I read a blog post somewhere this week (I’d link to it if I could remember where it was) that was advocating habits over goals. This resonated. I love me some habits.
The point the author was making was that it’s all well and good to have goals — buy a house, travel through India, make a million bucks, run a marathon — but achieving goals is more about creating the right habits than it is about having a vision. Also, a goal ends when you achieve it, while habits endure.
There’s a contradiction here. Let’s say your goal is to get fit. Most goal gurus would say this is a poorly-defined goal because how will you know when you get there? Goals need to be measurable, so a “better” goal would be “I want to run the New York City Marathon in 2018” which is now specific and time-bound.
But the only way you’re going to achieve this is by getting race-fit: embarking on a regular running programme to train for the event. That means establishing a habit. Habits are boring and daily and never-ending, pretty much like a marathon. And it’s that boring never-ending routine that’s going to get you across the finish line.
However, having run your marathon, what do you do then? Getting fit is no longer your goal, because you are, and you’ve run your marathon, so that’s not your goal any more either. Lots of people quit running at this point because their training was in pursuit of that marathon goal, and not in pursuit of vaguer goals like ‘to become a runner’ or ‘to get fit and stay fit’.
All those goal gurus would tell me that ‘to have a good single life’ is not a well-formed goal because it lacks specificity. That’s true, but the purpose of setting this goal isn’t so much to reach it (what would I do then? Sit on my deck and congratulate myself? Die?) as to provide a point of focus for identifying the habits I need to develop in order to achieve it. My real goal is to be living in a way that means every day I’m doing the things that will ensure I reach my goal. My goal is to establish habits that lead to my goal.
The definition of ‘a good single life’ will change over the course of my life. But regardless, at any point it will mean doing daily those things that contribute to my definition of a good life, which currently means looking after my health and wellbeing, doing things I enjoy (as distinct from things I think I’m supposed to do but don’t enjoy), and avoiding doing harm.
It all comes back to that marvellous quote from Annie Dillard:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.