I wish I were smart enough to be an expert on something. That’s what all the promoters and marketers and social media hacks say, “Become an expert in you field.” I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that the best and probably the only way to build an audience if you’re not already famous is to stick relentlessly to one topic. Because that’s how people know you. And trust you. And worship you. And buy from you.
Well, I’m sorry but I’m not an expert. I don’t do any one thing all the time. I read a lot and I ask a lot of questions and I breathe a lot.
So I’m not going to teach you anything. I’m just going to try and discover the answer to something, mostly for the journey of it, and probably just to find the real question. Answers are boring and final and usually restricted to certain conditions that never apply in your particular case.
Today, my question is about habits, and goals.
First of all, habits and goals are different. A habit is about consistency, and a goal is about progress.
So let’s say you want to exercise more, is it better to say “I will exercise 3 times a week for 30 minutes each time” or “By the end of this month I will be able to lift X pounds”?
Each requires a different kind of discipline, which requires its own kind of study.
Interestingly, often a goal is reached by building good habits, and habits, if tracked, can use count as goals. Such as counting mileage in running, or a streak of writing each day.
Both also require reinforcement and feedback – from friends, from visible progress, from tracking devices.
And it’s true for both that tools and techniques make them easier. The more you automate the process, or provide external motivation, or get it into routine, the less you have to work to get it done. So, a weekly class, working out with a partner, using a tracking device or app, can help make it easier to accomplish.
This brings me to a question that motivated this search. What about work? You have a paper to write, a client proposal to write up, research to do, and you’ve been procrastinating. Do you tell yourself “I will work for 3 hours” or do you tell yourself “I will finish the rough draft” “I will have a list of ten options for the client”?
Is this similar to habits vs. goals? Maybe.
I wonder if the difference is about being able to say, “I did what I had to do” and saying “It is done.”
If you want to win a race, it makes no difference if you can check off your practice schedule if your time isn’t getting better.
But then the question becomes “Is it done” or “Is it done well”?
And that has to do with whether or not it’s a quantifiable goal.
When you’re running. You either made the time or you didn’t.
When you’re writing a paper, there’s a finished A paper and a finished C paper. There’s an email that you believe has the best pitch you could have written, or it’s an email that you sent because you wanted it off your list?
In my life so far I’ve found that I’m more of a goal person than a consistency person. In fact, consistency kills me every time, and I get quickly depressed. This is especially true since on my motivated days I want to change everything in my life – do laundry on time, eat better, eat more, sleep more, write more blogposts, do spiritual stuff more often, volunteer, be kind, make time for others etc. etc.
Even with the best of intentions, it can get quite hard to habitize all those resolutions.
It works better for me to say “I will read 50 books this year” than “I will read one book a week.”
But one of my goals in life is to be less critical, and more optimistic, which is definitely unquantifiable. The best way (that I know) to accomplish a change like that is to write down one time each day that you actively banished an unkind thought about someone or something and replaced it with a positive one. (Writing it down is essential because it forces you to be conscious of what you’re thinking.)
This relies only on your consistency measure. You can only count on keeping track of the habit, not the progress, because how will if you’re actually a more positive person?
I think it boils down to this: any habit that you do has to be for some purpose. You don’t do push ups just to do push ups, you do them to be more fit. But then how do you know you’re more fit, just because you checked it off your list?
So there are two options:
Working towards a measurable goal by measuring progress, not consistency – so no habits, just build up to a goal.
Working towards a non-measurable goal by consistency because you don’t have another way to judge it.
When it comes to something like writing, or accomplishing creative work, habits can help you get better at what you do, but the final product doesn’t fall under this category. It’s not a defined destination (unlike a goal), but it does have to end somewhere (unlike a habit).
All this does not answer the question of how to get yourself to work – by time or by project – so that still has to be explored.
Some great stuff I found regarding habits:
- Buster Benson. He’s created a bunch of tools around habit tracking and habit building. 750words.com is for writers who want to write every day, HealthMonth is a social and gamified way to build habits, Peabrain will help you keep track of anything from your phone via SMS, and the Hipster Habbit App is a non-digital, printable, 30 day habit-tracking calendar to carry around in your wallet.
- He’s shared his very practical and very motivational thoughts on habits in The Habit Manifesto.
- Seinfeld’s ‘Don’t Break the Chain‘ tip seems to work for some though it didn’t work for me. I was so excited when I first read about it because it involves calendars and markers but I fizzled out pretty quickly. I’ll try it again some day.