Habits vs Goals

As a business psychologist, I do a lot of work with clients who talk about their goals, and they normally include statements similar to the following

  • I want to be the CEO of my company
  • I want a better work life balance
  • I want to set up a successful business
  • I want to be a confident networker

All these goals are perfectly valid and are strong goals to strive for…. However… I have a bit of an issue with goal setting on its own. I think what people often need to do is to understand their habits and what bad habits are holding them back and need changing, and what good habits they need to embrace to meet their goals.

So what are habits?

Habits are mostly unconscious to us and form neurological pathways in our brains. When we receive a certain stimulus, it causes a routine behaviour to obtain a reward. To understand how these habits and neural pathways operate, it’s like thinking about a pathway in a field… if you want to cross a field then you automatically follow the pathway where the grass is already worn down by previous walkers. If you wanted people to use another pathway to cross the field then you would have to give a reason for someone to change the habitual unconscious choice they would take of the worn path, and then keep reminding them to do this until the new pathway was worn down and then became the habitual unconscious choice. William James is one of the grandfathers of psychology and wrote about habits in his infamous 1957 book ‘The Principles of Psychology’. In his chapter on habits, James compared habits to water and said that it “hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when is flows again, the path traced by itself before”

The following diagram is taken from the book ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg and it provides an overview on how to start thinking about habits and how they operate. Each habit we have is triggered by a cue, which causes a routine behaviour to achieve a reward. Each time we repeat that habit it reinforces the process so we are then more likely to repeat it again.


I do recommend his book as its very interesting read and provides a clear insight into habits and the impact on your own behaviour but also on the impact of consumer behaviour so it’s a good read for any business owners out there.  In his book Charles explained his own habit of visiting the canteen for a snack every afternoon. He analysed the reason for the behaviour and looked at the cue for the routine and also what was the real reward, and realised it was the interaction and stimulation of talking to others that he wanted, rather than the snack. So when he understood the real reason for the reward he was able to change the routine behaviour. This is much easier way of meeting a goal of eating fewer snacks in the day.

To look at you own behaviours think about cues for the routine… an example we hear a lot that we should turn off the alert for a new email so you are not distracted to go and check your email. This is often sold to you as fulfilling the goal of being more productive but really you are creating better habits and removing the cue for distraction. Strong habits like answering email or responding to the bleep of a new text on our phone can produce addictive like habits that will force your brain into responding even if incentives are there for you not to answer, so removing the cue is a good way of changing that habit.

Some habits are ones we should reduce or stop whereas sometimes we are looking to increase behaviours so they become easier to incorporate in our life, such as exercising each day or regular meditation. So, when thinking about your goals, think about them in the terms of habits and how you can change your neural pathways to take on or reduce habits. People often say it takes 21 days to change a habit, this isn’t necessarily true as it really depends on how engrained the neural pathway is in your brain. Each time you think about the new behaviour and act on it, the resistance to change becomes easier so it is worth keeping up the work to change habits.

I do find a fun way of trying out new habits is by a 30 day challenge. I watched this TED talk on 30 day challenges by Matt Cutts last year and found it very motivational for my own habits. Do watch it as it’s less than 4 minutes long and very entertaining. The idea is every month either add a new habit or stop an existing habit.

Some of my own recent 30 day challenges have been

  1. Talk to someone new every day for 30 days
  2. Get up at 7am every day for 30 days
  3. No TV for 30 days
  4. Meditate every day for 30 days
  5. No chocolate for 30 days
  6. Do a good deed every day for 30 days

For April I am going to exercise every day for 30 days to improve my health and energy and also I am influenced by another recent blog and am going to log my hours every day so I can understand my distractions and develop more productivity for my business.

Charles Duhigg also shared a great flowchart for exploring habits on his site that may be a useful tool for analysing habits your want to change.

So what is your 30 day challenge going to be?

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