When most of us set goals, we think big. But as we discussed last week, thinking small is the key to actually achieving your goals.
Too many people set resolutions like “lose weight” or “get promoted” or “be more focused at work” without thinking through *how* exactly they will achieve those goals. They forget about the many small steps between where they are today and where they want to be. It’s why so many of us reach the end of the year without making any significant progress on goals we felt really passionate about.
We imagine how happy we’ll be when we are thin and in good shape. We imagine getting the respect and authority of a new title. But we forget, day to day, that every action we take can affect our ability to get those things we want.
Achieving these kinds of goals — the kind that are about living a better life and being a better person — is often more about creating good habits that lead you in the right direction, than creating tactical to-do lists.
This week, step away from your big, hairy, audacious goals and get serious about the small stuff so you can start living the good life.
When habits are better than goals
Goals are great when you need to get tactical. If, let’s say, you want to build a software product, you can create a list of small, action-oriented to-do’s to help you get there. It’s a concrete goal, with logical steps.
But what if you want to be more present? Or more productive? Or more positive?
Where is the to-do list for that?
These fuzzier, life-improving goals are harder to quantify — which is why we fail at them so often. We have no way to hold ourselves accountable, because we don’t have clear guidelines for how to “be more present” or “more productive”.
With a goal, like building a software tool, you can look back and say, “Did I build a software tool this year?”. And the answer will be a clear yes or no.
But with softer goals, it’s hard to look back and say, “Yes I was 50% more present this year than the year before”. You won’t clearly succeed or fail at these goals right away; you’ll only be able to know if you really did become more present or productive or positive when you look back many years in the future.
And that’s where good habits step in.
With good habits, you can turn fuzzy ideas into quantifiable actions — and you can make progress every single day, in small doses so that all your small actions add up into your big goals over time.
How to create good habits
The best way to create good habits is to start big and then get really, really small. Start by imagining the big end result you hope you’ll get from your good habits and then work it down to super small steps you can take every day to get closer to that life you imagine.
1. Imagine the *you* that you want to be in 5 years
This is maybe the most important step. It helps you set your target, so that you make sure the habits you create are actually getting you where you want to go.
Let’s say your goal is to be more present. First, start by thinking about why that is your goal. What bad habits do you have that take you out of the moment? What behaviors do you want to leave behind?
Don’t just think negative, though; also use this time to imagine what you’ll gain by being more present. Will you have better friendships because you’ll be a better listener? Will you have better ideas at work because you’re always focused in meetings?
Get really specific here. The more specific you are, the more effective you will be.
“Being present” is a goal that a lot of people have, but it means different things to everyone. (This goes for any fuzzy goal: productivity, being more amazing at work, getting in shape, etc.)
There are lots of ways to improve, but only a couple that will be really meaningful and impactful in your life right now. So defining exactly what it means to you is one of the most important things you can do to make your goal happen.
2. Think about what that future version of you does every day
Once you know what you want to work towards and why, then zoom in a little bit. What would it look like if you were living the life you imagine after having improved your habits?
Let’s use the example of being more present.
Maybe you wouldn’t check your phone while with your friends. Maybe you would ask more questions. Maybe you would talk half as often as you listen in one-on-one conversations. Maybe you would start journaling every day to check in with your inner self.
Think concrete; the more you focus on things you can do, the more likely you are to be able to do them!
This is how you make your fuzzy goals quantifiable. You can’t always easily calculate whether or not you have been “more present” this month, but you can know for sure how many times you took your phone out while with your friends and try to get that number smaller and smaller as you improve.
3. How can you make it easy to do those things?
The hard thing about creating good habits is that they’re usually new. And new things are hard to incorporate into your normal routine!
You want to reduce the parts of your new habit to their simplest elements; you want them to be things that are so easy to do, you’ll still be able to do them when you’re sick, tired, or stressed.
If you want to get healthy, don’t commit to going to the gym every day. Instead, commit to walking a certain number of steps. That way, even if you’re short on time or not feeling well, you can still meet your goal for the day, even if it just means walking laps around your kitchen island in your pajamas.
If you want to become more amazing at your job, you might commit to reading business books every day. With this goal, set a page limit that is realistic and achievable. Say you’ll read 10 pages from a good business book every day. It sounds small, but adds up to around 12 books read by the end of the year.
How can you break your goals into the tiniest pieces possible?
The easier things are to do each day, the easier they’ll be able to do over the long haul.
4. How will you reward yourself?
Positive reinforcement is key for getting good habits to stick. How will you celebrate your small victories? For some people, this can be as simple as checking off a box on your calendar for every day you eat healthy. For other people, treating yourself to something nice at the end of the month if you successfully maintained your habit every day that month.
Your rewards system will also keep you on track and motivated with your habit, since working towards something concrete gives you another good goal to work towards.
As you develop new habits, there will be lots of moments of negativity when you realize you’ve slipped up or forgotten to use your new good habits. So balance it out with positive reinforcement when you are good, so that you are encouraged to keep going.
5. What will you do when you encounter obstacles?
Part of the reason we develop bad habits is because they are easy to do when things get hard. When we’re stressed at work, we check our phones while out with friends. When we’re sick, we bail out on exercise routines.
So think in advance about what you’ll do when bad things happen and obstacles come up, and you don’t feel like doing your good habits.
Create concessions; maybe if the weather is bad, you’ll walk up and down the stairs at home for exercise instead of going for a run. Instead of reading 10 pages from your book when you’ve had a tiring day at work, just read 1 page.
Make it easy for yourself to keep going when you’re not feeling 100% amazing by planning ahead. The amazing future you will thank you.
How will you create good habits in 2015? Who do you want to be by 2020? Let us know in the comments!