Careers, Study and Well-being / Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Life

Paper beats rock, habits beat goals

Last post I answered Ryan’s question about habits that can support a great career in law, which left me dying to write about habits themselves.

In a world of SMART goals, habits can get lost. Yet they are a much better route to a life you want than goals are (and, I would argue, easier on the mental health).

We like goals, as humans, because they seem to simplify everything. They’re either achieved or they’re not, and it’s clear what you’re aiming towards. The problem is that humanity and the nature of living is infinitely more complex than “achieved or not”, and so goals quickly become signifiers of things they are not. How many times do we achieve goals only to feel glum and listless, since the goal wasn’t the thing we really wanted?

Better, then, is the habit. Habits are the way to health, to growth, to happiness, all the things we’re trying to get with goals. Aristotle allegedly attributes excellence to habits. Seth Godin, a man who writes about ideas that are vital in a voice that is smug, does the same:

Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We’re proud of you for having them. But it’s possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that’s really frightening you—the shift in daily habits that would mean a re–invention of how you see yourself.”

He’s right, but he could be less of a jerk about it.

I used to be a bit of a goals addict. I lived my life according to goals, and since my brain’s goal posts are held up by two dudes who wander about a lot, the virtue and value of the goals would shift without my input. This is a quick shortcut to anxiety, if you need one. I haven’t conquered the addiction completely either; I tether myself still to a handful of goals that make me feel ordered, and my first way out of distress is often to make a goal, which is less than helpful. But more and more, I’ve adopted habits over goals, and the more I have, the kinder and more effective life has become.

Using habits instead of goals takes a little mindset shift. Habits take place over time. They’re never done. In that sense they are not satisfying in a nice ticky box way, and believe me, I hate that. But the truth of the matter is that if, say, you want to be a writer, a habit like “write for 30 minutes every day” is more likely to make you one than a goal of “write a novel before I’m 25”.

Once you’re on board with me that habits are the thing, the next question is how do you go about using them systematically. Here enters habit science.

When you get down to it, habits are behaviours that have become automatic, meaning you don’t have to think about them much for them to happen. They are a way to turn behaviours that support a good life over the long term into just a thing you do, rather than a thing you have to decide to do. As Alex Korb discusses in his book The Upward Spiral, some habits (like smoking) establish themselves quickly because they trigger pleasure centres in the brain. Others (like flossing) take longer to take hold because they trigger much less pleasure, or even none at all. But habits will take hold eventually, as he explains further:

“The good news is that the dorsal striatum responds to repetition. It doesn’t matter if you want to do something – every single time you do it, it gets further wired into the dorsal striatum. The first few times will be the most difficult, because they will rely on the prefrontal cortex. But if you can power through, things will feel easier as the burden of action shifts from the consciously effortful prefrontal cortex to the unconsciously effortless dorsal striatum.”

Note, of course, that establishing a habit can be as hard as working to meet a goal (although the hope is that the effort is more constructive). Habits by their nature invite resistance, and the bigger the change you’re trying to make, the more resistance there will be. That is not a reason to avoid habits, but it is a reason to know what goes on in your brain when you try and change, so you can recognise it and not be knocked off course.

You might also find you are resistant to the science itself. When I started to use habits more, I was extremely resistant to a central bit of the science: that tiny habits are better than big ones. As a result, I flamed out on my habits over and over. For years I resisted this point. I recommend accepting that tiny habits are better than big ones as soon as you can. It saves a lot of journaling.

To hasten acceptance of the science I recommend reading up on it in book form (or at least lengthy PDF form). Writers James Clear and Charles Duhigg have each written a lot on the topic, and of course or Alex Korb’s The Upward Spiral does a lot specifically with a neuroscience focus. The latter is about more than habits, but if poor mental health is a vine tangled through all your behaviour change efforts, it’s a great big picture view.

And if the thought of establishing habits doesn’t make you feel great, or like me you resent the breathless “always be doing more” tone of some habit evangelists, remember that you don’t have to use habit science for self-improvement. You can use the science to do more of the good stuff, or to do less of everything. You can use it to read more books about dragons, or establish social traditions like a weekly Sunday roast with friends, and you can use it to stop a habit of taking on more than you have capacity for. The point is simply that however you apply it, shifting over to a mindset of habits over goals will serve you well.