Turning Habits into Goals

Reader Ann M. wrote in with a question:

Currently, I have my goals divided up into two types: “Ongoing”, for goals that don’t really have an end, and “Destination” for goals that will be achieved and then done. An example of an ongoing goal would be maintain a positive attitude or go to a museum or play each month. A destination goal would be travel to 10 new countries or complete my research project. For each type of goal, I have it further broken down into the life areas I mentioned above. I realize that some of my ongoing goals should maybe be made into destination goals by setting time limits for them, but should the time limits be continued once the action has become a habit? My 30-day flossing goal for example–it’s basically a habit for me now. I do skip it occasionally, but rarely more than 2 days in a row. However, it’s still a goal for me to do it daily. Or should it not be a goal anymore since it’s become a habit? I guess my question is when does something turn from a goal into a habit?

Let me start by saying that Ann is an awesome example for the rest of us. First, she’s obviously given a lot of thought to her goals, and she has some great goals, too. And her 30-day flossing goal becoming a habit is proof that by concentrating on a goal for 30 days, you can actually create a new, positive habit.

But to answer her question: The way I see it, a habit actually leads to a goal. For example, if you want to have healthy teeth, you develop the flossing habit. If you want to lose weight, you might develop the running habit. This is the overall philosophy of Zen Habits … concentrate on what you do each day, and create new habits that will lead to long-term goals. By concentrating on doing a goal for 30 days, it will become a habit, and after that, you’re on autopilot.

But Ann’s right — in the beginning, it’s a goal to create that habit. Your goal is to focus on those first 30 days to create a habit (it varies depending on the person, the consistency and other factors, but 30 days is a good rule of thumb). Those are the crucial days in forming a habit, when you really need to concentrate your energy.

After that, it should become much easier, but will still require some energy to maintain, especially if other things in your life offer resistance to that habit (if you quit smoking, a death in the family could trigger a relapse, for example). Ann’s habit of flossing will likely continue for quite awhile, and not require much energy to maintain … but should something change in her life, such as moving to Guantanamo Bay for an internship, and let’s say that floss isn’t easily available in Gitmo, well, it could disrupt her habit. Or if you’ve developed the running habit, and you get sick for a couple weeks, it will require a new surge of energy and motivation to get the habit going again. It shouldn’t be as hard as starting from the beginning, because you’re already trained to do it.

When forming a habit, here’s what I suggest:

  1. Make the first 30 days a concentrated goal, when you really try to make the behavior an ingrained habit. Review it daily, and make sure your focus stays on this habit each day.
  2. After that initial period, during the next 30 days, review the goal every week (instead of daily), during your weekly review. If there’s a change in your life that disrupts the habit, go back to the previous level, when you require more focus and energy to make it a habit again. If all is going well, however, just celebrate your continued success and review it next week.
  3. After that, review it once a month or so in order to make sure you’re still on track. This could go on indefinitely, unless you think it’s such an ingrained habit that you won’t need to review it anymore. I would suggest revisiting it now and then, though, just to make sure. If, however, you have problems with the habit, back up to one of the previous two levels.

See also: