How to Accomplish Goals with Habits

10 min read

"Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” - Benjamin Franklin

Posted by Alika Graham on November 2nd, 2016

You must be a goal oriented person to achieve what you want in life. That pearl of wisdom is nothing new; we’ve all heard it a million times. At lot of us, however, have a long list of unaccomplished goals and an equally long (if not longer) list of excuses to go along with it.

For some, a lack of focus is to blame. For others, a lack of belief prevented them from their achievement. These reasons are difficult to resolve and the goals themselves are simply long term visions that always run the risk of never coming to fruition. The reason for this: they aren’t put into action in a reliable, repeatable way. The key to accomplishing more is to create habits - routine behaviors - that support and contribute toward the progression of the ultimate objective.

Reaching your goals requires:

  1. Thoughtful consideration of what you want accomplish and what’s required to get there
  2. Deliberate planning of the steps required
  3. A consistent tracking process to monitor progression
  4. Continued escalation of each sub goal

This personal evolution process is not something that can happen overnight. In order for massive sustainable change to take place, it has to begin small and progress incrementally.

More specifically, goals are accomplished as follows:

  1. Define each goal and the necessary sub-goals required
  2. Break down and identify supportive actionable habits and schedule regular time to do them.
  3. Track your progress on those habits daily
  4. Diagnose and resolve impediments or other bad habits that stand in the way
  5. Add to your individual habits as they start to run on autopilot

Why habits?

The expression “the chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken” says it best: habits are nearly unbreakable, undone only by other (bad) habits. This power comes from the fact that habits are, by definition, something we do with very minimal thinking or conscious awareness. With a little extra deliberate action and monitoring, we can add/build upon our existing good habits. Habits:

  1. Require less focus and willpower: by starting small - and almost seemingly insignificant in the bigger picture - you can begin making a beeline toward your goals using habits without even knowing it.
  2. Save time: unlike big goals, habits can be scheduled on a daily basis. The smaller they are, the less time they take. The more you repeat a habit, the more you can predict how much time you’ll need to spend on it in the future, especially once you begin the process of escalating.
  3. Can be measured easily: In their simplest form, habits can be measured by simply asking: did I do it or didn’t I? In other words, can you check it off the list or not. If not, there are most certainly root causes that prevented it - maybe you were unrealistic or unspecific with your defined habit, or maybe you simply forgot. Whatever the reason, impediments to habits are easily diagnosed and dealt with.
  4. Offer more opportunities for success: by their nature, habits are easy to accomplish. As they become more ingrained, you can view the progress made over time as a success itself, providing a powerful, encouraging upward spiral of momentum and feeling of accomplishment. Instead of failing to accomplish your goal, you succeeded in building a positive habit that gets you one step closer to your vision. Furthermore, habits enable you to work towards more than one goal at a time.

What’s important to note about new habits is that they should always be small and designed to be nearly impossible to leave uncompleted at first. Over time, gradual progression and building off of existing routines is what will get you closer to your goals with relative ease.

Define each goal and the necessary sub-goals required

So, how do we take a goal, break it down into replicable tasks and start the process of facilitating real, sustainable change? Setting OKRs, Objectives and Key Results, is one very effective method of taking a high level goal and breaking it down into measurable sub components and activities. It’s as simple as it sounds:

  1. Objective: Define your objective the ambitious end that you wish to achieve.
  2. Key Results: The key result is the tracked metric that are the result of the habits that you intend to incorporate into your daily routine. As your actions become established in your routines, you’ll raise the expectations and adjust your habits in order to meet the escalated result.
  3. Actions: 1-5 quantifiable, actionable tasks/to-dos that, when completed, get you closer to your objective. These are the specific habits that you need to adopt.

Let’s take a case study. Let’s say your objective was to lose weight. Two of the most important factors in order to accomplish this is 1) Diet, 2) Exercise; in other words: eat less and exercise more. Simple enough, right? Of course not, and that’s why there’s a multi-billion dollar weight loss industry. In order to effectively accomplish this goal, as mentioned above, it needs to be broken down further into manageable, measurable goals that can be turned into habits, the results of which can be measured and escalated over time. So, instead of simply stating that your goal is to lose weight, it would be much more effective to determine a result that we can shoot for, one that is specific and measurable. In this instance, let’s say our target key result is to lose 15 lbs.

