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by Lera P.
04 Aug

What Is More Effective Setting Goals or Building Habits?

Can you tell the difference between getting into shape for an event and eating five portions of fruits and veggies every day? Training to do splits and going to the gym or for a run 3 to 4 times a week no matter what? One is a goal. It motivates you to go further, but once you achieve it, it's gone. The other one is a habit, a specific routine of behavior that we do without even thinking about it. And here comes the question, what is a better strategy while striving for general wellness? We will go into details on what is the difference between the two, and when and what works better — building a habit or setting a goal.

First, Let's Understand the Difference

There is a slight confusion between the two, and before going any further, let's make it clear what is a goal and what is a habit. Goals are the desired outcome a person wants to achieve by a specific point in time that wouldn't happen without practical actions. It's either measurable or based on the overall feel. For example, lose 10 lbs is an example of a measurable goal. The goal to feel strong and energized is completely based on your feelings and perception. It may include small goals like to exercise before work, sleep 8 hours a day, eat well, drink prescribed supplements and vitamins. Nevertheless, both of these desired outcomes are comprised of a variety of even smaller steps you need to take to accomplish it.


While a habit is a particular behavior, we repeat regularly. It takes time to build a new habit, but once formed, we do it subconsciously. Here are some of the examples of wellness habits: maintain a daily meditation routine, get an adequate amount of sleep every night, add an extra serving of veggies to every meal, meal prep for the week every Sunday. And based on that difference comes everything else. If you want to develop a habit, the strategy and the process is different than when you are setting a goal and working toward it.

Photo Credit: Unsplash


What Are the Limitations of Goals

Every goal has an endpoint; otherwise, it's just a plan for the future you may postpone for ages. Time constraints push us to set priorities, help to structure the actions and reduce chances we are going to procrastinate. But these same deadlines have a downside effect. First, all goals are temporary. It's good for the reboot of the training routine or healthy eating habits. But some wellness areas require structural changes and long-lasting behavioral modifications. In that sense, goals are less effective.


Imagine, you want to reduce your risk factors. The goal can be to take control of your blood sugar level and reduce it by a certain amount. You work hard for a couple of months and achieve your goal, but then you start to eat and live the same way as before. Chances are high; with time, your sugar level will go back to the starting point or even can get worse. This is also a risk to harm yourself. The internet is full of extreme diets that promise you drastic weight loss in a week or a month following extreme degrees of calorie restriction and intense exercise regimen. A person will see the results, but simultaneously put the health in danger.


Also, a set deadline doesn't mean you will work continuously on the goal the whole time. Some people get motivated at day one, but then neglect the goal till the last minute. For example, you set a goal to run 10k in 2 months. You are already fit enough and occasionally go for a run. If you don't follow the training plan, you still will finish the race. The goal will be achieved, but you may hurt your knees or feel much more exhausted than if you've trained the whole time. 

Photo Credit: Unsplash


Another limitation of goals is its full reliance on the motivation, willpower, and structure you build to achieve it. And these aren't consistent factors, especially in the long-run. For example, you are waking up early to hit a workout before work is a huge motivational challenge for some of us. But the trick is once you start, you feel more encouraged to keep on going.


Besides, it's essential to follow the goals that are truly yours, and not something you saw on social media, or the cover of a magazine. That is especially true for wellness and fitness goals. Not everybody needs to run a marathon, do yoga every morning, or have six-pack abs. Choose something that brings you joy, and follow that interest and passion.


One more characteristic of goals is that they tend to change. It's normal, but some people struggle to accept it and timely adjust the strategy to the new one. Changing goals are just a signal that we are humans. We change our minds; we evolve and start striving for something else. 


When Goals Work Well?

It's not all that bad, and setting goals does bring value and meaning to life. Goals push us to go above and beyond and achieve more than we could do otherwise. Studies give an explanation to that, as goals focus attention, mobilize efforts, increase persistence, and provide motivating strategy development. To have a desire to change lives and health isn't enough, set goals, and create an action plan; that way, you will see dramatic changes.


Goals help us do what we usually postpone for later on when we have more time for ourselves. Imagine you want to diversify your diet. But the time you need to cook dinner, you are too tired to look for new recipes and try them out. You reach for the go-to option, but think that one day you will finally prepare the dish you've read online and even saved that link somewhere. If you set a goal to learn five new recipes or healthy alternatives for your favorite snacks this month, you are more likely to do so. 

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Another advantage of goals is that they give a framework to track the progress. As it's said, what can't be measured can't be managed. It applies to the weight, financial wellness, blood test results, and everything else. Setting a goal, you establish a baseline you can compare to. Besides genuine interest, it's a powerful tool. Results at the milestones will signal if you've plateaued so that you could adjust your workouts. Seeing the difference one week into the program or after ten days of meditation, you will feel inspired as it's no longer a goal that exists only on the paper.


If everything is done properly, you will see positive changes in wellbeing, physically and mentally feel better. There are several approaches to how to set goals. One of the most well-known ones is SMART. What are smart goals?

Each letter represents one of the characteristics of a goal. It should be:

  • S — Specific. The goal to get fit or feel better isn't specific, and if you ask two different people, they will give you two different answers. You need to clarify what this goal means to you.

