Goals vs Habits

When we say we want something, what do we really mean?

If I decide I want to increase my level of fitness, a common approach is to set a goal like: “9 weeks from today, I will run a 5k.”

I have no doubt that many people set and achieve that goal (and there are even groups with detailed plans to help you run a 5k).

“Running a 5k in 9 weeks” sounds like it adheres to the SMART goal format (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound) that we’re always encouraged at work to use.

But does setting a SMART-style goal always help us achieve the results we want?

When Achieving Your Goals Moves You Farther From Success

Traditional goals are broken into a set of sequential steps that move you closer to your desired outcome. There is an obvious start, an obvious end, and you can measure your progress according to milestones along the way.

Traditional goals align closely with Simon Sinek’s concept of a finite game.

But what happens when the game is over or the goal is achieved?

A common pattern for fitness goals is that once you complete the 5k (likely with your willpower exhausted by the intense focus and effort), you celebrate the victory and then rest and recover. You stop pushing once you achieve your goal and then drift back towards your previous patterns of behavior. You don’t lay out your workout clothes the night before and set your alarm to go off early. You don’t focus as much on what you’re eating because you aren’t ‘in training’ anymore.

Basically, once the game is won or the goal is achieved there isn’t automatically a reason to keep putting in the same effort. And that’s fine, because you achieved your goal, right?

Unfortuantely, the true goal wasn’t to run the 5k. Not really.

Success Isn’t the Goal. Success is a Byproduct of the Effort.

When we say we want to run a 5k, we don’t really mean it.

We believe we want to run the 5k, but if we were to probe beyond the surface of the goal, we find a deeper definition of success.

We don’t want to run a 5k, we want to be the type of person who can run a 5k.

It isn’t about the goal, it is about how you have changed and who you’ve had to become to achieve that goal.

Running a 5k is easy. Developing a lifelong habit of fitness and exercise is hard.

Actually, running a 5k is hard. But the point I’m trying to make is that between the finite game of having a goal with a completion target and the infinite game of developing a lasting habit, the finite goal is easier.

Casting Your Vote

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.

James Clear – Atomic Habits

When I first decided to work on my level of fitness, instead of setting a ‘finite game’ goal of running a 5k, I set an ‘infinite game’ habit goal.

“I will exercise for 30 minutes every other day.”

That was the full extent of the goal. It was nonspecific yet unambiguous. The activity could be walking, running, weight lifting or anything. Yet, the measure of success was binary. I either did it or I didn’t. It didn’t matter if it was raining outside. It didn’t matter if I was in a bad mood. It didn’t matter if I had a busy day. Just 30 minutes, every other day.

And it worked. Without setting aggressive targets of how fast I could run or how much weight I could lift, my fitness improved.

I developed the habit of showing up. Every other day I cast a vote for the person I wanted to become. I became the type of person who could run a 5k. (I never have run a 5k. In fact, the only race I’ve ever run is the Krispy Kreme Challenge. I did eat 12 donuts and run 5 miles in an hour, but clearly my objective had nothing to do with fitness.)

Habits for Lasting Success

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Not actually Aristotle

For many of us, ‘finite game’ goals are what is recognized and rewarded in society and at work. The goal is to achieve and to win. And we believe that this is the best or only way forward.

And yet, the humility of a simple practice repeated until it can become a habit is the strongest source of lasting change.

The next time you want to achieve success, ask yourself if you truly want what you think you want.

Do you want to run the 5k? Do you want to beat your competition at work? Or do you want to be the type of person or type of organization for whom the great results you seek are simply a byproduct of the habits you’ve developed?

One approach will yield the quick win, while the other makes investments for the long, infinite game.

Lasting success comes from habits; the boring, mundane process of showing up every day and putting in the time.

I once knew a triathlete who was preparing for a long race. During their months of regular training leading up to the event, they decided to enter a marathon as an additional way to keep their habit of training.

They were the first to finish the marathon. They came in first place.

They didn’t have a goal to win a marathon. They had simply become the type of person who could place first in a marathon. All they did was show up every day and put in the work.

It is our habits that will ultimately determine our success.