Break down and identify supportive actionable habits and schedule regular time to do them:

Now that we have determined our key result, it’s time to decide on which key activities or habits will improve that metric and move us closer to our objective. As mentioned above, at first these habits need to be such that the likelihood of completing them is nearly 100%. These small, easily-repeatable activities is what you’ll continue building upon in order to slowly and consistently make progress toward your key results and goals. For example, someone who wants to get fit will likely never get into the habit of exercising two hours a day without starting with a bite sized goal such as exercising for 5 minutes instead.

In general, when defining habits, make sure you do the following:

  1. Start small - this maximizes your likelihood of completion
  2. Be specific - make sure success/completion of a particular habit is measurable and clearly defined.
  3. Schedule them- consistency is key when adopting new habits. Set specific times throughout the day/week when you intend to complete a habit.
  4. Anchor them (when possible) - attaching a new habit to an existing one is one way to quickly adopt it into your routine.

Let’s go back to our weight loss example. One way we could approach breaking down our weight loss objective into supporting key activities is as follows:

Objective: lose weight
Key Result: lose 15 lbs
Key Activities (habits):

  1. Skip breakfast 5 days a week
  2. Reduce alcohol consumption to twice a week
  3. Do 10 pushups each morning
  4. Record weight

Track your progress on those habits daily:

In terms of tracking the above habits, we can use a binary system of tracking, 1 indicating that it was done, 0 indicating that it wasn’t. A simple spreadsheet filled daily can be used to track your progress. With your simple, clearly defined habits listed and scheduled daily, the process of “checking-off” completed items is quick and easy. Ideally, you would be able to track your completion rate in order to monitor the progress of your habit-ingraining over time.

Here’s an example of a binary habit tracker:

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Here’s an example of an effective OKR tracking system for our weight loss goal:

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Diagnose and resolve impediments or other bad habits that stand in the way:

What happens when a habit is skipped? One important factor in ensuring that a habit is maintained is to identify and remove any obstacles in your daily routines. If impediments are commonplace and not acknowledged, progress can be slowed and often stalled completely. Equally important to building good habits is eliminating bad ones, and having a system to identify, process and reflect on those issues will bring these them to the foreground, enabling you to create solutions that can eliminate them. Luckily, with habits, these root causes are not very difficult to determine.

One exercise in diagnosing issues is by using the 5 whys method, which, taking our 10-push-ups-in -the-morning-goal as an example, looks like:

  1. State the problem. Which habit was missed? I did not do 10 push ups
  2. Why? I did not have time this morning
  3. Why? I woke up late
  4. Why? I didn’t get enough sleep
  5. Why? I was out with friends later than expected
  6. Why? I did not schedule my evening properly

The last answer to Why reveals a qualified root cause: it is not an external factor. Instead, it is something I had control over to some degree.

The next step after diagnosis is to develop a solution to prevent the recurrence of the issue. A candidate solution has one simple qualifier: it must be an action. So, continuing with the daily pushup goal, one possible solution would be to adjust my scheduling process, moving scheduled push up time to be in the evenings anytime it follows a night out. Another candidate solution would be to set an alarm or reminder during my night out to get home in order to meet my sleep goal.

Be aware of non-solutions: those - like “try harder” “stay focused” - which are not legitimate actions you can take to resolve your issues. Whatever the candidate solution for a particular issue, it’s important that you monitor its effectiveness. In doing so, you may also realize the ineffectiveness of an attempted solution. When this occurs, it’s important - as it is with the habits themselves - that you adjust your approach by either upgrading the existing solution or by replacing it with a new one.

Add to your individual habits as they start to run on autopilot:

The last component of habits as they pertain to goals is escalation. Once your initial goals have started consistently running on autopilot and you have reached your objective, you should raise your expectations as it pertains to your daily objective-supporting routines. From the above example, as we approach 100% completion of our key results, we can adjust them as follows:

  1. Skip breakfast 7 days a week
  2. Reduce alcohol consumption to once a week
  3. Do 20 pushups each morning

Happiness is most often the result of people exceeding their own expectations and most people underestimate what they can achieve over the long term. By defining goals and developing an objective tracking system, you can make deliberate progress on your success and happiness. Evolution 2 is one platform that allows you to do this.




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