Goals vs Habits

Productivity for distracted people

The merits of goals, plans and habits have been discussed at length. You’ll find people preferring one or the other, depending on their own situation and personality.

For me, this is also a recurring theme, mostly because I struggle with the distance between all of the ideas I have and how many of them see the light of day. I hear this is a common challenge for creative types.

A few things that make sense to me:

  • Goals seem necessary, but given enough “enlightenment” they aren’t. You don’t really need goals to function. Goals are a tool for clarity. They can really guide you when you’re in doubt, facing multiple possible paths.
  • Goals exist somewhat outside of you. You can absolutely select goals that make no sense to you, based on what people around you are doing and saying. This is both a blessing and a curse.
  • Plans exist downstream of goals. They are goals with added detail. This detail can include obvious things like steps to take, actions to execute etc. But the detail can also include the rationale for selecting these goals. This is especially true for cascading goals, which automatically incentivize cascading plans.
  • Plans and Goals both assume that the both the solution-space and the problem-space are stable enough. If the context changes enough, goals and plans cease to make sense.
  • Habits are more standalone. Most of your habits are not related to specific goals. You don’t think much when going through habits (that’s the idea, really).
  • You can try to adopt habits that connect with your goals. This can be tricky, because it creates a chain from goals to plans to habits. And if either goals or plans don’t make sense, you’ll be left with habits that do not make sense either.
  • A major aspect of goals is that they can be given to you by the outside world. This means family, school, work and above it all, culture. It is easy to see how one can be attributed goals that are not aligned with his own personality and abilities.
  • Everything that your culture gives you carries mimetic aspects with it: you receive these things so that you can imitate others around you. Imitating others is useful in the sense that limits how many things you need to worry about in order to fit in (we are social animals and fitting in is extremely important to us as a species)
  • Using another analogy that has been in vogue for the past decade or so: goals and plans are centralized and habits are decentralized. You can rely purely on habits and still achieve things. Your context might change, but because you are not tied to a specific objective, it doesn’t matter as much.

These tenets are things I rediscover every now and then. They help me make sense of why some things work out for me and some others don’t. In a sense, they are related to the idea of a Failure Mode. In my case, habits tend to be more effective than goals.