Dec 8, 2010
Good habits make things easy. If you have a good habit, you can keep it going with minimal effort, never having to question why you floss or file all new papers before you go home for the night or make an extra effort to memorize people’s names when you meet them. That’s the whole point of a habit: it’s something you do more or less automatically. If you’re happy with how it works, you don’t really have to think about it.
Goals–which are often habits we’re trying to acquire–are a whole different ball game: we have to encourage ourselves every step of the way, use every trick and inducement we can come up with, and expend time, energy, and attention. Sooner or later (preferably sooner), careful attention to a goal should brings up an important question: Why?
Why ask why?
Is it really important to understand why we’re striving toward a particular goal? If we’re driven to accomplish something with a job, fitness, education, how the house looks, or how much sculpture we’re getting done on a weekly basis (for instance), does it really matter what’s making that feel important?
Often it does. Here are a few reasons that’s the case:
- Getting what we want very often doesn’t make us happy. Pursuing wealth, for instance, can seem like an important and obvious goal that doesn’t need to be considered, but very often wealth doesn’t make people any happier (see “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness“).
- Knowing what’s motivating us makes motivation easier. See “How to Harness Desire for Better Willpower.”
- Thinking about the reasons for our goals may in some cases bring us to realize that the goals aren’t ours–for instance, that we’re pursuing a degree that someone else wants us to have or trying to follow in the footsteps of someone who has a different path in life. There’s nothing more efficient than not having to do something in the first place, and if you can redirect your energies toward goals that are truly meaningful to you, you’ll get much better results.
- You may want to find a new reason for what you’re doing. For instance, if you originally got in shape because you wanted to do well in the dating world but are now in a permanent relationship, you may have found your motivation to stay fit has faltered, even though rationally you know you’ll be happier and healthier if you keep with the program. Knowing that your original reasons don’t apply any more can make it possible to figure out what your new reasons might be: Having energy? Staying healthy for loved ones? Social time? Time to think?
- Exploring our reasons for pursuing a goal can give us important insights into ourselves that may change our goals, behaviors, or choices.
So looking at your single, top goal (why just one goal? see “Choosing a Goal That Will Change Your Life“), ask yourself: “What’s in it for me? Why do I care?”
Photo by banoootah_qtr
Jul 13, 2010
Over time I’ve noticed a clear difference between the goals I consistently follow through on and the ones I don’t: commitment. I might have the same intention to repot my long-suffering ficus as I do to wash the dishes, for instance, but my dishes get washed while my ficus languishes uncomplainingly (though if potted plants could talk, I imagine I’d get quite an earful). The difference is that I’ve faced the question of living in a house full of filthy dishes and decided absolutely that I don’t want to do it, while I haven’t made the same commitment to my ficus.
Here’s what I mean by committing to something instead of just intending to do it:
- If I’m committed to something, I’m willing to hold off on other things in order to get it done. Many of us have a lot more we’d like to do in a day than 24 hours can actually hold, so if we don’t make a special effort not to try to do everything, then the things that are most important to us can be lost in the shuffle.
- If I’m committed to something that isn’t a habit yet, I’ll think about it practically every day and find time to work on it regularly–not just in big pushes every once in a while.
- Being committed to a goal means that I’ve decided to look for ways to do more toward that goal rather than excuses to not do it. For instance, if I’m committed to exercising, then when I go on vacation I’ll think “What are some special opportunities I’ll have to exercise?” and not “Well, this is going to totally disrupt my exercise routine–I guess I’ll just start up again when I get back.”
- Being committed means that I’ll want to pay attention when it’s time to make choices about my goal. If an opportunity to make a choice comes up, I’ll want to take the extra time to be mindful of what’s going on and to use all of the abilities at my disposal to make a good choice.
- If I’m committed to building a habit, then that means I’ve decided ahead of time that I’m OK working on that habit virtually every day for a couple of months or longer. Factors like how complicated the behavior is and whether I’ll be doing it in about same environment every day can make the period of time longer or shorter until the habit develops. (See How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?)
- Finally, a commitment means that I’m willing to at least some of the time to prioritize my goal over things like relaxation, entertainment, and less important tasks (even if those less important tasks are right in my face and insisting on being done right away). I don’t have to give up all enjoyment, but I do have to get comfortable with the idea that pursuing my goal may not always be convenient.
These thoughts and practices aren’t all that complicated, but it’s easy to come up with an intention and not think through what it would really mean to commit to it. Pursuing a goal takes time, effort, and attention. Yes following through in this way with a well-chosen goal can make an enormous difference in our happiness, self-confidence, and success.
Photo by darkmatter