The Difference Between Habits & Goals


So, what’s the difference between goals and habits?

Let’s get right to the core of this, knowing the difference between goals and habits is pivotal in how you plan and work towards accomplishments. Getting the two confused can be exhausting as you see little progress toward your aspirations.

We’ll start with what a goal and habit are. A (well-designed) goal is something with a clear criteria for completion. For example, you might have the goal to lose 10 pounds in 30 days. At the end of the 30 days, you will know whether or not you’ve accomplished the goal. Goals tend to be broken down into a series of specific, actionable steps. When completed, your goal is completed as well.

A habit, on the other hand is something you do so frequently it has become a natural tendency. In many instances a habit is automatic. Habits are ongoing processes in your life, there is no completion point. In comparison to the last example about weight loss, eating healthy is a habit. You have to work at engraining new habits constantly, often every day. With each repetition they become more automatic with less effort.

Goals and habits are useful for different accomplishments.

Many of us want to accomplish goals and create good habits but all the overlap is confusing. Both have to do with action, measurability, and alignment with our values. To separate goals from habits, it’s vitally important you identify the length of time you want to participate in something. Wanting to write a book is different from committing to the habit of writing daily.

Before setting a goal or starting a new habit, it’s worthwhile to reflect on what you actually want. Let’s revisit our weight loss example since it’s an easy target. Let’s say you set a goal to lose 10 pounds in a month. You get a diet and workout routine, stick to them religiously, and hit your goal at the end of the month! You feel good and are proud of yourself.

But before long, you’ve slipped right back into your old habits – which don’t include exercise or healthy eating. After a few more months, you find yourself saddled with an additional 10 pounds (and maybe even a few more). You’re frustrated, but it’s ok. You’ll just set another goal to get the weight off. Rinse and repeat, forever.

Determining whether to set a goal or change a habit.

The problem here is that if you truly want to keep the weight off, you have to make permanent adjustments to your habits. A one-off excursion won’t keep you at your desired weight because your original habits are how you got there in the first place. Once the goal is complete, you’re right back on the original path. In this circumstance, you need to commit to changing your habits indefinitely, or the weight will always come back.

Let’s switch gears and say you have the goal of wanting to write a book. To accomplish that goal, you don’t necessarily have to get in the habit of writing daily. You can write during your free time or when you feel like it, and eventually you’ll hit the goal. (Although a more manageable goal would have a clear timeline). Once your book is complete, you don’t have to keep writing, if it doesn’t align with other goals. If you were writing every day, you may have started developing a habit, but it isn’t necessary to write one book. It’s a distinct project with a clear end point. 

This is a fairly simple framework, but I think the distinction can help structure how you work toward your accomplishments. Again, the key is to understand exactly what you’re hoping to achieve, then determine whether a goal or habit change will be more useful to you. Once you know, you can approach them with the tools you need to accomplish them.

Exercise:

  1. Identify one goal you’re working on.

  2. Identify one habit you’re working on.

  3. Are your goal and habit reflective of what you actually want to accomplish?

 

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