motivational mondays: creating good habits without goals


To quote an old apothegm:
“We are what we repeatedly do.”
– Aristotle

Simply put: We are our actions.
Another way: We are our habits.

If we smoke regularly, we are a smoker. If we exercise regularly, we are in shape. If we eat the right foods, we are healthy.

(Keep in mind, I’m tailoring this down to its simplest form. I understand much more complexity exists within the boundaries I’m laying out, but, in the theme of this post, something is much easier to grasp when pared down to utter simplicity.)

The question now, is how do we create good habits instead of bad ones?

how I’ve created good habits

Since I left my 9-5 job, I’ve created a plethora of good, healthy habits – most times without even meaning to. A mindset that I’ve always found hard to adopt, but have seen repeatedly work in my own life, is that of living without goals. Leo Babauta sums it up incredibly well with his blog post: the best goal is no goal. Even Seth Godin, marketing extraordinaire, has an interesting perspective on a similar vein of thought.

This mindset goes against everything I’ve been raised to believe. In middle school we learned the importance of setting goals to improve ourselves. My father preached to me the importance of having five-year goals and ten-year goals. While I never did this, I still always thought, based on what everyone was telling me, that was the way to get things done.

My own real-life examples say just the opposite.

Now I’m not saying that living with goals is a bad thing or doesn’t work. As the newer, slightly sexual adage goes: “Different strokes for different folks.”

But allow me to lay down a few examples for you. Some of the good, enduring habits I have formed in the past seven months are:

Eating healthier

In June I decided I wanted to try Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Body diet for losing weight. I didn’t need to lose weight, I was just curious to see if it worked. I went on the “formal” diet plan and it fell apart within two weeks.

Then, some time in August, I decided to start cutting to the core of his philosophy and just nixed white carbs (breads, rice, flour-based foods, etc.). Since then, I would say I cut down on my white carb intake by 90%, vastly increasing my consumption of vegetables, fruits and legumes, along with a healthy intake of meats.

I didn’t set any goals. I didn’t follow any plans. I just did what I wanted to do, knowing it was healthy for me. And I enjoy it. I feel better.

Writing daily

I abhor the daily word count goal. It stresses me out and I’ve had mini-anxiety attacks when I don’t meet it. In November I created a nice habit by mixing a goal with the concept of living without goals. I declared that I would write 3,000 words a day, or roughly 100,000 words in the month. For those of you that aren’t familiar with word counts – that’s a freaking book.

I wrote 55,000 words that month. About a week into it I realized I wasn’t going to hit my goal. I accepted that fact and, remarkably, ceased worrying about it. Instead of focusing on the goal, I kept in mind that I wanted to produce a higher volume than Stephen King and just rolled with the daily writing. Whatever I got down on paper, I got down on paper. Whatever I didn’t, I didn’t. And I was content.

Now I don’t focus so much on word count, as much as my smokin’ hot girlfriend says I should :), but rather on writing the things I want to write. I’ve made more progress these past two weeks on my novel than I’ve made in the past two months when I kept trying to make goals.

Stretching daily

In mid-December I made a list of workout goals I wanted to achieve. It set an incredibly high standard and I should have known I wouldn’t have even come close to meeting it. I wrote it all out, printed it up, and never looked at it again. As I said in the writing daily piece above, having daily goals like this stresses me out, because if I don’t do it I feel like I’m falling behind and have to re-evaluate and readjust – steps that take more admin time than I’m willing to put forth.

Since then, I’ve thrown that list of workout goals in the garbage and have focused on a few things at a time, the primary exercise being stretching. Since mid-December, I have stretched out almost daily and noticed a substantial increase in my flexibility. My sideways split has increased by seven inches, and I’m incredibly close to touching my chest to my thigh with little to no warm-up. And all this without goals. I stretch simply for the enjoyment of the physical accomplishment.

Learning new things – all the time

Neuroscience, Taoism, medieval society, the Beatniks, new words, barefoot running – these are all things I have a strong desire to learn about. Instead of laying out goals filled with books I wanted to read by certain times, I just learned what I wanted to learn when I wanted to learn it. And I haven’t stopped. I’m all sorts of smart now!! (if only…)

Final example:

Over the summer I lifted weights nearly every day for three months straight. Without fail. I was excited when I saw results, which I noticed on a weekly basis. Whether it was getting more cut in my glamor muscles, as my brother would say, or increasing weight – which I knew to be muscle weight – I saw results regularly. My lifting threshold would increase, my max increased by 40 lbs, and, in direct proportion, increased my esteem regarding my physical appearance and sense of well-being.

All this I did without goals. As soon as I returned from Nicaragua this past October, I laid out a weight-lifting regimen.

I stopped going to the gym after that.

living in the moment

Bottom line(s):

  • Find something you love doing and just do it.
  • Find something that makes you feel good and just do it.
  • Find something that can improve the quality of your life and just do it.

But START SMALL! Nothing is as conducive to putting the brakes on a good habit as the “all or nothing” mentality. Start small, then, as you get more comfortable, work your way up the ladder.

Without goals, you may be surprised by just how high you can climb.


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2 Responses to “motivational mondays: creating good habits without goals”

  1. mpavia211 Says:

    A good strategy for working out/staying in shape without goals is this: make the commitment to sweat at least once a day…any which way you desire. Simplicity at it’s best.

  2. motivational mondays – the amish project « livin' like a freebird Says:

    […] livin' like a freebird cynical realism for the common man « motivational mondays: creating good habits without goals […]

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