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Why Habits Are More Important Than Goals

July 01, 2020

Curation diary open on the floor

This blog post was written by Saint Belford Co-Founder Tom Stanford. 


Goals are overrated

This is coming from someone who has set them his whole life.

So what if I told you there was an even better way of getting what you want...without setting goals in the first place?

A strong emphasis on building good habits while neglecting goals will help you far greater than focusing on goals without building good habits.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits puts this nicely.

He says “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” (A modern twist on the famous Archilochus quote: “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”)


Why systems work better

Here’s a scenario to explain the difference.

Jess wants to lose 5kg of body fat so she can look babe’n at her friend's wedding in three months time.

She sets her goal: “I will lose 5kg of body fat by August 31”

Over the next three months, Jess is super disciplined with her eating and exercise.

Here's the thing, Jess LOVES her food. She’s a self-proclaimed foodie. 

She misses a lot of her favourite meals and feels like she’s using a lot of willpower, but insists the payoff will be worth it.

By the end of August–success! Jess meets her goal. She also looks and feels better than she ever has before.

Fast forward a few months. Jess jumps back on the scales. Disappointingly, she notices that the majority of the weight which was lost just a few months earlier is now back. 

Looking back on the wedding photos from August, Jess is determined to look and feel that good again.

But this time would be different. 

Instead of setting yet another weight loss goal, she decides to look at her habits.

Remember, Jess is a foodie. She doesn’t want to give up her favourite foods again. So she decides to simply eat less. After researching intermittent fasting, she’s set on implementing it in her life. 

She creates a habit intention: “I fast each morning until midday” and uses a habit tracker to keep her accountable.

After a few weeks, Jess’ body adapts to her new eating habit. She enjoys the fact she doesn’t need to cook breakfast anymore but can still eat all the tasty food she desires.

After two months of habit building, Jess jumps back on the scales. She’s shocked to learn she’s lost 2kgs. Almost without trying!


The compound effect

By this point, her fasting habit is deeply ingrained into her everyday life, so she plans on building another new habit.

She writes down a brand new Habit Intention using this formula:

[Habit] at [time] in [location]

“I complete a daily 15 minute workout when I get out of bed in my bedroom”

Jess has already taught her brain: ‘fasting happens in the morning.’ Now she’ll also teach it: ‘working out also happens in the morning when she gets out of bed.’

Habit number two is in motion.

She begins each morning with a workout and enjoys the process of building yet another good habit.

Fast forward another two months. 

After building the habits of fasting and exercising daily, Jess is feeling fitter and happier than she’s ever been in her life. She jumps on the scales and her jaw drops.

Unbelievably, her weight is down to the same level it was before her friend’s wedding.

But this time, there’s a difference. Jess has successfully implemented a system of habits to continue to support her for the long term.

Her initial goal was a struggle and required discipline and sacrifice. It also caused an underlying level of unhappiness for the three months she was dieting. It just wasn't sustainable. 

While it was worth it to look good at the wedding, it didn’t result in a happier and healthier life in the long run. 


Habits are everything

The lesson Jess learnt was this:

Goals are great for obtaining, systems and habits work best for maintaining.

A goal of losing weight is great. But a system of maintaining a healthy lifestyle so weight is never an issue is even better.

Almost everything we do is out of habit. We can pick them up unconsciously and they can greatly impact the trajectory of our life.

Begin focusing on building good habits, and breaking bad ones. By doing this, almost any goal you set out to achieve will become infinitely easier.