Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life

Nothing will change your future trajectory like your habits.

We all have goals, big or small, things we want to achieve within a certain time frame. Maybe you want to make a million dollars by the time you turn 30. Or to lose 20 pounds before summer. Or to write a book in the next six months. When we begin to chase a vague concept (success, wealth, health, happiness), making a tangible goal is often the first step.

Habits are algorithms operating in the background that power our lives. Good habits help us reach our goals more effectively and efficiently. Bad ones makes things harder or prevent success entirely. Habits powerfully influence our automatic behavior.

“First forget inspiration.
Habit is more dependable.
Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.
Habit is persistence in practice.”

— Octavia Butler

The difference between habits and goals is not semantic. Each requires different forms of action. For example:

Let’s say you want to read more books. You could set the goal to read 50 books by the end of the year, or you could create a habit and decide to always carry a book with you.

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The problems with goals

Let’s go over the problems with only having goals.

First off, goals have an endpoint. This is why many people revert to their previous state after achieving a certain goal. People run marathons, then stop exercising altogether. Or they make a certain amount of money, then fall into debt soon after. Others reach a goal weight, only to spoil their progress by overeating to celebrate.

Habits avoid these pitfalls because they continue indefinitely.

Second, goals rely on factors that we do not always have control over.

It’s an unavoidable fact that reaching a goal is not always possible, regardless of effort. An injury might derail a fitness goal. An unexpected expense might sabotage a financial goal. And family issues might impede a creative-output goal.

When we set a goal, we’re attempting to transform what is usually a heuristic process into an algorithmic one. Habits are better algorithms, and therefore more reliable in terms of getting us to where we want to go.

The third problem with goals is keeping a goal in mind and using it to direct our actions requires a lot of thinking and effort to evaluate different options.

Presented with a new situation, we have to figure out the course of action best suited to achieving a goal. With habits, we already know what to do by default.

During times when other parts of our lives require additional attention, it can be easy to push off attaining our goals to another day. For example, the goal of saving money requires self-discipline each time we make a purchase. Meanwhile, the habit of putting $50 in a savings account every week requires less effort as a practical action.

Habits, not goals, make otherwise difficult things easy.

Finally, goals can make us complacent or reckless.

Sometimes our brains can confuse goal setting with achievement because setting the goal feels like an end in itself. This effect is more pronounced when people inform others of their goals. Furthermore, unrealistic goals can lead to dangerous or unethical behavior because we make compromises to meet our stated objective.

“Habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).”

— Stephen Covey

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The benefits of habits

Once formed, habits operate automatically. Habits take otherwise difficult tasks—like saving money—and make them easy in practice.

The purpose of a well-crafted set of habits is to ensure that we reach our goals with incremental steps.

As the saying goes, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. The benefits of a systematic approach to life include:

Habits can mean we overshoot our goals.

Consider a person who has the goal to write a novel. They decide to write 500 words a day, so it should take 200 days. Writing 500 words generally doesn’t require an enormous amount of effort assuming interest in and knowledge of the topic, and even on the busiest, most stressful days, the person gets it done. However, on some days, that smaller step leads to their writing 1000 or more words. As a result, they finish the book in much less time.

On the contrary, setting “write a book in four months” as a goal would have been intimidating on final word count alone.

Habits are easy to complete.

As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power of Habit,

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

Once we develop a habit, our brains actually change to make the behavior easier to complete. After about 30 days of practice for a simple action like drinking water first thing in the morning, enacting a habit becomes easier than not doing so. More complex habits take longer to form, but they can still become automatic.

Habits are for life.

Our lives are structured around habits, many of them barely noticeable. According to Duhigg’s research, habits make up 40% of our waking hours. These often minuscule actions add up to make us who we are.

William James (a man who knew the problems caused by bad habits) summarized their importance as such:

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits — practical, emotional, and intellectual — systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.

Once a habit becomes ingrained, it can last for life and takes a lot of work to break.

Habits can compound. Stephen Covey paraphrased Gandhi when he explained:

Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

In other words, building a single habit can have a wider impact on our lives.

Duhigg calls these keystone habits. These are behaviors that cause people to change related areas of their lives. For example, people who start exercising daily may end up eating better and drinking less alcohol. Basically, those who quit a bad habit may end up replacing it with a positive alternative. (Listen to Naval Ravikant riff on habit replacement a lot on this podcast episode.)

Habits can be as small as necessary.

A common piece of advice for those seeking to build a habit is to start small.  If you want to read more, you can start with 25 pages a day. After this becomes part of your routine, you can increase the page count to reach your goal. Once your small habits become ingrained, the degree of complexity can be increased.

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”

— Charles C. Nobel

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Why a systematic approach works

By switching our focus from achieving specific goals to creating positive long-term habits, we can make continuous improvement a way of life. Even if we backtrack sometimes, we’re pointed in the right direction.

Warren Buffett reads all day to build the knowledge necessary for his investment decisions.

Stephen King writes 1000 words a day, 365 days a year (a habit he describes as “a sort of creative sleep”). Olympic athlete Eliud Kipchoge makes notes after each training session to establish areas which can be improved.

These habits, repeated hundreds of times over years, are not incidental. With consistency, the benefits of non-negotiable actions compound and lead to extraordinary achievements.

While goals rely on extrinsic motivation, habits, once formed, are automatic. They literally rewire our brains.

When seeking to attain success in our lives, rather than concentrating on a specific goal, we would do well to invest our time in forming positive habits.