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Inside: Why focusing on building habits (or systems), as opposed to setting goals, can set you up for more success and, more importantly, more joy this year.
I’m an achiever by nature, and I’ve always set goals. No matter what.
Until this year.
Towards the end of this year (2019), I reached a level of burnout I’ve never experienced before. This year has been full of overwhelming challenges:
- Having a fifth child, and battling postpartum depression
- The unexpected death of my father
- Struggling to get a second blog off the ground
- Hustling to finish paying off student loans
I had just achieved what I considered my ultimate goal of the past few years: to start a blog in order to make staying home to homeschool my kids easier financially.
It took me two years of putting my head down and neglecting almost everything else, but I was finally earning a steady, decent part-time income from this blog.
The only problem? No matter how much I achieved, no matter how many goals I met, it never felt like enough.
I had surrounded myself with side-hustlers who had more time, energy and ambition than myself.
These were the go-getters, the never-ending hustlers of the internet who were always looking to the next income level, the next summit to reach, the next “big hairy audacious goal”.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that mentality, I realized I was seriously tired of setting goals.
I was weary of the endless hustle that sometimes got me the results I wanted, and sometimes didn’t. And worse than being weary, I was also unhappy a lot of the time.
After reading Atomic Habits by James Clear this summer, I finally realized WHY I was so exhausted and unhappy.
The Day I Stopped Setting Goals
When I read this quote, it stopped me in my tracks. A lightbulb went off in my head.
The past several years of my life finally made sense.
The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: ‘Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.’ The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting off happiness until the next milestone.” -James Clear
For years, I set goals, and unknowingly, I linked happiness to achieving those goals.
But that happiness was fleeting.
Achieving the goal was a brief moment in time. The elation I felt wore off after a few days, only to be replaced by the question, “What now?”
And if I didn’t achieve the goal? I felt like a complete and total failure.
When I set goals, I was a success, or I was a failure. There was no in-between: I either met the goal or I didn’t.
Setting goals can make you feel like you’re running an endless race.
So I decided to stop.
I stopped setting SMART goals, actionable goals, “big hairy audacious goals”, stretch goals or whatever else goal-setters are calling it these days.
I started focusing on habits, instead. That decision changed my life.
Wondering HOW exactly to start creating good habits? Watch the video below to learn the four laws of creating good habits according to James Clear.
5 Good Reasons I Don’t Set Goals Anymore
1. When you stop setting goals, you can more easily live in the present and enjoy the journey.
I’ve set and met goals before. I already told you how I built a sustainable source of income through this blog. And I built it with blood, sweat and tears.
I’m not going to lie: when I finally reached my goal of making it profitable? (Well, more than $100 a month profitable, anyways). It felt pretty freaking awesome.
But it was a fleeting moment.
I quickly moved to thinking about the next milestone, the next “this much money a month” goal and THEN I will be happy.
That kind of mentality is exhausting.
When you set goals, you’re constantly living in the future, looking to the next achievement. Your focus is rarely in the present. At least, that’s how I was when I set goals all the time.
Focusing on building habits helps you focus on today.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard
If I’ve learned anything from my dad’s unexpected death, it’s to live fully in the present and to enjoy the journey right where you are. To celebrate the small daily victories and enjoy the ordinary moments because you are not guaranteed tomorrow.
2. Building habits and systems focuses on what you CAN control.
So often, the goals we set are out of our control.
Losing weight, for example. You can do everything right:
- Exercise regularly
- Count calories
- Follow the latest diet
- Stop eating after 7 p.m.
And you can STILL not lose a single pound.
Your genetics are the biggest thing out of your control. If your genes are telling you to hang onto the weight, then you are going to have a very hard time losing weight.
I can’t imagine how incredibly frustrating that must be!
Or take another example – finishing a marathon in a certain amount of time.
I went to college in Boston, where watching the Boston marathon is a citywide event (even schools are off that day). I’ve watched enough Boston marathons to know that the race day itself is a big fat unknown, with so much beyond the runner’s control.
Runners get injured.
Weather conditions are less than ideal, icy and rainy the entire day.
Bombs go off at the finish line. Thank God I wasn’t at the finish line that day.
You train and you train and you train.
But at the end of the day, things WILL come up that you did not expect and that you cannot control.
When those things happen and you have your whole year’s happiness wrapped up in the goal of winning or completing the race in a certain time, your happiness is wrapped up in something you can’t control.
And basing your happiness on something not in your control is always dangerous for your mental and emotional health.
Establishing habits and systems shifts your focus to what you can control.
3. When you focus on habits, the small daily choices, the often hidden efforts, are just as valuable as the big achievements they often produce.
When you reach a goal, you are ecstatic, and for good reason.
All that sacrifice, all that hard work paid off!
But what if you don’t reach the goal?
It’s tempting to believe that all the pain, all the sacrifice, all the hard work was for nothing.
When you’re building habits, however, every choice you make that builds a particular habit is celebrated.
