Why I Shifted from Setting Goals to Building Habits

The week between Christmas and New Year’s has become one of my favorite weeks. Though I’m always a little bummed when Christmas is over, I’ve grown to appreciate that last week of the year. It’s a time to reflect on the months that have passed and set goals for the year to come.

I have, for many years, set some type of New Year’s resolution or goals. I never got caught up on terminology, I just liked having aspirations for the year. The problem is that I have never been consistently disciplined. Like many people, I fall off the wagon pretty easily. (For instance, in the time it’s taken me to write two paragraphs, I have consumed an entire bag of Sour Patch Kids.)

But at the beginning of last year, I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. It turned out to be one of the most helpful books I’ve read in recent years. In it, Duhigg describes the science behind habit formation. He argues that the key to good habit formation is simply understanding how habits work.

The book is fascinating and I highly recommend it. Duhigg’s research covers (among other things) how good and bad habits develop, how to change bad habits, and what type of habits are most important to build (called, “Keystone Habits”). (He also talks about how organizations tap into knowledge about consumer habits and it’s pretty creepy. Looking at you, Target.)

Reading The Power of Habit last year jump started a shift in the way I set goals. Rather than focusing on a list of goals to achieve or resolutions to (not) follow, I have increasingly begun to speak and think in terms of habit building.

Shifting Focus

In another book of the same subject, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks a bit about the difference between habits (what he calls “systems”) and goals. You can read an excerpt from it on his website, where he explains why you should shift your focus from goal setting to designing systems to follow daily. (Disclaimer: though I have heard good things about it, I have not yet read Clear’s book.)

Encouraged by Duhigg and Clear’s explanation of habit building, I shifted my focus from setting “goals” to building “habits.” It has made a huge difference in how I use my time.

While goals and habits often go hand-in-hand, building good and healthy habits creates more long-term and sustainable change. Plus, changing my habits effectively helps me accomplish whatever goals I may also set for myself. I just shifted from actively pursuing goals to passively accomplishing them through building better habits.

Some Habits I’m Working On

At the end of 2021, I spent some time determining what habits I want to focus on this year. I downloaded a habit tracking app and each day I mark if I did the habit or not. If not, I don’t get discouraged. I just try to do the thing the next day. And once I see that I’ve done the thing several days in a row, I don’t want to break the chain. It’s actually kind of ridiculous how motivated I feel to do a habit simply to be able to check it off at the end of the day. Habits are also buildable—once a pattern becomes default, it doesn’t feel like a lot to add on another.

I fell out of a lot of my routines at the end of last year. We moved halfway across the country and the holidays came immediately afterwards. As I try to reset and develop good rhythms, these are some habits I am working to make, well, habitual:

  • Quiet Time. I am pretty faithful to practice spiritual disciplines…when I’m in a rhythm. However, I am very susceptible to interruptions— oversleeping, holidays, vacation, or having visitors. But the older I get, the more I understand just how vital spiritual disciplines are to my relationship with Jesus and others. Adding this as a habit may seem legalistic but it helps me to ascribe the importance to it that it deserves. It is a nonnegotiable part of my day, no matter what circumstances I find myself in.

  • Getting up early. While my quiet time is the most important habit I have, getting up early is the foundation on which every other habit builds. I have gotten up earlier than a normal person for years (usually between 5 and 5:30). However, I have found that getting up between 4 and 4:30 allows me to have an unrushed morning to prepare for the day before my kids wake up. I can read my Bible and pray, get ready for the day, and often have time to do some work for my paying job, exercise, or other work around the house.

  • Exercise. I hate exercising. But, I know how detrimental it is to be sedentary. For the sake of my family (and my kids in particular), I need to work for my physical health. Right now, my goal is simply to accomplish a certain number of steps per day. During the height of the pandemic, my husband and I really enjoyed taking walks in our neighborhood—often going 3-5 miles each day. Though that’s a challenge now that we’re back in a place with a real winter and a busier schedule, I still try to get in my steps one way or another. This is a habit on which I have started small but plan to build up.

  • Cooking. In lieu of setting a goal to “eat healthier,” my desire is simply to cook at home more. We have a terrible habit of eating out for convenience’s sake. That’s not great for our waistlines or our budget. This one is probably my biggest challenge. I have never been great at meal planning, though I do enjoy cooking. So, I used the first couple of weeks in January to set up a system that will hopefully work better for us when it comes to eating at home.

  • Writing. This website is my attempt to build a habit of writing regularly. As life has gotten busier, my writing took a backseat to everything else. This habit is probably the hardest for me to consider as important. However, I believe it is a worthwhile pursuit, at the very least because it is a creative outlet for myself.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash