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Goal-Setting vs The Power of Habit

We live in a society driven by goals. Whether you’re an athlete, a business person, someone looking to get into shape or hoping to improve your overall life, setting goals is often the first order of business. While goal-setting is great, there are some challenges that you may encounter along the way. First, let me clear the air. I believe in setting goals, I think they’re beneficial and give you a sense of direction. However, setting a goal is not the biggest determinant of success, so bear with me while I explain why. I want you to think back to a time when you set a goal, take a minute or two and think about it. Got it? Now, ask yourself, did you reach your goal or not? If you answered yes, what did you do next? If you answered no, then why not? You may be wondering: why is she asking all these questions? Well, as I mentioned earlier, goals are often not the problem. So if not goals, then what? Well, believe it or not, the most important determinant of success can be found in your habits. By the end of this blog, my hope is for you to understand why habit forming is more indicative of success than goal-setting.

Goals (normally) don’t involve action items Setting goals can be very effective when they are both achievable and realistic. This is represented in the SMART goals acronym. However, as a Mental Performance Consultant (MPC), that is not what I tend to focus on with my clients. What I want to know, and the way I break my SMART goals down, is to determine what ACTIONS my clients are prepared to take in order to achieve that goal. For an athlete looking to improve their overall performance, this can look like a lot of different actions. It might mean increasing the amount of time spent in the weight room or adding recovery periods into their routine to avoid burnout. It could also mean going to the gym and putting more shots up. Even beyond athletics, its important to ask yourself if the actions that you are taking align with your goals. That’s really where the “A” becomes important. To take that a step further, once you determine what your course of action is, what can you do to make it a habit?

You’re likely looking for change Most of the time, when you set a goal, you’re likely looking to make a change. Let me give you an example. We might have been, are, or know of someone who was looking to get into great physical shape. Did you think of someone? Was it you? This person normally makes the decision to get into shape and then dedicates their time going to the gym for at least an hour; 5-7 days a week. They are relentless in the beginning and are super motivated to achieve their goals. Then it might so happen that they accomplish this goal and are feeling great, what generally happens next? It’s likely, that upon reaching the goal they will stop consistently going to the gym (I speak from experience). Often times, this creates a cycle where people put the weight back on that they worked so hard to lose. Why does this happen? Well, what we are looking for, in cases like this, is a quick fix, instead of a legitimate change in their lifestyle.

Believe it or not, goals can actually decrease motivation While we all set goals, ironically, when we don’t reach them, we can actually become demotivated and not want to set new ones or try again. While I truly believe failure is essential (and that is a whole separate topic in itself) when people truly can’t reach the goals they set, they tend to give up and internally break the promises they made to themselves in the first place. Why you ask? Because goals are similar to commitments. When we set the goal, we made a commitment to ourselves. When we don’t reach the desired outcome or when we don’t follow through, we lose the ability to trust that we can follow through with our commitments. By then we may think, what’s the point in even trying? While this may seem a bit disheartening, it doesn’t have to be. I think this is a great chance to look at the way we approach goal-setting altogether in favor of habit-setting!

In some instances, the bigger picture can be intimidating Looking at the big picture can be really intimidating. Instead, focusing on the process or even just today, can really make a difference. Let’s stick with the person trying to become more physically active, shall we? If this person wants to lose a substantial amount of weight in 6 months, this may seem intimidating. What if that person bit off more than they could chew? How will they accomplish all of that in 6 months. If that’s the case, that means they’d have to lose X amount of weight, in Y amount of weeks, and if they want to do that, then they have to lose Z amount of weight in a week or else ….. Exhausting right? Or, they could work it into their everyday routine. They could go to the gym/engage in physical activity once a day for at least 30 minutes and focus on just getting there ‘today’. Instead of that person focusing on the number of days they’d have to be in the gym to make it happen, they could focus on the mini goals/habits of going to the gym/being physically active once a day and make it a habit!

So what do we do with this new information?

We’ve talked a lot about goals but how do we apply what we have just learned in some steps?

  1. Determine your goals (because they’re still important and you need a starting point!)

  2. Take it a step further and break those goals down to mini-goals (MPC’s are great for that!)

  3. Be consistent! (This does not mean being perfect either, see next point)

  4. Be compassionate with yourself. There will be days where you will fall off the wagon and that’s okay! Get back on as soon as possible!

  5. Follow the 21/90 Rule (it takes 21 days to form a habit and 90 days for it to stick)

No matter what you do, or how you are looking to grow or evolve as person, it’s all about what you do on a regular basis. Not one successful individual got that way by setting a goal without the intention of being consistent. A consistent/daily goal to an MPC is called a habit. And in the wise words of Will Durant, let me end off with a quote:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit”

Naomi is a Mental Performance Consultant (MPC) who graduated with her Masters at the University of Ottawa in applied sport and performance psychology. As a former athletes, she believes the mental aspect of performance is something that need to be brought to the forefront. She works with athletes, business people, general performers and many other individuals to help them become the best versions of themselves through the delivery of mental skills!


Email: naomizittjames@gmail.com