Stop me if one of these is you:
- You enjoy setting goals, but have trouble following through on them.
- You have big dreams, but haven’t seen a lot of progress.
- Your problem isn’t finding the time; it’s keeping up the motivation.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.
I was just like you at one point. I’d set monumental goals for myself, then rarely follow through on them.
Sure, I’d progress a little in whatever it was. But nothing worth talking about.
Then, I’d stop completely. I wouldn’t put time into it again until, months later, I remembered that I’d put any time in it at all!
But that was the end of it. By that point, I’d fallen out of practice and knew how much work it’d take to get back to where I was.
I was a car spinning its tires. I made a lot of noise, but I went nowhere. And I was just like you.
Why your goals fail
So, why does it happen every time? Why do you set goals but never stick to them?
It boils down to the way humans form habits.
Think of a goal that you have.
Now, think about the steps you would make to begin working toward that goal.
What are these steps? Do they require significant changes to your life or small changes? Do the steps create a routine, or do they just focus on the outcome? What are you willing to change to achieve this goal?
These questions and your answers will highlight a lot of the downfalls of how humans set goals.
Atomic Habits and habit formation problems
James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is arguably the leading book/bible on habit formation. And in his book, Clear highlights a few reasons humans often fail at goal setting.
1. You try to change everything at once
Researchers on the subject have concluded that humans are not the best at changing many habits simultaneously.
In fact, we shouldn’t change more than three. And even these should be tiny changes, not monumental ones.
2. The habit change is too large
Have you ever done this before? I know I have.
Instead of focusing on the small changes (run a mile every day), we focus on gigantic changes at once (run 40 miles a week).
Habits have to be small and easy enough to do every day, then we can build on them.
3. Seeking the outcome, not the process
Humans are outcome-focused, but often overlook the attention to the process that is needed to get that outcome.
- I want to lose 50 pounds.
- I’m going to save $50k for a new car.
- I will score 25 points a game.
All of these focus on the reward but not the path to get there. If you don’t have a roadmap to your destination, you aren’t leaving your driveway.
4. Environment stays the same
Your environment shapes you more than you know. Subtle, everyday inputs unconsciously influence your behavior. And they play a massive role in your goals and habits.
Goal to lose weight? You’re setting yourself up for failure by surrounding yourself with poor diet options.
Trying to quit drinking? Keeping your fridge stocked with alcohol isn’t making it easier.
Your environment is going to have a ripple effect on your life. If you surround yourself with temptations to fail, it’s a matter of time before it happens.
5. Overlooking the small changes
Because of the focus on outcomes, humans overlook the reward that comes from the daily process.
Your goal is to save $3,000 this year. But, all you can focus on is how far you are from the goal total.
You’re ignoring the fact that the small investments, day-by-day, will add to your total.
Or, you start making more significant investments thinking it will get you there faster. But, is the behavior sustainable?
Often, the answer is no.
Small changes lead to remarkable results
Habits are never the product of significant, noticeable actions. They are always tiny and unnoticeable actions that build over a long period.
Think of any habit you have formed. It can be good or bad.
Think about how long you’ve had the habit.
How did it start? How long have you been doing it? And lastly, how hard would it be to break the habit?
It is always something small that is repeated, then snowballs into an action that you involuntarily do. It becomes a part of your identity.
Let’s use those superpowers for good.
The idea of compound interest
If you’re familiar with compound interest, feel free to skip over the following paragraphs. If not, then read on.
Compound interest is a term that is used in investing.
The idea is that you earn interest on your interest. So, if you invest $100 and earn 5% interest every year, you’ll have $105 at the beginning of the following year.
However, the following year you will be earning 5% interest on $105, not $100. Therefore, the amount of interest you make will continue to scale over time. Instead of having $150 in 10 years, you will have $162 thanks to compound interest.
It’s only $12, you may say. But that’s if you stopped investing after the initial $100.
What if you invested $5 every month. How much money would you have in 10 years?
$917. Of that $917, $700 is what you invested, and the rest is interest. Now, continue to scale this across time, and you realize the power of compound interest.
Apply this same concept to our habits.
Similar to the money you invest in securing your future, the habits you’re investing time into earn compound interest as well. And those habits are positively and negatively affecting your future.
So, what habits are you currently working on where this could be applied? Start taking small steps to implement actions that benefit those habits.
But, before you do, make sure you set up proper systems to help your habits stick.
Raise the level of your systems
With our tendency to focus on outcomes, we fail to recognize what allows us to achieve that outcome.
And that’s our systems.
Systems are the processes you use to reach a particular goal.
Your goal is to win a talent show. Your system is how you develop your talent, the routine you create, and how you prepare yourself.
The goal is the project. The systems are your toolbox.
Imagine trying to build a house, but your toolbox contains a plank of wood, a screwdriver, and a nail.
If your systems aren’t ready for the goal, you will never succeed.
Fall in love with the process
It’s easier said than done, but this change is one of the most monumental changes you can make.
When you fall in love with the process of working toward a goal, that’s when you will reach your full potential.
Every writer wishes to be the greatest author.
Every basketball player hopes to be the GOAT.
But, every person isn’t ready to form the systems that guide you toward making minor improvements every day, which lead to significant improvements over the long term.
Because that’s hard, and that takes time.
But that is why the greats are the greats. Their systems were impeccable, and they obsessed over making it that way.
To quote Kilian Jornet, one of the greatest endurance athletes ever, on how he views training,
“I believe that a career in endurance sports cannot be sustainable in the long term if the balance of results is heavier than the love for training.”
While Jornet is speaking about endurance sports, his message is universal.
Your systems lead to your outcomes.
Take the time to analyze the systems you have in place for the goals you’re working toward.
Are they conducive to helping you improve by a little every day? Are there ways you can optimize to help you reinforce the habit?
One way of doing this is through “chaining” or “stacking” habits. If you’re unfamiliar, it boils down to this:
You already perform certain habits each day. Brushing your teeth, eating, or maybe you play with praying mantises like the weird dude in Polo.
Whatever you’re into, you can use your existing habits to help with the formation of a new habit.
I will brush my teeth, then meditate for 10 minutes.
After I eat dinner, I will play guitar for 30 minutes.
Before I get a shower, I will clean the toilet.
This can be applied to any habit you want to create. Use it to your advantage.
It’s difficult to form good habits. The constant detractions surrounding us can quickly derail us and set us on the wrong path.
But, by starting small and building slowly, you get yourself moving in the right direction.
Your goals are right in front of you; you just have to make the small changes necessary to reach them.
Love the process, and the process will love you back.
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