deal with distraction and randomly wandering constantly, so you want to do your best at putting up some mental walls and compartments for help.
Goals versus habits is one area where I’ve put up a mental wall by splitting them into different apps. (You could also use different notebooks, different times of day, different locations to work on them… whatever floats your boat. Just try to create a distinction.)
My apps of choice at the moment are:
– Todoist for general productivity and task management: it is ideal for mapping out a project, defining its milestones and for giving you a daily to-do list.
– Habitica for tracking habits. It’s a simple habit tracker that incorporates some funky ‘gamification’ to motivate you (completing habits gets you gold and experience, you can go on raids with your friends, etc). I’m quite the nerd, so I enjoy that aspect.
3) Different expectations
The result graphs of both kinds of goals are different, which means their evaluation is as well.
With traditional goals (vision-based), you want frequent evaluations and seeing rather rapid progress. After all, you’re setting aside focused time and effort for them, so you want to see progress soon. You might evaluate where you are every week or every few sessions.
With habits, the emphasis is much more on achieving consistency and making the habit part of your life. There may be months between each progress evaluation.
And that’s it for this week! I expect this blogpost to be further refined as I delve deeper into this area, or from your ideas! What do you see as the difference between goals and habits?
¹ Admittedly it’s coy of me to place a book titled “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” in the visionary rather than habit-building camp. However, I find that Covey’s book tends to place a much larger emphasis on abstract principles, such as visionary goal-setting and the power of belief (“habits” 2,3 and 5 all revolve around this). There’s little to no actual habit-building in the book, apart from habit 7.
² I don’t expect the article to entirely hide my current bias towards the habit-approach. I view it as generally more scientific and grounded in reality, whereas the vision-based lies on the (sometimes useful) intersection between white lies and wishful thinking. Think about your goal hard enough and it shall come to ye!
For this reason I often find vision advocates hard to distinguish from snake-oil peddlers.