Don’t Set Goals, Make New Habits Instead

How to change a habit

How I Became Large

“Double cheeseburger, no pickles, no ketchup, in a value meal, upsized, with a pepsi.”

That was my lunch order nearly every day at Burger King after we moved to New Zealand.  The “no pickles, no ketchup” part was interesting – that was the easiest way to order a burger with only mustard.  The BK point-of-sales system didn’t have a key for “only mustard” – instead, it had keys for what to exclude – “no pickles” and “no ketchup.”

One time I asked for a double cheeseburger with mustard only, and the response was “<pause> So… no burger, no bun?”  That’s when I figured out I had to learn how to speak Burger King.

Anyway, the point is, that after 3.5 years of this, I had put on 50 pounds or so. Well, since I was in New Zealand, I had put on 23 kg or so.

I had gotten into a bad habit.

How I Became Less Large

When we moved to Australia, I got a new job, but that terrible lunch habit persisted.

Eventually, I said enough is enough.  My goal for several years had been to lose weight, but nothing happened until I changed my habits.  I changed what I ate.  Lunches were now salads, I cut out soft drinks, more exercise and so on – there aren’t really any secrets to this.  Over the course of a year, I dropped about 30 kg, and I’ve kept most of that off for ten years now.

Now I have better habits.

As Neil Perkin succinctly puts it: systems trump goals.

What New Habit Will You Build?

While the human body is a complex system, weight it still a relatively straightforward input-output process.  So we can address it through habits.  Charles Duhigg wrote a great book on how to break bad habits and build better ones – The Power of Habit.  Here is his flow chart for building habits (click on the image to see it full-size):

How to change a habit


The problem with goals is that most of them are too big, and they take a long time, and that requires work.  That’s also what makes them worthwhile!  But on a day-to-day basis, you need to figure out how to build the habits that will eventually get you to your goals.

If your goal is to lose weight, you need to change your eating (input) and exercise (output) habits.

If your goal is to write a book, you need to change your writing habits.

Austin Kleon wrote a great post yesterday on breaking goals down into habits. He says to do something small, every day:

Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done.

Don’t say you don’t have enough time. We’re all busy, but we all get 24 hours a day. People often ask me, “How do you find the time for the work?” And I answer, “I look for it.” You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies. You find it in the cracks between the big stuff—your commute, your lunch break, the few hours after your kids go to bed. You might have to miss an episode of your favorite TV show, you might have to miss an hour of sleep, but you can find the time to work if you look for it.

What I usually recommend: get up early. Get up early and work for a couple hours on the thing you really care about. When you’re done, go about your day…

Do the work every day. Fill the boxes on your calendar. Don’t break the chain.

This approach works pretty well for most of our personal goals.  But what if our goal is to make our organisations more innovative?

That’s a bit trickier.  The main reason is that innovation is a lot more complex.  Complex systems are trickier because they require us to approach our goals indirectly.  This excerpt from John Kay’s terrific book Obliquity outlines the issue:

If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim. The name of this idea? Obliquity.

What is true of forests is equally true of businesses. The great corporations of the modern world were not built by people whose overriding interest was wealth, profit, or shareholder value. To paraphrase Mill: their focus was on business followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they found profit by the way.

This is how Hewlett Packard described it: “Profit is a cornerstone of what we do… but it has never been the point in and of itself. The point, in fact, is to win, and winning is judged in the eyes of the customer and by doing something you can be proud of.”

Obliquity is relevant whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment, and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways in which others respond to them.

Innovation is another thing that we need to approach obliquely.  So what habits should we build to help?  Here are some ideas that I’ve run across in the past couple of days:

  • Take care of yourself.  Jason Cohen points out that we are happier and more productive when we get enough sleep, exercise, and take time to think.
  • Practice divergent thinking. It’s a mistake to jump straight to solutions when we’re trying to innovate.  First, we have to explore a broad range of ideas.  Olaf Kowalik writes about how to use divergent thinking to do this – and this is a key innovation skill.
  • Read widely. Jorge Barba makes an important point at the end of his post recommending some innovation books to read:

    One more thing: everything is connected in some way, so read about anything and everything. Not just books that have “innovation” in the title.

