Setting goals that build habits

We hear about resolutions every New Year. Then we see snarky headlines about how most resolutions fail by the end of January. We’ve seen it before: you set a healthy lifestyle resolution. You adopt an all-kale diet. You hit the treadmill five days in a row. You lose a few pounds… along with your will to live. At the end of week one, you’re binging Netflix and devouring Haagen-Dazs by the carton.

That may be a slight exaggeration, but it speaks to a common pitfall of setting goals: too often people treat it as a sprint and not a marathon. People use short-term willpower rather than long-term habits.

It’s nearly impossible to achieve resolutions through sheer willpower. Willpower is temporary. This means even in the unlikely event you succeed in your resolution, there’s not much use to it, as you’re unlikely to sustain this willpower in the years ahead.

The best resolutions change our habits. Habits are the things we do by default without even thinking. They’re the patterns that shape our lives. Habits take time and repetition to form. If you develop a good habit by tackling a New Year’s resolution, you’ll be better off in the years ahead.

My resolution for 2017 was to read 50 books. I only read 43. Even though I failed at the resolution, I succeeded in the goal of changing my reading habits. That’s all I really wanted.

Two things that turn goals into habits:

1. Aim high (within reason)

2. Measure your progress


1. Aim high

When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either. 
Leo Burnett

A high target motivates you to get aggressive. It forces you to get creative. Aiming low will never do any of these things.

If you aim low, you’ll certainly hit low. If you aim high, you might still hit low, but you have a much better chance of hitting high.

Reading 50 books was my version of aiming high. Had I aimed for 15 books, I would have hit my goal easily. It’s likely I would have read precisely 15, neither more nor less. I’d have little motivation to read 43. Aiming low would not have forced me to adopt new reading habits.

But aim within sight

While there’s virtue to reaching beyond your grasp, aiming too high can be problematic. Had I aimed for 100 books, I see a few different scenarios:

  1. I read all 100 books by neglecting my job, friends, family, and other good habits.
  2. I finish four books by the end of January, then, realizing how far behind schedule I am, I fulfill my goal by reading 96 books by Dr. Seuss.

3. I give up in the first week.

In any one of the above scenarios, I would fail to change my habits.

2. Measure your progress

Goals tend to be easier when you break them down into measurable objectives. All of my successful habit-forming resolutions include a component of ongoing measurement. In the case of reading 50 books, this meant keeping track of my reading list in a notes document. When I dropped 35 pounds in 2015, I stepped on the scale every morning, tracked my weight in a spreadsheet, and took pictures of my meals and of myself.

Goals don’t typically build habits if they’re binary. For example, “My resolution is to go to New York this year.” Unless you’re running across the country to New York, it will be difficult to measure your progress along the way towards this goal. You’ll either get there or you won’t.

Measurement has the added benefit of making your goal into a game. By tracking your progress, you’re constantly keeping score against yourself.

There is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

There are natural points and rules systems all around us. It’s easy to form games. In my reading challenge, I found a small game in the public library system: read and return the book without renewing it. By numbering the books I read in my Notes app, I felt a small thrill each time I shut the spine, and listed another book to my completed column.

I may have not hit the goal, but I built a habit.

43/50 is a B. While I’m not thrilled with anything less than 100% completion, in the spirit of reaching beyond my grasp, I’m content with the result. It changed my reading habits, improved my sleep, taught me valuable lessons, took me on new adventures, gave me new conversation starters, and I feel better about it. I’d say it’s a successful resolution.

For my next resolution…

I have a handful of resolutions for 2018 that are continuations of habits I established in previous resolutions: maintaining my diet, my reading routine, and regular travel.

My next habit-forming resolution is to publish 26 blogs over the course of the year. (I’ll admit, that’s one reason I’m writing this one right now.)

My goal with this resolution is to practice creativity and to get more comfortable with publishing as part of the writing process. I’ve kept a private journal for years, and writing has always been part of my academic and professional career. However, I still feel anxiety when I publish and share my thoughts. These are feelings I hope to get over. The best way to do that is to make publishing a new habit.

If you have suggestions for books to read, blogs to write, or resolutions to make, please let me know.