You’ve Been Choosing Your Goals All Wrong

You’ve Been Choosing Your Goals All Wrong
Written by Techbot

If you’re getting ready to set your yearly goals for 2023, stop. Chances are, you’re going about building and breaking habits all wrong, according to the experts—especially if you’re extremely motivated in January, but find yourself getting distracted or overwhelmed come February. Before we get into the specifics of how to start or break a habit that you’ll actually stick to, there are a few things you need to know.

The most important thing is that habits are actually separate from goals. “Goals are how we make decisions—how we commit to an exercise program, or to eating healthily, or to saving money,” says Wendy Wood, provost professor emerita of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “But habits are how you stick with a behavior.” 

That’s because once something becomes a habit it’s extremely hard to break, Wood says. This can either work in your favor or against you. You’re forming habits regardless of whether you consciously decide to—it’s the brain’s way of freeing up mental space for more important things—so you might as well be deliberate about it. Otherwise, chances are some of your habits will be ones you don’t want or that are actively sabotaging your efforts to achieve a goal.

In fact, studies have shown that a substantial number of our behaviors in a day are habitual. “Almost 45 percent of the time, people repeat behavior in a familiar context while not thinking about what they are doing,” says Wood of the studies she’s conducted. When we’re stressed out or tired, we revert back to our established habits. This makes trying to form new ones based on our goals even more difficult—let alone trying to break a bad habit.

“We’re trying to do many things in life, not just follow through on a New Year’s resolution,” Wood says. “We get focused on these things and then our commitment to change actually gets diluted by the multiple other goals we’re pursuing and the other things that we’re trying to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Building a habit can take a lot of time and energy, so it’s important to make sure you pick behaviors you actually want to do and enjoy doing. While there’s no typical amount of time it takes to build a habit, it is something that will eventually get easier. “It’s a cumulative, iterative process over time,” says Wood. “So be patient with yourself.”

Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to make forming a habit easier so that, hopefully, when you get stressed or tired you have good habits to fall back on.

1. Make a List of Your Goals, Prioritize Them, and Pick One

The worst thing you can do when trying to build habits is picking multiple goals and trying to do everything at once, says Alana Mendelsohn, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. 

Instead, Mendelsohn suggests making a list of the goals you’re trying to achieve and ranking them in order of importance. “When people say ‘I want to build better habits,’ almost always it’s three things,” she says. “I want to go to bed earlier, I want to eat healthier, and I want to exercise.”

While these three goals may very well be on your list, it’s important to be honest with yourself about the goals you’re writing down and think about why you’re trying to achieve them. “There are things that people feel like they should do or things they feel like they’re supposed to do, and they pick that,” says James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. Once you’ve finalized your list, pick one of them to start with.

“You start slow,” Mendelsohn says. “Because what always happens is people bite off more than they can chew, they get very discouraged, and then they give up.”

This is because “behavior change is often a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface,” says Clear. Take this example of trying to eat healthier as a goal: “If you start to break it down, what you realize is that there are a lot of sub-habits that are associated with eating better.” This could be everything from planning meals, to grocery shopping, to meal prepping, to cleaning (because now you have more dishes instead of takeout boxes).

“If you pick three or four habits and they all have sub-habits associated with them, you can see how this gets really complicated very quickly,” says Clear. It also makes it harder to adjust to daily changes, he continues. When you’re trying to build just one new habit, then you can anchor your day around it and make trade-offs when things start to shift.

2. Strategy is Key

So you’ve picked your goal. The next step is to decide which behavior(s) will help you achieve it. This may sound simple, but a lot of people tend to skip the most important part: reflection.

Say your goal is to get fit. You’ve picked this goal many times before, but for some reason the behaviors you choose never seem to stick. Think back over your previous attempts and analyze why those behaviors didn’t work for you, or if there was anything that you did enjoy and wouldn’t mind doing again. Mendelsohn suggests starting with broader questions and then getting into the specific details.

“One person had been exercising routinely and then stopped during Covid. I had to ask, ‘Tell me about your exercise routine,’” she says. It turns out, the only times her patient exercised is when he made a plan in advance to meet his friend at the gym. “We realized that the most important thing for him to rebuild the habit was to rebuild the contextual cues that worked for him. In his case, having a friend, having the accountability, and having a place to go was the way that worked. If he tried to exercise at home, it just didn’t work.”

