Habits vs Goals

What Is the Difference?

August 3, 2017

In a recent edition of Farnam Street (June 7, 2017), an online platform about productivity and associated behavioral issues, we found a fascinating and insightful blog post entitled Habits vs Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life.

Opening the post was a quote from award-winning U.S. science fiction writer Octavia Butler, expressing a sentiment that we at The Wooding Group enthusiastically embrace: ‘Habit is persistence in practice.’

As the Farnam Street post continued: ‘Nothing will change your future trajectory like habits’. And, we might add, nothing will derail progress more effectively than waiting for inspiration.

The difference between habits and goals

The difference between habits and goals, according to Farnam Street, is not semantic. Each requires different forms of action. For example: You want to learn a new language. You could decide that you want to be fluent in 6 months (goal), or you could commit to 30-minutes of practice each day (habit.) Guess which approach is likely to be more successful?

When we want to change an aspect of our lives, setting a goal is often the logical first step. The problem with goals is that, once achieved, people can revert to type. Example:

People run marathons, then stop exercising afterward. Others reach a weight goal, only to spoil their progress by overeating to celebrate.

Goals rely on factors that we cannot always control and require constant willpower.

Once formed, habits operate automatically. Habits take otherwise difficult tasks—like saving money—and make them easy. The purpose of a well-crafted set of habits is to ensure we reach our goals with incremental steps. We like that idea.

Goals rely on willpower and self-discipline

Farnam Street quotes Charles Duhigg, who wrote in his seminal work The Power of Habit: ‘Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.’

Duhigg was writing metaphorically (at least we hope so) when he wrote this, but we accept the spirit of his conviction. In other words, adhering to a goal and using it to direct our actions requires constant willpower. The goal of saving money requires self-discipline each time we make a purchase. The habit of putting $50 in a savings account weekly requires little effort.

Habits, not goals, make otherwise difficult things easy.

The benefits of a systematic approach

Habits can mean we overshot our goals. Let’s say your goal is to write a novel. You decide to write 200 words a day, meaning it should take 250 days. Writing 200 words takes little effort, and even on the busiest, most stressful days you get it done. However, on some days that small step leads to you writing 1000 words or more. As a result, you finish the book in much less time. Yet setting ‘write a book in 4 months’ as a goal would have been intimidating and, probably, less rewarding.

Habits are easy to complete

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 miniscule, actions add up to make who we are. Once a habit becomes ingrained, it can last for life. Habits can compound. To paraphrase Gandhi: ‘Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” (Charles C. Nobel)

By switching our focus from specific goals to creating positive long-term habits, continuous improvement can become a way of life. This is evident from the documented habits of many successful people.

Some examples:

  1. An earlier edition of Farnam Street quoted Warren Buffett as saying: ‘I just sit in my office and read all day. That’s how he builds the knowledge necessary for his investments.
  2. Stephen King writes 1000 words a day, 365 days a year (a habit he describes as ‘a sort of creative sleep.’)
  3. Athlete Eliud Kipchoge makes notes after each training session to establish areas that can be improved.

These habits, repeated hundreds of times over years, are not incidental. With consistency, the benefits of these non-negotiable actions compound and lead to extraordinary achievements. While goals rely on extrinsic motivation, habits are automatic.

Habits literally rewire our brain.

The Wooding Group at CIBC Wood Gundy, 780 498-5047