Consciously or not, many of us believe that adopting one small habit can change our lives. Maybe that habit is making the bed every day or drinking a glass of water once an hour. Productivity experts promise us that if we just make this one little change, everything else will, too. We’ll magically be different. The thinking typically goes like this:
- Change is made through habits.
- Start small.
- Small changes snowball, and big changes follow.
But change—at least the really substantive, lasting, meaningful kind—doesn't usually come from small habits. Why? Because habit switching and goal setting are the lowest common denominators when it comes to transforming behavior. These tools may get you somewhere, but probably not where you expect.
Setting goals may even prevent you from achieving the ultimate, long-term change you're gunning for. In fact, it can even become a barrier. Here's why.
The goals many of us set are in close proximity to a negative event in our lives. They result from sudden self-improvement projects we adopt in reaction to something we believe has gone wrong. So when we take up a new habit, the closeness of that incipient event continues to exert an undue influence, acting like a behavioral stick, imploring us to either stop or start doing something.
Nowhere is that more obvious than when January rolls around. When it comes to goals set around the beginning of the year, many of us are ready to put the food and drink of the holidays behind us. Still feeling stuffed and out of control, we make resolutions to hit the gym or have a sober January.
But with a little distance from that negative experience, the stick stops hurting. By February, according to one study, 36% of us have given up on our New Year’s resolutions. Within six months, more than half of us have gone back to our old ways. Only 8% of people actually keep their resolutions, which means that 92% of us throw in the towel. We made a short-term gain, then let it slip. We haven't truly been transformed.
Yes, the immediate problem may be that you stuff too many potato chips in your mouth. It's relatively easy to stop buying potato chips. But to permanently overhaul your diet and exercise regimen, you first need to identify the deeper issue at play—not just that you eat junk snacks too often, but why you keep struggling to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
Common wisdom holds that we just need 21 days to make a habit stick. Probably, that's wishful thinking. In a 2009 study, researchers found "considerable variation in how long it takes people" to cement a habit. Participants were asked to take on minor adjustments, like drinking an extra glass of water a day or walking three times a week. Some developed "automaticity" (performing an action without deliberate thought) in as little as 18 days, but it took others up to 254 for that minuscule habit to become automatic—up to 12 times longer, in other words, than the three-week benchmark many of us stick to.
Yet plenty of self-improvement and personal development programs have grown up around this belief. Most people who take on 21-day cleanses or even monthlong daily writing challenges like National Novel Writing Month stop after the initial goal is complete, then go back to their former routines.
It doesn't help that many of us set expectations that are way too high. Rather than trying to lose a pound a week, we shoot for 20 pounds in four. Instead of trying to write 500 words a day, we expect to write an entire novel in a month—and then expect to get it published.
Psychologists have a name for this sort of optimistic overreach in self-improvement efforts: "false hope syndrome." Researchers in one study found (not so surprisingly) that optimism is often highest in the early stages, and then we tend to relapse when the new routine gets too difficult, boring, or effort intensive. And even when we do meet with some success, our lives seldom change as dramatically as we'd first expected. What's more, the study found that people often make the same goals over and over again in the way they approach the new habit—ending up stuck, and with little to show for their effort.
Not only do we expect our goals to change our lives, we expect them to change how others see us.
This is especially true when we set "extrinsic goals," which are based on rewards like making money or increasing our social status. Most New Year’s resolutions or goals made in professional settings are externally focused. Extrinsic goals are less likely to improve our feelings of autonomy or competence. When you want validation from others, you’re more likely to rely on sheer willpower to get it.
Yet white-knuckling our way towards a goal rarely leads to lasting change. A study on willpower showed that, according to researchers, "people who felt compelled to exert self-control (in order to please others, for example) were more easily depleted than people who were driven by their own internal goals and desires." In other words, the promise of recognition from others is a poor motivation to sustain the willpower it takes to achieve those extrinsic goals.
Much more powerful is "intrinsic motivation"—when we're focused on developing self-knowledge, personal growth, or a greater sense of purpose. The point is that those things are meaningful because you decided they're valuable to you, rather than things that others find valuable for a host of personal, commercial, societal, or other reasons. When you're intrinsically motivated, you don't need to rely on willpower. And whether you achieve your goals or not, simply being internally motivated to do something can promote well-being and feelings of competence—both prerequisites for making any lasting changes stick.
Goal setting is itself a habit, and it's one we'd do well to abandon. Sure, there are better and worse ways to set goals, relatively speaking; those that are "S.M.A.R.T" (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound), we've been taught, are better than those that aren't. But no individual goal you can possibly set is likely to truly change your life. Without a shift in your thinking—away from habit formation and towards intrinsic motivation—you may make progress for a designated time period, but you're likely to relapse before long.
Don't think what you'd like to do differently or how you'd like to change. Consider instead what's already important, meaningful, or motivating to you—that's your best starting place. That shifts the focus from behavior towards the much deeper, muddier realm of being, which isn't so easily hacked. Intrinsic goals like self-acceptance or understanding don't have obvious behavioral proxies: It isn't about something you do or don't do out there in the world every day.
Those sorts of goals are in your head, right where they should be; long-term change begins not with action but with your thinking.
Suzan Bond teaches professionals how to gain independence by working for themselves. She is the author of The Anti-Goals Guide and is writing a series of books called Bet on Yourself. Follow her on Twitter at @suzanbond.