Or, if you’re trying to eat healthier for the first time, keep a food diary of what you’re eating on a daily basis and when to see if any patterns emerge. “You might find someone who says, ‘Well, I skip lunch every day and then I’m starving, so I binge in the afternoons,’” says Mendelsohn. Or, maybe every time you see an ad for a fast food restaurant you decide you must be hungry and stop to get something. “It becomes clear that they have a 20-year history of eating the way that they do,” she continues. “Then they get discouraged if, two months in, they’re having a difficult time making the change.”

“I think something that is useful to keep in mind is the longer a time period you’ve had living the way that you have, the harder it’s going to be to change that,” Mendelsohn says.

There are two ways to make your new behavior feel less like a chore. The first is to reduce as much friction as possible. For example, if your goal is to get fit and you’ve decided going to the gym is the behavior that will help you achieve that, picking a gym closer to you means you’ll be more likely to actually go.

“A data analytics company tracked hundreds of thousands of cell phones for a couple of months to see how far people went to a paid fitness center or a gym,” says Wood. “What they found is that people who traveled only about three-and-a-half miles, went about five times a month. People who went over five miles only went once a month, on average.”

The second is to choose something that you actually enjoy doing. “There are a lot of ways to get in shape,” says Clear. “Not everybody has to work out like a bodybuilder. Maybe you like kayaking or rock climbing or going for a hike or cycling. There’s an endless number of things that you could do. Choose the one that you are most excited about.”

If there’s nothing you’re particularly excited about or you still feel overwhelmed, scale it down, Clear says. “If the scale is too large, that makes it hard to start … if you want to ultimately read 30 books a year, scale it down so that your habit is to read one page a day.

“It has to become the standard in your life before you can scale it up and turn it into something more,” says Clear. “We’re so focused on finding the best workout program or the perfect diet plan—we’re so focused on optimizing that we don’t give ourselves permission to show up in a small way.”

One thing to avoid, as Clear mentioned, is excessive planning before starting your behavior—things like searching the internet for the perfect product or app that will help you get started, spending too much money on these products before you know the behavior works for you, and waiting to get started on building your habit until said product arrives.

3. Getting Started and Keeping It Up

The final step of setting your goal and building your behavior into a habit is to be specific about when and where you’re going to do it, and then sticking to your plan. This is something Wood, Mendelsohn, and Clear are all adamant about.

Essentially, you want to build cues that lead to the behavior so you’ll be more likely to repeat it in the future. Stacking your desired behavior with an existing habit can make it easier for you to remember to do it. If your goal is to start flossing your teeth, keeping your floss next to your toothbrush and always flossing immediately after brushing reinforces that cue—until, eventually, it will feel weird not to floss after you brush. Or, if you have a treadmill you want to use more often and you always find yourself watching TV in the afternoon, watch TV while walking on the treadmill.

“The more contextual factors that can help you build a habit, the stronger it’s going to be,” Mendelsohn says. “It’s like a spider web. The more nodes there are, the stronger the network is. If you’re trying to build a particular habit, linking it to other things such as a specific place, a specific time, a specific person—that can really be ultra-helpful.”

If you pick a behavior and a few weeks later find yourself missing a day or two, Clear has a motto that will help: “Never miss twice,” he says. “If you can get back on track quickly, the mistakes don’t really mean that much.” If you decide that the behavior isn’t for you, that’s OK, too—try something else that can help you reach your goal instead, rather than giving up completely.

If you want a way to track your behavior over time, there are a few things you can do, like using physical calendar trackers or habit-building apps such as Habitica and Productive. Although, Mendelsohn cautions against tracking a habit just because you feel like you have to, and Wood emphasizes that apps don’t work for everyone because it can feel like just another task to add to your list every day. David Kadavy, author of Mind Management, Not Time Management adds that using tracking apps can be demoralizing if you happen to miss a day. 

“Don’t make it about the streak,” Kadavy says. “Celebrate each day that you do it, but when you miss a day, keep going.”

Rewarding yourself for doing a behavior is also an underestimated motivator. “Building rewarding rituals around behavior change can be really powerful,” says Mendelsohn. “For example, treating yourself to a smoothie after going to the gym.”

Once a behavior becomes a habit, missing a day or two isn’t as big of a deal. “Habits are very forgiving,” Wood says. “Habit memories form very slowly, incrementally each time you perform a behavior, and they also decay very slowly. Which is part of the challenge, is that we’re all living with our old habits that were good at one point, but now maybe not so.”

If you’re waiting for a “fresh start” like New Year’s Day to begin your new habit, consider starting sooner. After all, there’s no real reason to wait once you’ve put in the initial work.

“Each day can be a new year,” says Clear. But, if you want some kind of motivating force to give you that extra push: “People are more likely to change behaviors on the first day of the week, the first day of the month, or the first day of the year.”

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