Habit vs. Achievement Goal

Three Questions to Help You Choose

What the most popular activity at the beginning of a new year? For many of us, it’s watching the ball drop or attending a party. However, after New Year’s Eve parties, then come New Year’s resolutions and setting goals.

Habit vs. Achievement Goal: Three Questions to Help You Choose

As I’m writing this, it’s the second week of January. So, statistics say that about a quarter of us have already given up on our resolutions.

That’s one of the reasons so many people criticize the practice of making New Year’s resolutions. They don’t last. However, most of the objections to resolutions can be addressed by writing them as carefully crafted goals.

Personally, I’m a big fan of resolutions and goals, even when they’re tough to reach. I find setting goals helps me get clear on what I want to accomplish each year. I get there faster when I know the direction I want to go. So, for the last 3 years, I’ve enrolled in Michael Hyatt’s goal-setting course, 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever.

In the course, Michael talked a few times about how “achievement” goals are different from “habit” goals. In a nutshell, an achievement goal is one focused on the outcome you want, while a habit goal is one that focuses on the process you’ll take to get there. For example, you might set a goal to “lose 10 pounds by March 31st” (achievement) or a goal to “exercise 3 times per week starting January 2nd” (habit).

Just as some people argue one shouldn’t set goals at all, others argue that you should ONLY set habit goals. Some recommend a mix. Michael himself simply recommends that you frame the goal in the way you find most compelling.

Simple advice and likely to be effective. But I confess I wanted more. I wanted specific guidelines.

After giving it some thought, I came up with three clarifying questions. I found that these helped me make my own goals more compelling. To try it for yourself, ask:

Question #1: Can the outcome be framed as a SMARTER goal?

This is Michael’s enhancement to the common SMART goal acronym. In his version, the letters describe goals that are:

  • Specific enough to focus and direct your energies.
  • Measurable so you can keep track of your progress.
  • Actionable with a clear initiating verb that prompts specific activity.
  • Risky enough to leverage our natural tendency to rise to challenges.
  • Time-keyed so you’re prompted exactly when to act.
  • Exciting enough to inspire and harness the power of your intrinsic motivation.
  • Relevant within the overall context of your life.

So, what exactly do I mean when I ask, “Can the outcome be framed as a SMARTER goal?” Well, let’s look at our weight loss example above. “Lose 10 pounds by March 31st.” That’s well-defined goal. It’s specific, measurable, and actionable. It’s time-keyed. And, depending on your situation, it may be risky, exciting, and relevant too.

But, what if your desired outcome is related to improving relationships? Maybe you want to be a better parent or have a closer relationship with God. These are examples of outcomes that are tough to frame as SMARTER goals. If your outcome is like that, consider creating a habit goal instead.

For example, you might choose, “Read my Bible for 15 minutes every morning starting January 1st.” Now, your desired outcome, “get closer to God,” is the motivation that fuels your habit goal, rather than being the goal itself.

Question #2: Have I tried to achieve the desired outcome before? 

In my experience, the more you’ve struggled, the more likely it is that you need to think carefully about your approach.

For example, I’ve been working on my doctoral dissertation for the last few years. I’m aiming to finish it. But, instead of focusing on that outcome, I’m focusing on the milestones along the way. So, I wrote a habit goal: “Complete the next action in my dissertation project each weekday starting Jan. 9th.”

For me, the habit of completing the next step keeps my focus on consistently progressing. This is less daunting than the elephant-sized outcome goal, and I can easily measure my success along the way.

On the other hand, I’ve also set a goal to read 100 books this year. Though that sounds like a lot, I achieved that in 2016 without much trouble. This year, I created a specific list to be more intentional. I’ll monitor my progress each month, but I don’t think I need to establish any new habits or track the process like I do for my dissertation goal. So, I’m leaving that as an achievement goal.

Question #3: Is the process negotiable?

Megan Hyatt Miller says, “The way to achieve our goals is to hold them tightly and our strategies loosely.” That’s a brilliant insight! You see, most of the time, there are a ton of different approaches we could take to achieve any one particular goal.

Want to lose weight? There are thousands of diets and workout plans you could use. Want to write a book? Some people write every day. Others schedule chunks of time on the weekends. It doesn’t matter which you choose as long as it works for you. But sometimes, the process itself is the goal.

For example, maybe you’re not concerned about weight loss. Maybe your primary objective is to establish a consistent exercise routine. So, instead of “Lose 10 pounds by March 31st,” your goal would be, “Exercise 6 days per week starting January 2nd.” This goal is specifically about the process, and, like a good habit, there’s no end date. That makes it easier to keep going indefinitely.

Goal-setting matters, and the new year is a great time to set goals. In fact, the same researchers who found that most people fail to keep their resolutions also discovered that “people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t.”

As you set or revise your goals for this year, ask yourself these three questions. Intentionally decide whether to focus your goal on an achievement or a habit. And let me know if it helps!

Question: What goal are you most excited about this year? You can leave a comment below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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