Whether or not you win that race you signed up for doesn’t really matter all that much. And it certainly doesn’t determine how you view the weeks and months of daily, positive choices in the right direction.
The process itself is what matters most.
4. When you stop setting goals, you make room for life’s unexpected opportunities.
This year I set a goal to finally pay off my student loans. The number was still daunting, but I believed that if I hustled enough and denied myself enough, I could do it.
I managed to pay off several thousand dollars before the offer came. My husband’s aunt and uncle called us with a question: did we want to buy their house?
The question caught us off guard.
We weren’t planning on moving…and yet, we knew we needed a change. We also desperately needed help with our kids.
After thinking about the house, which we’d been to multiple times, we realized it was literallly the perfect house for us.
But that goal. It held me back for a bit.
In order to buy the house, we would need to put the brakes on our aggressive debt repayment. We would also be buying a house before we achieved the goal of being debt-free, something I swore I would never do.
A goal almost stopped me from saying “yes” to something better.
5. When you don’t set goals, you take a break from the never-ending hustle.
I love the flexibility of my job – being able to make money while I sleep or I’m at the playground with my kids is amazing. (After putting in the work when it suits my schedule, of course.)
But the dark side of the entrepenurial life is the endless hustle, the nagging feeling that you can never really rest or everything you’ve built will come crashing down around your shoulders.
And it’s not just entrepreneurs that feel that way.
The hustle mentality is a defining aspect of American culture.
But to think we can keep hustling forever and never ever rest is foolishness.
If you keep planting crops in the same field year without giving it a break, the crops will eventually stop producing.
The same is true with people.
Without periods of rest, we burn out. We stop being able to produce. If not in our work, then in our personal life.
Our relationships fail. Our mental health fails. Our physical health fails.
In her book Do Less, Kate Northup talks about the value of fallow seasons in life. Even when it looks like nothing is happening, SO much is! Rest has incredible value our culture doesn’t fully acknowledge or encourage.
When I stopped setting goal after goal after goal, I started to finally appreciate the value of rest, of not doing anything apparently productive that I could check of my list. It was finally o.k. to not achieve anything tangible.
The Subtle Difference Between Focusing on Habits, Instead of Setting Goals
There will inevitably be at least some thought of goals when you’re deciding which habits you want to build.
But those goals can look more like the kind of person you want to be, not a thing you want to achieve.
After all, I didn’t decide to start a habit this year of drinking a cup of water and taking a vitamin in the morning just for the heck of it.
I know of course, that drinking water is good for me.
You could say my goal was to be a healthier person.
I certainly didn’t decide last year to establish a habit of cleaning the kitchen every night before bed because I felt like it (every night it was the exact opposite, actually).
I did it because I knew that waking up to a dirty kitchen every morning made me feel irritated and constantly behind. Plus, I was a cranky mom, not the mom I wanted to be.
You could say I was setting a goal of being a happier mom in the morning.
So what’s the difference between habits/systems and goals? And aren’t by trying to establish habits, aren’t you really setting goals?
Kind of…but there IS a difference. James Clear suggests,
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”
I’ll give you an example.
I would love for this blog to reach a steady 100,000 pageviews a month at some point. That number is what I’ve decided is my “enough”.
I’ve come close a couple months this year, but my baseline monthly pageviews are nowhere near that.
What I know after being in this business for a long time is that the best chance I have of reaching that “goal” is by publishing more problem-solving content.
To publish more of that content, I need to establish a habit of writing.
I pretty much need to write every single day in order to consistently publish one post a week.
I can’t really control whether my posts will get pinned on pinterest, make their way to the top of Google, or get shared on Facebook. Much of that is up to algorithms and other people (things I can’t control).
What I CAN control is writing every day and publishing one problem-solving post a week that I believe stands a good chance of being read, shared, and found on Google.
I’m choosing to focus my energy on building the daily habits of successful bloggers INSTEAD of focusing my energy on that 100,000 pageviews a month number.
I hope that makes sense!
Will I Ever Set Goals Again?
Right now, goals seem pretty meaningless to me.
But don’t you need to set goals to be successful? I used to think so.
Reading story after story about successful people made me reconsider. I realized that our perceptions of those people are often false.
Successful people focus far more on daily habits, guiding values and identity, and a growth mindset than they do on setting goals.
Successful people also get lucky. They’re in the right place at the right time. Those things they cannot control rule in their favor.
And because they’ve showed up every single day and put in the effort, they’re ready when life presents them with an awesome opportunity.
So will I set goals again? Right now I don’t think so, but maybe one day.
For now, James Clear and my own experience with setting goals has me utterly convinced that focusing on habits is a far more valuable use of my time and energy.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Atomic Habits.
I set goals for the grades I wanted to get in school, for the weights I wanted to lift in the gym, for the profits I wanted to earn in business. I succeeded at a few, but I failed at a lot of them. Eventually, I began to realize that my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed.” -James Clear
For more about how to build systems/habits, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Atomic Habits, one of the best books I read in 2019.
P.S. This post was not sponsored in any way – I just loved this book and had to share.