  • M — Measurable. How will you understand that you've reached your goal? What criteria will you measure? If you track the wrong parameter, you can get demotivated. Take the goal to get fit as an example. If you track weight, you may feel bad as the scale goes up once you start gaining muscles. 

  • A — Achievable. Dream big or go home, but make sure the goal is attainable. 

  • R — Relevant or realistic. It should be relevant to your life goals and reasonable. Analyze what you already have before committing to something. 

  • T — Time-based. Set yourself a deadline and specify the starting day; otherwise, it will always be tomorrow or next Monday.  

But even this isn't the only formula to success. Any approach you see online should be adapted to the realities of your life and particular case. 


Benefits of Developing Good Habits

Our brain is designed to build habits and automate any task that can be done without our active involvement. And as we have a pre-built toolset, why not use it? 

Building a new habit and making it stick isn't less hard than achieving a goal. We can speculate how many days a person needs to make a habit and how long does it take to achieve a goal, but what matters the most is the result.

Mini goals can be less motivating; big ambitious goals can be scary. Habits can be as small as you need it. There is a term micro habit. It's something that requires minimal motivation and effort to complete. Here are some examples of small habits that small habits can lead to significant changes in your life and wellbeing:

  • Drink a glass of water in the first 10 minutes as you wake up.

  • Make a small stretch throughout the day—just 10 minutes or so.

  • Meditate 5 minutes with an app, sit in the silence for a couple of minutes, or do a quick breathing exercise. Choose what works for you.

  • Park far away from your destination or get out of the bus one stop earlier.

  • Always have a snack in the bag.

  • Put time restrictions on social media or other apps you want to take control of.

  • Mindfully work on one meal every day, try to make it as nourish as possible. 

  • Learn to read labels at the shop.

  • The list can go on and on. 


Building a habit and establishing a routine, you guarantee lifelong changes. That, in the future, will reduce the effect of the risk factors, improve chronic disease management, and cut health-related costs. Compare two scenarios, and decide who in the end will feel better a person completing low-intensity workouts regularly or a person smashing a hit workout once a month? Consistency is an essential factor if you want to achieve health changes. 


Our willpower is a finite resource, and as the day goes, it gets harder and harder to do what we have to. That's why the main advantage of habits is that we do them automatically. Set routines do not require conscious effort or second thought.


Plus, bad and good habits work in the same manner. There is a cue or a trigger that starts the action. Then the routine follows. The cycle ends with the reward, and then it starts all over again. Knowing the habit loop and how it can be deconstructed, we can effectively build new habits and understand how to break bad habits. 


Systematic Approach To Wellness  

As we can see, both goals and habits have some limitations. What can a mixture of both bring? First, what is a goal, if not a combination of habits? To successfully reach the target, we need to do small steps every day and align the environment with our priorities.


Let's take the goal of running a marathon as an example. You register for a race and set checkpoints on the way to track if you are ready or not. But then it all goes to the habits and small changes you do every day. You commit to training several times a week. You adjust your eating habits to power you for the run. The sleeping regiment also gets changed to ensure a good resting time. The habit of doing all of those things keep us going when the motivation fades away.


Then studies show that when we perform habitual behaviors, we don't feel that much pride or other intense emotions. And that's the reason people tend to quit. They get accustomed and then bored, while goals keep us engaged. Imagining the finish line, we feel motivated. Completing the goal gives us a boost of happiness, accomplishment, and self-pride. That's why only the combination of both ensures we achieve what we set our minds to. 


The other way around is also accurate. To get rid of bad habits or form a new one is a goal. It doesn't come naturally just to stop doing something we got used to. It requires dedication, rules, rewards, sometimes a deadline; you need to understand the whys and the hows. Some wellness coaches suggest treat it the following way: 

  • First 30 days, you review your behavior every day and put the intention in what you do. 

  • The next month you review it every week. If you struggle with that, you can always go back to the daily reviews. 

  • As you get more accustomed, review the desired behavior every month to make sure that it's truly turned into a habit. 

Also, setting goals, you need to harmonize it with the habits you already have. For example, you want to become a morning person, wake up at 6 a.m to go for a run before kicking off the day, write a line in a gratitude journal while your mind is clear, and decluttered of all the worries. But you continue to work late and then watch a couple of episodes of the show. Also, you drink a cup of coffee to fuel you to finish the tasks, eat till you feel full, and as a result, can't fell asleep. To achieve the desired scenario of the perfect morning, a person needs to adjust what is done in the evening. Otherwise, you sabotage yourself and devalue your efforts. 

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Hence, setting goals, you need to revise the habits that can get on the way and hinder achieving a positive outcome. After doing that, think about how to replace bad habits with the new ones that will step by step bring you closer to the goal. Then break down a goal to the smaller steps you need to accomplish regularly and keep track of that. Find what works for you. It can be an app that will send you notifications and reward with badges for the longest strike, or it can be a pen and a paper. 


In the end, there is no such thing as habits vs goals. They compliment each other and perfectly work together. Habits compensate reliance on motivation and everyday decisions, while goals keep us engaged and passionate. Habits ensure sustainable changes, while goals help us measure results on the way. Both goals and habits can change throughout life, and we shouldn't be afraid of that. Most often if you, your preferences, and views stay the same, this means you don't evolve.

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