To achieve long-lasting behavioral change, emphasize habits instead of goals.
I am currently reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, and I am greatly enjoying it. It covers habit formation and behavior change from the basics to more advanced techniques.
James begins by discussing focusing on goals vs. habits. After all, most of the time we focus on achieving goals because the goal is the important, motivating factor. For instance, if you’re trying to get a job as a computer programmer, what ultimately matters is whether you get the job or not.
Focusing on goals postpones our happiness
But with goals we have an either-or mentality: either we achieve the goal, or we don’t. We either succeed or fail. We don’t pay much attention to the progress we’ve made or to what smaller things we’ve achieved in the process. If you don’t get the computer programmer job, you may feel disappointed and not take into account how much you’ve learned about programming in the process.
Also, with a goal-focused mentality, happiness is postponed to the future. We think that when I get that job, then I will be happy. I am not and don’t need to try to be happy in the present moment. This is a huge problem because if we always put off our happiness until later, that moment of happiness will never come. Even when we get the job, there will be something else to do, e.g., renovate the house, before we can be happy.
This really struck me. As a goal-oriented, driven person, I have experienced this multiple times. While working hard on a goal, for instance on getting into university, I told myself that it didn’t matter how I felt at that time. As long as I got into university, everything would be okay and I would be happy. But then when I did get into university, that didn’t magically bring me happiness. I was quite confused because I had achieved my goal but still hadn’t gotten happiness.
With this in mind, James Clear proposes focusing on habits instead of goals. Emphasizing habits forces you to bring your attention to what you are doing today, tomorrow, or this week. Your focus is not on some faraway point in the future but rather it is very close to the present. Completing a habit can give you an immediate sense of satisfaction, so your happiness is not postponed until some vague point in time.
Habit change is identity change
What’s more, habit change is identity change. When you adopt a new habit, you become a person who does this new thing. If you choose to go swimming twice a week, you become somebody who swims. If you were focusing on a goal, e.g., swim freestyle for 1 km, you’re a wanna-be, somebody who hasn’t achieved anything yet. And the moment you achieve that goal, you set the next one, so you become another wanna-be, somebody who now wants to swim freestyle for 2 km.
Instead, if you focus on your new habit, your identity shifts immediately. Once you become “someone who swims,” your identity begins to drive your actions and choices. You go swimming because that’s what a swimmer does. Motivation begins to come from within and not from the outside (the external goal). Then it is much, much easier to sustain a habit because there is much less resistance, and the desire to maintain the activity comes from within yourself, from your sense of identity.
It’s important to remember that identity is not static. Generally, you want to change your behavior and achieve goals in order to become a better person. But focusing solely on goals is like trying to achieve something new and big while being the same, old person.
While when you adopt a new habit, you change your identity. Little by little, you become that “improved” person who swims or is a good computer programmer. And you don’t do so by achieving mind-blowing goals but by doing an activity repeatedly and consistently and getting better at it gradually over time.