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WANT TO BE MORE ADVENTUROUS? STOP SETTING GOALS

Self-help gurus trot out goal setting as the magic bullet of self-improvement, but are goals as all-powerful as they say? Could it be that our goals create mountains that are too difficult to climb? 

CLIMBER

It's easy to talk about reinventing ourselves, trying new things, and being more adventurous, but talking about our goals is one thing. Achieving them is another.

There’s plenty of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that goal setting is far less productive than many of us want to admit—surprisingly so. The evidence, in fact, suggests that goals often make success harder to achieve, not easier. 

"There’s plenty of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that goal setting is far less productive than many of us want to admit—surprisingly so"

For example, studies have consistently shown that goal-driven dieting rarely produces lasting results. [1]  Forget what the weight loss commercials keep telling you. The reality is that most dieters yo yo up and down until they eventually regain their weight, plus more. 

Goal-driven fitness routines suffer a similar fate. About half of us abandon our exercise programs within six months to a year. [2] 

Planning to pick up a new language? Good luck. Most adults don’t just fail with second language acquisition, they fail spectacularly. How many of us have planned to study Spanish before a trip to Mexico only to board the plane armed, yet again, with the same rote phrases? Dónde está el baño? Quiero una cerveza, por favor.

We don’t always fail, of course, but we fail often enough that perhaps it’s time to reconsider the value of our goal-driven approach.

The solution is to come up with a system that increases our chances of success.  What kind of system? One based on habits, not goals.

 

What’s the Difference Between a Habit and a Goal?

The difference between a habit and a goal is subtle but important. If you do something every day, it’s a habit. If you’re planning to achieve something in the future, it’s a goal.[3]

Learning to speak Japanese by next summer is a goal. Studying Japanese 20 minutes every morning is a habit.

Habits drive much of what we do. Yet we tend to treat them as a side dish, or ignore them altogether, when they are in fact the main course.

We habitually repeat about forty-five percent of our everyday behaviors in the same location nearly every day. [4]  From washing our hands to clicking our seatbelt, the power of habits is subtle but pervasive. The trick is training ourselves to recognize and harness this power.

 

Why Habits are More Effective than Goals

There are two types of goals: Quantifiable Goals and Abstract Goals.

The problem with quantifiable goals (losing weight, reducing debt, etc.) is that when we do manage to attain them, we often tick the box and then focus on something else. In other words, we get there but we rarely stay long. In most cases, we revert right back to our previous state. Diets. Budgets. We all know how those usually end up: Oh, there you are, french fries. I missed you. Hello, again, glass of wine and Amazon Prime.

Abstract goals (happiness, success, etc.) are even more problematic because they are nearly impossible to measure. What, after all, is happiness? What is success? How can we expect to achieve a goal that we can’t even quantify or explain?

 

The Subtle Power of Habits 

The inherent problem with self-improvement is that the process itself is rarely enjoyable. The budgeting. The Self-denial. The early-morning jog.

We long for the result, but the path to the goal is often joyless drudgery—so much so that the effort drains our willpower until we eventually give up. The exercise bike, still shiny and new, is moved to the garage. The yoga mat is forgotten in the closet.

We've all been there.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of the NY Times bestseller The Power of Habit, the most proven technique for maintaining willpower begins with an understanding of the fundamentals of habit formation.

"The most proven technique for maintaining willpower begins with an understanding of the fundamentals of habit formation"

According to Duhigg, habits are formed two ways: “They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed.” [5]  Deliberately “designing” a habit requires repetition. After enough repetition, an action becomes automatic. Once it’s automatic, it’s easier to do because it’s ingrained in our subconscious.

The brain wants to run efficiently, so whenever it can, it encodes a behavior into a habit, which allows the brain to shift into autopilot and complete the task with less effort.

Forming a habit require willpower—lots of it. But once a habit is automated, it requires increasingly less willpower. In fact, a task that seems at first like drudgery can evolve into a habit that we hardly notice.

But hold on a minute. We shouldn't let the self-help cheerleaders mislead us.

Forming new habits is rarely easy. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn't being fair or honest.

Our willpower reserve is limited, and sometimes we need to break an old habit before a new habit can replace it. In such cases, the power of habit is simultaneously friend and foe.

As we all know, bad habits are resilient. This is one of the main reasons that diet and exercise are so challenging. In both cases, success usually depends on transforming a bad habit (like Chicken Wing Tuesday) into a good habit (like joining a Tuesday night running club). Conversely, once a good habit is formed, it's hard to break.

