Set Habits, Not Goals

For the next few weeks, I’m doing something different and sharing 10 simple lessons with you on how to get the life you want. Think of this as a free, crash course on setting goals and achieving them.

Set Habits, Not Goals

If you missed the previous installments, check them out here:

Once you’re caught up, here’s the next one.

NOTE: To listen to the audio of the lesson, click the player below.

Lesson 3: Don’t Set Goals

For years I set goals and never achieved them. It was horrible.

I’d write them on scraps of paper, put them in a drawer, and forget about them.

What’s the saying? A goal without a plan is just a dream?

Well, I like to dream… a little too much.

But I like accomplishing things even more.

Note: If you’d like to attend a free webinar on how to set goals and actually achieve them, click here.

For the greater part of a decade, I would set goals — I mean, dreams — and never achieve them. I was drifting through my life, fantasizing about living another way but doing nothing to make that fantasy a reality.

Honestly, I didn’t know how.

Eventually, I got so burnt-out that I just gave up the entire process. Resolutions, goals, dreams — those were for suckers. I was content to just live my life without any big ambitions.

Except that I wasn’t.

Secretly, I was disappointed with my life and with myself for building such a life. I felt trapped and didn’t know how to make things better.

What’s worse, I was certain the problem was me, so that led to feelings of shame and inadequacy. If only I could just not want anything, I thought. But that didn’t seem to work, either.

Start small to get big results

Eventually, I got sick of feeling this way. I got tired of dreaming. I wanted to be doing. So I started small — not with a goal or a resolution, not even a dream, but with simple habits.

  • I started running every morning because after a few years of newlywed home cooking, I was getting fat.
  • I started writing every morning because I figured that’s what real writers did, and I wanted to be a real writer.
  • I started carving out little blocks of time to work on the things that mattered most to me.

And gradually, these little habits grew into a part of my daily practice. They became the thing that made me feel like me.

I distinctly remember one morning getting up before dawn, running five miles, eating breakfast, taking a shower, and sitting down with my cup of coffee and writing 1000 words — all before 7:00 a.m.

Who was this person I had become?

It felt good.

In fact, it felt so good I never stopped doing it.

And those little habits changed my life.

The power of daily habits

That year of writing made me a better writer. It helped me build an audience. It even led to a book deal and successful writing career that continues to astound me.

This didn’t happen, because I set some goals and forgot about them. It happened because I learned the importance of habits. I got serious about what I wanted to see happen and worked that into my daily life.

This was something I learned from my friend Michael Hyatt who is probably the most disciplined and organized person I know. He crushes goals. And I was amazed to hear that he reviews his goals on a daily basis.

I guess that makes sense. Once I learned the power of daily habits, I started setting goals again.

And you know what? It’s been years since I’ve set a goal that I haven’t achieved.

It’s possible to get the life you’ve always wanted, to set big goals and achieve them, as long as you understand this isn’t magic. It just requires daily practice.

To get free help on setting goals, check out this free training Michael Hyatt is hosting.

It’s been said that you are not what you do, and I believe that. But here’s the thing: we become what we practice. As Annie Dillard once said,

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

What you do today defines what you become a year — or even a decade — from now.

Spend it wisely.

How are you spending your days? What is one of your daily habits? Share in the comments.

14 thoughts on “Set Habits, Not Goals

  1. This past month I used NaNoWrMo to set a goal for daily writing. After 30 days of writing every day, I am motivated to continue. You’re right. A good habit feels good and that feeling helps you persevere. Once I have this habit solidly in place, I will begin to set goals for what I want to write long-term.

  2. Jeff, your post hit me like an electric shock today. I’ve always had trouble with goal setting — probably because I set too many at once. But creating habits instead…

    Seven weeks ago, I started tracking everything I ate, and suddenly I’m ten pounds lighter. On November 1st, I started NaNoWriMo and now I’m over 50,000 words into my novel and have been writing daily since.

    Now that you’ve mentioned it, I can see in my own life that developing habits is working. I just needed someone like you to point it out so I could consciously pursue it. Thanks, Jeff.

  3. I too am a dreamer. :o) In the past, I set goals by writing them down, you know, in the SMART way, breaking them down into manageable task and all. Then I would put that piece of paper away and never look at them again. I now use Michael Hyatt’s planner and it is starting to get me in a better habit of focusing on my goals. Now, to get in the habit of looking at my planner every day. Haha. Keep doing what you’re doing Jeff.

  4. Awesome tips, man. Developing good habits is important as they will get you through the life helping you to be better and achieve more.

  5. I work probably too much. That’s what my partner says anyways. I’m just so darned determined. But this post did touch on one of my bad habits. I usually spend my mornings trying to wake up watching a show that most would have watched the night before, and in reality, there’s no gain from watching it at all. I get a little downtime where I don’t think. Sometimes I need that but not as much as I’ve taken it lately.

    In the past, I’ve tried to create a habit of morning coffee and while listing my daily goals focusing on three A level goals followed by a spritz of motivation or learning. I’ve done that today, but not in the habitual way I’d like. I made my list (last night). I had my coffee (with a show). And I’m getting my motivation (catching up on your ten lessons). This lesson, however, reminds me that I need to be more intentional with this habit just like I am being with my goals. Oh yes, they are very intentional–clearly defined, broken down into micro goals, dated, and soon to be posted on my 2018 goal board. I’ve thought this through, but the thing I didn’t consider is the habits I would need to form to achieve my goals.

    You listed three. I do have to think about this a little more, but I know my first habit. I’m going to post it here and on my goal board to make it official and intentional. Set an alarm, drink my coffee (no show), make my list (night before works too, but morning sets the tone so that’s when I will do it), get my daily motivation/learning, take a moment to review and reflect on my goal board, and journal for a bit every morning.

  6. I have rarely succeeded in goals, and making habits makes so much more sense than waiting for the magic of meeting my goals without a plan. Thank you for this well-written article.

    I’ll often have fear when I start to reach for something I want in my life. Did you have fear of failing or of going in the wrong direction when you began making you’re new habits?

  7. Do we really have time in our life to deal with the
    realistic? The shortness of life, suggests that which is beyond
    realistic, the bold and audacious. As the expert writer at I’d say see SMARTER below.
    Results oriented
    Time bound

  8. I really appreciate this post–relevant to my current life. Daily habits are more effective than a list of goals hidden in a drawer. Thank you for the push in the ‘right’ direction.

  9. Yes, absolutely. In my experience, habits, processes, or “themes” are much more effective than goals because habits and themes become part of our identity. Once that happens, there is no resistance anymore. I bet your morning run wasn’t easy at the beginning, but now you’re not you without it 🙂

  10. Having a goal is disturbing for many. It creates disharmony in your brain. Having a habit, on the other hand, is comforting once it is established. But I found the main reason why people cannot achieve their goals relates to inaccurate expectation and reality. The goal might be as big as a dream but once the reality of where you are with respect to that goal is queried, suddenly that goal becomes unrealistic. People keep missing that very important part. Because it is a feel-good practice to set goals and feel-terrible consequence when you don’t achieve them. At I’ve mentioned this a few times. Goals create a magical drive towards what you want to be, even if you don’t achieve them.

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