“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” – Charles C. Noble
By Leo Babauta
It’s such a simple concept, yet it’s something we don’t always do. It’s not exceedingly difficult to do, and yet I think it’s something that would make a world of difference in anyone’s life.
Break your goals into habits, and focus on putting those habits into autopilot.
Last week when I wrote my Ultimate Guide to Motivation, there were a number of questions about my belief that having One Goal to focus on is much more powerful than having many goals. There were questions about my personal goals (such as running a marathon, eliminating debt, and so on) and how I was able to achieve them while working on different projects, and so forth. How can you have one goal that takes a long time, and still work on smaller projects at the same time?
These are excellent questions, and my answer takes a little explaining: I try to turn my goals into habits, and in doing so, I put my goals on autopilot. Turning a goal into a habit means really focusing on it, intensely, for at least a month, to the exclusion of all else. The more you can focus on it, the more it’ll be on autopilot.
But once you put it on autopilot, once a habit is firmly established, you don’t really have to focus on it much. You’ll still do it, but because it’s a habit, you only have to use minimal focus to maintain that habit. The goal becomes on autopilot, and you can focus on your next goal or project or habit.
My Marathon Example
Let’s look at my marathon goal as an example. I was just starting out in running, and I had the brilliant idea to run a marathon within a year. (Btw, that’s not the brightest idea — you should run for a couple years before attempting marathon training, or it’ll be much, much more difficult for you.) So that was my goal, and it was my main focus for awhile.
But in order to achieve that goal, I broke it down into two habits:
- I had to make running a daily habit (while following a training plan I found online).
- I had to report to people in order to have accountability — I did this through family, friends and coworkers, through a blog, and through a column in my local newspaper every two weeks. With this accountability, there’s no way I would stop running.
The daily running habit took about a month to form. I focused on this exclusively for about a month, and didn’t have any other goals, projects or habits that were my main focuses. I did other work projects, but they kinda took a backburner to running.
The accountability habit took a couple months, mainly because I didn’t focus on it too much while I was building the running habit. But it stuck, and for that first year of running, I would report to people I knew and blog about my running every day (this was in Blogger blog that has since been deleted), and I would write a column every two weeks for my local paper.
Once those two habits were firmly entrenched, my marathon goal was pretty much on autopilot. I could focus on my debt reduction goal (as an example) without having to worry too much about the marathon. I still had to do the work, of course, but it didn’t require constant focus.
And eventually, I ran the marathon. I was able to achieve this because, all year long, I had the daily running habit and daily accountability habit. I put my marathon goal into autopilot, and that made it much easier — instead of struggling with it daily for an entire year, I focused on it for one month (well, actually two) and was able to accomplish it while focusing on new habits and goals.
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” – Jim Ryun
This works for many other types of goals, of course. For example:
- Debt reduction: I turned this goal into a few different habits, including creating a monthly spending plan, learning to stick to the spending plan, and making automatic debt and savings payments. Once these habits were on autopilot, debt elimination was a sure bet.
- Weight loss: The daily exercise habit was an important first step. Then I got into healthier eating habits, one at a time. Recently I added the habit of tracking my calories, and that’s helped a lot.
- Writing a book: This was simply setting a time to write, and making myself write during that time, no matter what. Once you have that habit, the book will come.
- Getting organized: This is three main habits — designating a spot for everything I own, putting things in their designated spots immediately, and doing a daily processing of your inbox(es).
As you can see, just about any goal can be turned into habits if you think it through. Let’s look more into how to do that.
How to Turn A Goal Into Habits
It’s a pretty simple process, but let’s go over it step-by-step:
- You goal should be written out very clearly. The better you can visualize your goal, the easier this will be.
- Think about the steps needed to get to your goal. There may be many.
- Can the goal be accomplished with a series (2-4) of daily or weekly actions? For example, to save money, you will need to make a savings deposit every payday, before you pay your bills. Through that regular action, the goal will eventually be accomplished. Figure this out, and that’s your habit or series of habits.
- Figure out the amount of the habit will need to be done to get you to your goal by your timeline. By “amount”, I mean that you have to figure out quantity times frequency to get your desired result. For example, I can run every single day but not be prepared to run a marathon if I don’t do enough miles or long runs. So if I’m going to run every day, I have to also know how far (and any other things such as different workouts on different days). If I’m going to have a savings deposit every week, I need to know how much is necessary for each deposit in order to reach my goal. Figure out this “amount” for your habit and make a schedule.
- Focus on the first habit for at least one month, to the exclusion of all else. Don’t worry about the other two habits (for example) while you’re trying to form the first habit. For more on forming habits, this article is good place to start.
- If more than one habit is necessary, start on the second habit after a month or so, then on the third, and so on, focusing on one habit at a time until each is firmly ingrained.
- After all the necessary habits are ingrained, your goal is on autopilot. You will still need to focus on them somewhat, but to a lesser extent. If any of the habit gets derailed, you’ll have to focus on that habit again for one month.
- After you’re on autopilot, you can focus on a new goal and set of habits.
“Habits are at first cobwebs, then cables.” – Spanish proverb