Building habits isn't alway easy, but once habits are in place their power is undeniable.

 

The Ripple Effect

Once habits operate automatically, they can have a powerful ripple effect. Psychologist Karl E. Weick calls positive habits "small wins." Once a small win has been accomplished, "forces are set in motion that favor another small win." [6] 

For example, getting into the habit of waking up 30 minutes earlier every morning for some light exercise is a "small win," which may inspire you to join that running club, which is another "small win."  

Duhigg calls habits with this "ripple" quality "keystone habits." Like compound interest, keystone habits expand exponentially.

"Like compound interest, keystone habits expand exponentially"

habits create ripples

 How Can Habits make Us More Adventurous?

There's incessant talk these days about bucket lists, extravagant inventories of things we'd like to do before we die—visiting London, scuba diving, and so on.

Bucket lists, of course, aren't inherently bad. Making them can be enjoyable and hearing about them can be inspirational.

Sometimes, though, bucket lists can become a catalog of trophies that we will never win. Sure, we'll tick off one box here and there, but bucket lists for most of us are more dream than actionable plan.

Why? The answer is simple. Making a bucket list is really just goal setting by another name. As we've already established, goals are easy to create but difficult to realize. And that's how it is with with bucket lists too.

We all feel adventure's spark when we make our bucket lists, but how often does this spark propel us to where we long to be?

 

The Takeaway

Let’s return to one of our original examples—the goal of learning to speak Japanese. For fun, let's be adventurous, double down on Japan, and add a second goal: Climbing Mt. Fuji.

Learning Japanese and climbing Mt. Fuji are impressive bucket list-style goals, but both beg the same question: Are they achievable? 

In contrast, what if these two goals were reframed as an actionable habit? For example, something like studying Japanese 20 minutes every morning.

A study routine like this is related to the original goals, but it's framed as a doable activity, a habit, not as a pie-in-the-sky dream. The difference is crucial. And while it may seem unimpressive at first, take a close look at this habit-driven approach. Its potential might surprise you.

If you can muster the willpower to study Japanese most mornings for about a month, the habit will get ingrained in your subconscious, and gradually become easier. 

Before you know it, you'll be rattling off Japanese phrases left and right. Soon, the process is automated, and you hardly remember how unimpressive and tedious it once seemed. You are experiencing a concrete, measurable success and it feels good. 

Don't forget, with habits there is often a ripple effect. One small win can lead to another.

Studying Japanese, for example, might cause you to dabble in Japanese cooking, which might cause you to read about Japanese culture, which might inspire you to sign up for a Buddhist retreat. At the Buddhist retreat, you might make friends who, like you, also hope to one day visit Japan and climb Mt. Fuji. You motivate them. They motivate you.

It's a hypothetical scenario, but you get the idea. The ripple effect is powerful. Good habits beget other good habits, creating stepping stones towards success.

It's not unreasonable to imagine that the initial habit of studying Japanese might ripple out, leading to even further adventures. Who knows? Maybe by summer, after a few small wins, you find yourself enjoying a big winyou're in Tokyo trying out your newly acquired Japanese phrases.

Are you fluent in Japanese? Doubtful. Have you found a measure of success? Absolutely. You're in Tokyo eating Ramen! You're speaking with locals. You can see Mt. Fuji from your hotel window, and you're a train ticket and a single bold decision away from climbing one of the most iconic mountains in the world. You're not dreaming about adventure, you're living it. And the goals on your bucket list had very little to do with it. 

 Domo arigato, Mr. Habit.

 


 

[1]  I referenced this articlein The American Journal of Clinical Nutritionand this UCLA study. 

[2]  Rena R. Wing and James O. Hill. "Successful Weight Loss Management." Access the full article here.

[3]  I'm paraphrasing Scott Adams' words in his excellent book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. He says that if we are constantly chasing goals, we live perpetually in a state of “pre-success failure.”  His advice is to focus on "systems" that propel us in a positive direction, not goals.

[4]  Wood, Quinn, J.M., & Kashy. "Habits in Everyday Life: Thought, Emotion, and Action." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83, 1281–1297.

[5]  Duhigg, Charles.The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business. Random House (2014): 25.

[6]  Karl E. Weick. “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems,” American Psychologist 39 (1984): 40-49.

 

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