Goals vs Habits

By , 4 April 2016

Goals vs Habits
Goals vs Habits

When I talk with people about their lives, I notice they fall into one of three categories: people who know what they want, people who know what they don't want, and people who are confused about everything. Of the three, the last must surely be the most frustrating. Knowing what you don't want gives you some direction, but I always felt that knowing what you want was the best place to be, even if you don't yet have it.

Until recently, that is.

Although goals have always been a big part of my life, I've never gained a great deal of satisfaction from reaching them. Usually, I just feel exhausted. Often I get the feeling that I'm going in circles from one goal to the next, even though they are supposed to be taking me forwards.

I've come to realise there is a missing part of the equation. Knowing what you want is not actually that useful unless you also know something else: What do you want to do? For example, let's say you want to be a rock star. That's great, but if you don't want to practise your instrument, the goal is of little value. It is more likely to make you feel incompetent because it isn't aligned to what you actually want to do.

Enter the concept of habit. I've been shifting the focus The Game Of Your Life, from goals to habits. It is easy to look at a list of goals and nod your head at each. "Yes, yes, yes. This is what I want," you say, feeling inspired. But when you look at the list of habits you'll need to get you there, reality hits home. Let's take a look at our rock star example.


  • learn to play some Red Hot Chili Peppers Song
  • learn to play some Bob Dylan song
  • learn the next song, 
  • then the next one...

We're simplifying things a bit here. These goals will only ever make you good at playing covers. Even so, let's now look at the habits you will need to get there.


  • tune my guitar before playing
  • practise chord positions
  • practise scales
  • practise strumming
  • practise picking
  • practise finger picking
  • practise playing by ear
  • practise singing a capella
  • transcribe some new music
  • study the original artists videos
  • study other artist's covers
  • memorise a riff or melody
  • memorise some new lyrics
  • review melody memory
  • review lyrics memory
  • record a cover video
  • review a cover video 

Now you can see the difference between "what you want" and "what you want to do". If you don't like practising music, it doesn't matter one whit how much you want to be a rock star. You'll never get there.

Focussing on the habits, or process, saves precious mental energy and makes you happier. You know you will practise, work, or study one hour a day. You sit down, start a timer, and do it. There is no planning involved. You'll naturally work towards some goal without even noticing it, and all that energy you saved by not planning will be directed into real action.

This is a powerful concept. Do you remember being a kid? When you met your friends, what did you ask them? I'm willing to take a bet it was "What do you want to do?". Kids are free from goals. They just enjoy the process. It's only as we become adults that we start to ponder the question "What do I want?", and our learning declines.

Music is a good example where it is more useful to focus on the process than the product. Not all disciplines follow the same pattern however. When I write software, for example, focussing on the product (the goal) helps me move forwards. But I still need the process (the habits) to get me there.

Ultimately, combining both goals and habits leads to optimal productivity. However, if forced to choose only one, you cannot deny that what you do is far more important than what you want.

Goals vs Habits

About Roger Keays

Goals vs Habits

Roger Keays is an artist, an engineer, and a student of life. He has no fixed address and has left footprints on 40-something different countries around the world. Roger is addicted to surfing. His other interests are music, psychology, languages, the proper use of semicolons, and finding good food.

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