    Yes – definitely do that.

To innovate, you need the process, but you also need to muddle your way through a bit.  So some of the habits you need to build are oblique – like getting enough sleep.  Others are more direct, like blocking out time for thinking and allocating resources for building your ideas.

The main point is that things that are worth doing take effort over an extended period of time.  You need to build habits that will ensure that you make that effort.

As we hit the new year, don’t set goals – start building new habits instead.



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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

18 thoughts on “Don’t Set Goals, Make New Habits Instead

  1. hats-ff sir ,, lovely concept ,,, I really want to apply in my life ,, since I need this… I have to apply in my life schedules …. keep posting these types of articles .. Sir ,,

  2. Solid, Tim. This is the time of year for it. Ironically, I just stumbled across a brief article suggesting similar on Entrepreneur yesterday which prompted me to quickly share some thoughts on the GBXM blog. Still entering the divergent state right now, but seeing you take things convergent with this one gets me even more excited.

    All the best in 2014.

      • Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The more of these divergent ideas I can converge into processes and action, the faster it’s going to happen. The best is yet to come!

  3. Good post Tim. Over the years, I’ve developed another strategy for developing new habits—do the minimum.

    When I was in my 20’s and stopped wrestling competitively, I knew it was going to be a challenge to stay in shape. I had seen many of my teammates really put on the pounds after college. So I came up with an idea. I would make sure to workout for 5 minutes a day, without fail. Surely, anybody could do 5 minutes.

    I found over the years that I went through times of being in better and worse shape, but I never lost the habit of working out, so I never really fell of the wagon. I could always get back. If I had a rough couple of weeks at work and only did the minimum for a few weeks, after it was over I could jump right back in. I was still in the habit of going to the gym everyday.

    I found the same strategy works with a lot of things, particularly writing. If I at least try to write everyday, it doesn’t really matter if I’m successful or not. I have good days and bad days, but everyday I have the opportunity to perform, because I’m in the habit of writing everyday.

    I don’t know whether this will work for everybody, but it works for me.

    – Greg

    • I think that’s a great approach Greg, and I think it would work for most people. I do similar stuff with writing, probably should with working out as well…

  4. Tim, I really enjoyed your introductory paragraphs. I started doing triathlons (a sport that I think is big in your part of the world) two years ago after a year of fitness bootcamps. My new habit is going to bed early in order to wake up early–almost the only time in the day for my workouts. I applaud your health successes! I will take away the “systems trump goals” mantra from this post. I have found that enjoyment of my workouts creates deeper satisfaction and a longer benefit than race results. Consistency is key but I have also learned from triathlon that quality trumps quantity and some times you have to take a day off. Have a great new year!

    • Thanks Olaf! It’s interesting that you and Greg both have fitness examples of building habits. In some ways, i think we’re more used to building new habits in that realm.

      Really glad to see you blogging again – hope you have a great year!

  5. Absolutely brilliant. I, too, dropped a grand total of 40kg over a year-and-a-half period, and I did so not by setting a goal (“lose 40 kilos”) but by creating a recurring pattern and convincing myself that as long as I do something, each and every day, I will get to where I want to be (which, in this case, was exercising every Mon, Tue, Wed, Thu and Fri and not eating anything sweet). Results followed – and I learned that the key to achieving something ambitious is to think less of the distant goal and more about putting one front in front of another, one step at a time. So long as the path you mapped out for yourself is the right one, results will come.

  6. This is a great post and really illustrates the importance of habits and systems in one’s life. It took me a long time to learn this but once I did I was able to make some pretty significant changes in my life. Thanks for sharing this and providing such great content!

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