When Goals Don’t Help, Change Your Habits

This weekend, I started reading a book about behavior change by James Clear called Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.

Early in the book, Clear comments on how frequently people and organizations try to achieve better results by goal setting, pegging this as the default approach to improvement. The underlying concept is that if the goal is set, somehow people will figure out what to do to make it happen.

Then he made the statement that hit me:

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your processes.”

Goals are fine, but without a change in our processes and thinking, we’re unlikely to see a different result. We may experience a short-lived blip in improvement if the current processes are pushed harder, but eventually the effort will become unsustainable, and we’ll fall back into prior habits. In order to see a change in results, we need to change something that we’re doing. Clear calls it a habit, but others may call it a process or a system. The more specific that we can be about the habits we need to change, the better the odds that we’ll achieve a different result.

On a personal level, I’ve needed to lose some weight for quite a while (okay, a lot of weight). When I kicked off my weight loss journey, I unwittingly followed Mr. Clear’s advice: I started with acknowledging and implementing the changes I needed to make to my eating habits, including my choice of foods and when I eat them. The new habits are working, and I feel great! Now that I’ve got my habits in check, I can set a weight loss goal, because I can easily see where the trajectory will take me.

If you and your team are looking to improve, it’s okay to set goals, but don’t stop there. Take it a step further and determine what new processes and habits need to be instilled in order to achieve success.