How to break bad habits and form good ones

Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Our first mistake is that we try to change the wrong thing.

Why is it so easy to repeat bad habits and so hard to form good ones? Few things can have a more powerful impact on your life than improving your daily habits. And yet it is likely that this time next year you’ll be doing the same thing rather than something better. It often feels difficult to keep good habits going for more than a few days, even with sincere effort and the occasional burst of motivation. Habits like exercise, meditation, journaling and cooking are reasonable for a day or two and then become a hassle.

Our first mistake is that we try to change the wrong thing. Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life – getting into better shape, building a successful business, relaxing more and worrying less, spending more time with friends and family – is to set specific, actionable goals. Setting new year resolutions plays into that aim for big goals mindset.

Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Whether it is losing weight, building a business, writing a book, winning in relationships or achieving any other goal, we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about. But let’s look at three main problems with setting big goals:

Problem #1: Goals are at odds with long-term progress
A goal-oriented mindset can create a "yo-yo" effect. The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. It's not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.

Problem #2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change
Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment. That's the counterintuitive thing about improvement. We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results. When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily. In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.

Problem #3: Goals restrict your happiness
Goals create an "either-or" conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment. You mentally box yourself into a narrow version of happiness. This is misguided. It makes no sense to restrict your satisfaction to one scenario when there are many paths to success. A systems-first mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don't have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied anytime your system is running. And a system can be successful in many different forms, not just the one you first envision.

If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits, while habits are the compound interest of self- improvement.

Success is the product of daily habits – not once-in-a-lifetime transformations. It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results. We don’t rise to the level of our goals but fall to the level of our systems.

James Clear is an expert on habits and decision making. He is the author of Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones published by Random House Business

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