Habits Instead of Goals
Written by Lauren Koleszar // Illustrated by Emily Williams
Learning the difference between setting a goal and forming a habit can change the course of your semester and help you achieve your dreams faster than any New Year’s resolution.
Life is short, and we frequently reprimand ourselves for the goals we fail to meet. All the while, we see our peers handle their six college classes, four jobs, two side hustles, and the three parties they went to in one weekend. Being alive in the twenty-first century means being profitable, useful and maximized. It’s no wonder we’re here, setting goals at the start of every new semester, month and week because any kind of beginning strikes us as a restart option that will give us a chance to improve and accomplish more than the last time we tried setting goals for ourselves. Inevitably, we fall into the same tragic cycle: goal-setting, high expectations, inconsistency, lack of motivation, and ultimately failure, until we reach disappointment and discouragement.
The problem isn’t us. It’s the glittering high expectations lacking a realistic plan, something with which we are so familiar that we don’t even think to question it. In the days of COVID-19, perhaps you’ve half-heartedly watched videos on preparing for online school, setting a morning routine, and staying motivated while stuck at home. At the hearts of some of these pop self-help videos is a methodology that offers a realistic system through which goals become attainable — in other words, the practice of forming habits.
The difference between forming habits versus setting goals seems mediocre, but when put into practice, the difference between these two efforts toward self-improvement is enormous.
1: a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior
1: the end toward which effort is directed
A goal is the desired end result, but a habit is a repetitive behavior that initially requires conscious effort to form until it becomes a natural pattern of behavior. Think of it this way: you can set a goal to form healthy habits, but don’t make a habit out of setting goals. Human beings rely on repetitive behavior (i.e. habits) about 40% of the time over the course of a day. These habits are thoughts and actions that have become so familiar to the brain that enacting them has become a subconscious process. This also explains why bad habits are so difficult to break — because most of the time, these are things we do without thinking about it. In fact, studies show that the average person commits to break a habit ten times without success.
We must recognize that we often set out to break a bad habit by setting a goal to do so. This goal represents the desirable destination that we become obsessed with, and in a romantic sort of tunnel vision, we do two very dangerous things: 1) underestimate the time and energy it will take to achieve this goal, and 2) overestimate the consistency we expect ourselves to maintain while working toward this goal. One of the major problems with goal-setting is that this tunnel vision sets us up for disappointment and discouragement because it often leaves us without any kind of measurable progress that we can utilize as motivation in our next effort toward achieving the initial goal.
"The problem isn’t us. It’s the glittering high expectations lacking a realistic plan, something with which we are so familiar that we don’t even think to question it."
Say, for instance, you set a goal to stay on top of all of your classes this semester. This is a fantastic goal, and it doesn’t sound too hard to manage, especially if everything’s online, right? Wrong. Here’s what happens: in a burst of motivation, you get ahead in your English class. Feeling good about that situation, you start working on your math class. There’s a concept you don’t understand, so you work on a different class. A few days go by, and you’ve been spending most days working on your easier classes. You realize you haven’t logged into English in a week and you missed an assignment. Catching up on that, you continue to neglect math because it’s too much to think about right now. By the time math is threatening an avalanche of neglected deadlines, you’re behind in English again. Working on math then leads to falling behind in all your other classes. The end result? You’re burnt out, behind, and carrying an unhealthy amount of stress.
Let’s take a look at what a habit-based strategy would look like. You decide to make it a habit to log in to each of your classes once a day. Maybe you even decide to spend at least thirty minutes per day on each class. Regardless, you consciously outline simple habits. Everything is going well, and then you miss a day. Life gets in the way; it happens to all of us. The next day, you start again by practicing the simple habit you initially set: log in to every class once a day. We often struggle with the modern phenomenon of a “streak.” Maybe it’s the digital age, maybe it’s the Duolingo owl that haunts us all, but it is so easy nowadays to see yourself missing out on doing the right thing once. Suddenly, all of your progress goes down the drain. The next day, you still feel disappointed in yourself and miss out again. This repeats, and you never meet the goal. This is where you might see value in a habit tracker; when you keep track of habits, you can visualize your accomplishments. You see how many days you’ve logged into all your classes once a day; it outweighs the days you failed, so why should an off-day affect any progress or sense of accomplishment? Think of this, also: if you log into every class daily (i.e. not just when something is due), you will at least find something little to do in your time there. This becomes the secret that can lead to staying on top of your classes, and eventually getting ahead!
If you feel far from where you want to be in terms of happiness and success, habit-forming will be absolutely invaluable to you. Is one of your quarantine goals to have your writing published somewhere by the end of the semester? If you only set a goal, chances are (and research agrees) that you will find yourself initially unable to meet your goal. In fact, statistically speaking, this will happen ten times before anything changes. Try this instead: begin setting habits today that will help you develop a writing-conducive attitude. Write for five minutes every day. Chances are, you’ll end up writing more than that when inspiration strikes. Note that it is equally important to avoid beating yourself up for any misstep in your progress. The beauty of habit-forming is that for whatever you fail to do at some point, you have an entire track record to look back on for encouragement and peace of mind. The toxic concept of maintaining a “streak” of behavior has little bearing in the realm of developing habits. Habits help you keep track of progress in order to provide your future self with accountability and hope. In terms of our earlier example, keep track of how many days you write, and remind yourself that you made a conscious effort to accomplish that on each of those individual days. Focus on the fact that you did it; don’t fixate on the idea of a streak that you lost. In the writing example, this mindset will help shape a healthier attitude toward writing, which will relieve stress and self-criticism, which will then lead to you producing more work. By the end of the semester, you will have a buildup of writing from the days during which you successfully practiced this habit; and now, when publishing opportunities come, you have a plethora of material from which you can draw, instead of one stressful piece you crammed until the night of the deadline, as may have been the result of simple goal-setting without a realistic plan of habits.
You can’t reach goals right away, but you can start forming habits right now. Check out the list below with some popular healthy habits, and spend some time considering and researching which habits are best for developing a lifestyle conducive to the kind of future you want. Hold yourself accountable using a habit tracker in a journal or on your phone, and do not be discouraged when you happen to leave a habit unattended. Focus on how far you have come, and remind yourself that practicing a habit one day at a time is progress. Developing habits will bring you more success than setting goals ever will.
Healthy habits you can start forming right now:
Wake up at the same time every day
Drink a glass of water before every meal
Log into every class once a day
Respond to all unanswered texts/emails by a certain time
Wash your face every morning and night