Source: Nir and Far Nir’s Note: This article on goal setting was originally published in early 2016 but got such a great reader response that I dec
Nir’s Note: This article on goal setting was originally published in early 2016 but got such a great reader response that I decided to expand and update it along with adding the video below. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Over the past four years, I’ve discovered many incredible ways to hack my habits, set better goals, and improve my life. I have taught myself to love running, dramatically improved my diet and found the focus to write a bestselling book. Understanding how the mind works and using it to affect my daily behaviors has yielded tremendous dividends.
However, there is one goal that’s nagged at me for years that despite my best efforts, I’ve never been able to achieve — going to the gym consistently. I hate lifting weights. Hate it. I disdain the strain, the sweat, the smells — all of it. The only thing I like about working out are the results. Unfortunately, there’s no way to enjoy the benefits of going to the gym without, you know, actually going to the gym.
That’s not to say building muscle is all that important. Diet has a much greater impact on body weight and health than exercise. But given that I’ve already hacked my diet and no longer struggle with eating right, I wanted to finally get to the bottom of this stubborn challenge.
Why was this one goal so hard to set? If I could figure out a way to overcome this challenge, perhaps it would provide insights into how to tackle other difficult to achieve goals.
Habits vs. Routines – There is a Difference
Recently, it seems habits are everywhere. A slew of new books, not to mention countless blog posts and apps, guarantee a whole new you by harnessing the power of habits. However, almost all of these well intentioned authors promise too much. Many over-prescribe habits as a solution to problems they just can’t fix.
So what are habits, really? According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a psychologist focusing on habit research at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are simply how the brain learns to do things without deliberation. These impulses can be put to good use, but only certain behaviors can become habits.
Building a habit is relatively simple — just harness the impulse. For new habits to take hold, provide a clear trigger, make the behavior easy to do, and ensure it occurs frequently. For example, by completely removing unhealthy food from my home and eating the same thing every morning, my diet became a healthy habit. I extracted the decision making process out of what I eat at home.
However, if the behavior requires a high degree of intentionality, effort, or deliberation, it is not a habit. Although proponents of habits tout them as miracle cures for doing things we’d rather not do, I’m sorry to say that’s snake oil. All sorts of tasks aren’t habits and never will be. By definition, doing things that are effortful aren’t habits.
Unfortunately, this means behaviors that require hard work and deliberate practice aren’t good candidates for habit-formation. For example, although I make time for it every day, writing is not a habit. Writing is hard work. If I waited for an “impulse” to write, I’d never do it. To get better at writing requires concentration and directed effort to make sense of the words as they go from the research to my head and then to the screen. Similarly, lifting weights isn’t a habit because getting stronger requires working harder.
So if these type of behaviors aren’t habits, what are they? They’re routines. A routine is a series of behaviors regularly practiced. Routines don’t care if you feel an urge or not, they just need to get done. When…