If you want to succeed in health (or anything else), don’t focus on goals

To achieve something, we need to decide what we want to achieve. We need a goal of some sort. But if we focus on the goal itself, we’ll never get started and it may even take us somewhere we don’t want to be. The trick is to shift focus away from goals and onto individual behaviours. The right behaviours.

We’re constantly being told that we should set goals (or goals are set for us). And success is often defined as the achievement of said goals. Here are some examples that you may be familiar with:

  • Lose 10 kg of weight by June
  • Make £800,000 in revenue this year
  • Get better sleep
  • Run a marathon during the summer
  • Get a grade 4 in Maths GCSE
  • Eat fewer calories
  • Win the match
  • Win the championship
  • Get fit
  • Save £5,000 for holidays

You’ll notice that some of these goals are more specific than others. To be more accurate, we should refer to the less specific ones as aspirations, and the more specific ones as outcomes.

The question is, after you’ve decided on an aspiration or outcome, does thinking about it and focussing on it help you achieve it? I don’t think it does. And, not only that, it may have negative consequences.

The biggest problem with focussing on aspirations and outcomes is that they don’t actually give us anything to do. They’re abstractions. Only by doing can we make progress. So, the first step to achieving an aspiration or outcome is to break it down into component parts that you can do. In other words, you define – or design – individual behaviours that will be effective in helping you achieve the aspiration or outcome over time. Behaviours are specific actions that you can take right now, or tomorrow, or the day after. They are tangible, clear, and unambiguous.

This may sound obvious, but how often do you intentionally define (and write down) the specific behaviours required to achieve an aspiration or outcome?

Losing weight is a good example. The desired outcome might be to lose 10 kg by June. But how? Eat fewer calories and do more exercise? OK, but these are still aspirations, not behaviours. Think actions. Here are some examples:

  • Clear out all processed/packaged food from your home (give it to the food bank)
  • Go for a brisk walk in the park every morning at 7am
  • Do a strength workout on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday when you get in from work
  • Eat a piece of fruit instead of biscuits in the afternoon
  • Buy a dog
  • Buy a rowing machine
  • Subscribe to an online cooking course
  • Eat eggs, meat, or fish with every meal
  • Stop drinking alcohol from Monday to Friday
  • Turn notifications off on your phone
  • Stop drinking fruit juice

Notice that some of these are one-off behaviours (an interesting topic that I’ve written about before), some are behaviours to stop doing, and some are behaviours to start doing consistently. The point is they are specific and actionable.

In the Tiny Habits® method – the proven behaviour change system that we use – this behaviour map is referred to as a “Swarm of Behaviours”. You could use a format like this:

There are other problems with focussing on aspirations and outcomes:

  • They open you up to feeling like a failure. If you only lose 5 kg of weight by June, not 10 kg, you may feel like you’ve failed. But have you really? You’ve improved your health and how you look and feel. That’s a huge success, even though you didn’t meet your rigidly defined outcome.
  • They give you an endpoint to stop at. If you want to get fit, your outcome might be to complete the Couch to 5k programme. You follow the plan (a set of behaviours) and achieve the desired outcome. Success! Then what?
  • They encourage negative, short-term, or unethical behaviour. Performance bonuses are typically based on monthly or annual revenue generation. It’s possible to maximise short-term revenue at the expense of long-term business growth and reputation. Remember the LIBOR scandal?

Focussing on defining and doing the right behaviours is the key to long-term achievement in any field. The best approach is to set an aspiration or outcome, then forget about it. Invest in the process, trust it, and, as Bill Walsh – the legendary American football coach – says, “The Score Takes Care of Itself“.

Start with defining. We’ll get to the doing part in future articles.

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