You’ve probably resolved to lose weight, make more money, or finally start that creative project you’ve been putting off for years. When drowning your sorrows in champagne on New Year’s Eve or nursing a hangover on New Year’s Day, you may not realize that changing your behavior leads better results than setting goals.
And the vicious cycle of setting goals that you never achieve starts all over again. Sound familiar?
Why You Need to Change Your Behavior
You have to change your behavior to achieve a goal by building good habits and breaking bad ones. The goal is the end and your behavior is the means by which you achieve the goal. Whether you want to write a book, lose weight, or learn to play an instrument you need to change your behavior first.
People spend a lot of time setting goals, but not nearly as much changing their behavior because they don’t realize that changing your behavior leads to better results than setting goals.
If you don’t achieve a goal, it’s easy to convince yourself that you never will. This is why so many people lose motivation and give up on their goals.
- They write down a goal, make a vision board, chant mantras, light scented candles and recite affirmations, sit on their asses, hope for the best and think a million dollars will fall from the sky.
- When they don’t reach their goal, they convince themselves that they need to recite their affirmations with more conviction, read a different book, watch a different TEDtalk, etc.
- When they see some successful person’s shrine off Hindu gods, scented candles, and other new-age bullshit in their Instagram feed, they confuse causality with correlation.
No matter how many salt lamps, scented candles, and crystals you buy, you can’t achieve a goal without changing your behavior. As John Assaraf said about the movie The Secret, there is one really important thing that was left out of the movie. The Law of GOYA (Get off Your Ass).
When you stop setting goals and start changing your behavior, your results will often exceed your expectations.
How changing Your Behavior Leads to better results Than Setting Goals
Like many aspiring writers and bloggers, I had the goal of writing a book with a publisher. For five years, I wrote 2–3 blog posts a week and produced 2–3 podcasts a week. But I was no closer to getting a book deal.
When I interviewed Julien Smith in 2013, he had one of the most popular blogs on the internet, had written a few best-selling books, and was working on the Domino Project with Seth Godin. In our conversation, he got me into the habit of writing 1000 words a day.
After talking to him, I gave up the goal of getting a book deal and focused on the behavior of writing 1000 words a day. It’s much easier to model someone’s behavior than their results.
Within 6 months, my daily writing habit changed my life.
- I self-published my first book, The Small Army Strategy, which sold 1000 copies.
- My friend AJ Leon invited me to speak at his conference in Fargo. My talk was the basis for my second self-published book, which became a Wall Street Journal best-seller
- Two years later, I got a two-book deal with a publisher.
I’ve been writing a thousand words a day ever since. It was an important habit that started a ripple effect in my life. When I focused on changing my behavior, my results exceeded my expectations.
The world encourages you to set big, hairy, audacious goals. But you’re better off setting small, meaningful goals if you want to find the motivation to change your behavior.
Why Changing your Behavior Leads To better Results than Setting goals
Changing your behavior allows you to focus on what you can control and ignore what you can’t. Setting a goal that you don’t achieve can cause you to lose your motivation. When you change your behavior, you can increase your motivation.
1. Changing your behavior leads to better results because it’s in your control
Artists cannot predict how audiences will react to their work. They create for an audience of one with the possibility of reaching an audience of millions. Entrepreneurs can’t control how the market will react to their products.
But both can control their efforts and focus on process rather than the prize.
An aspiring author can’t control how many people will read or buy her books. But she can show up every day, put pen to paper, and invest the time, energy, and effort to write something worth reading. An app developer can’t control how many people will download the app he creates. But he can invest the time, energy, and effort to make an amazing product.
We habitually act as if our control over the world is much greater than it actually is. Even things as personal as our health, our finances, and our reputation are ultimately beyond our control; we can try to influence them, of course, but often things don’t go our way. And other people’s behavior is even further out of our control. — Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote
Get clear on what behavior is required to achieve the goal, because that’s what you can control.
2. Changing your behavior leads to better results because it increases your motivation.
But many people feel like they’re not making progress on their goals because they’re setting goals instead of changing their behavior. And they measure their progress with metrics they can’t control.
If an aspiring writer is focused on the goal of writing a book with a publisher, she’ll think she’s not making progress until she gets a book deal. But if she changes her behavior by developing a writing habit, her progress will be visible, she’ll maintain her motivation, and she’ll be much more likely to get a book deal.
How you measure your life and work has a profound impact on your happiness and well-being. And if you track and measure your behavior rather than your results, you’ll be much happier and more likely to achieve your goal.
3. Changing your behavior leads to better results because it expands what’s possible
When you set a goal, that’s your only possible outcome. But if you focus on your behavior instead, your results can exceed your expectations. In the words of Stephen Shapiro, author of Goal Free Living, choose a direction instead of a goal.
In our interview at Unmistakable Creative, James Clear shared the story of one of his readers who lost 100 pounds by changing his behavior. Instead of setting a weight loss goal, he changed his behavior and developed an exercise habit. If he had focused on the goal of losing 30 pounds, he might have lost less weight or none at all.
When I finally got a book deal with a publisher, I was pleasantly surprised when my editor offered to write two books instead of one.
Changing your behavior instead of setting a goal will lead to much better results. Even if you don’t reach the goal, you will make a positive behavior change that will bridge the gap between who you are and who you want to be.
Examine your motivation
A few months ago, my roommate told me about one of his friends who had six-pack abs and looked like a male model. This friend said, “You really have to hate yourself to look this good.”
So often we set goals with misguided intentions. We’re motivated by our need for external validation instead of personal fulfillment. And we don’t give much thought to why we want to achieve a goal.
Before you try to change your behavior, take some time to examine your motivations.
- Why do you want to achieve the goal?
- What will it do for you?
If you want to achieve a goal for the wrong reasons, it will never make you as happy as you think it will.
How to change your behavior
Once you understand that changing your behavior will lead to better results than setting goals, the question that remains is how to change. Thanks to the work of people like BJ Fogg, James Clear, and Katy Milkman, we know a lot about how to build new habits.
Habits are like default settings for our behavior. They put good behavior on autopilot. The more often you repeat an action under familiar circumstances and receive a reward for it (be it praise, relief, pleasure, or cash), the more habitual and automatic your responses become. — Katy Milkman
When you read or hear advice on how to change something, it’s important to consider that advice in the context of life YOUR and modify it accordingly. Nothing in life is a one size fits all solution. Implement the advice that works best for your situation and circumstances.
Focus on Today
A goal is an outcome you will experience in the future. But behavior is something you change today. You have a choice in how you spend your time, energy, and attention. What you do today will affect where you end up tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. As Seth Godin says, the best way to be where you want to be in 10 years is to do something today that you will be glad you did.
Small may not be sexy, but it’s successful and sustainable. -BJ Fogg
While “go big or go home” is a nice platitude, it rarely leads to lasting change. If you’ve ever started the new year by going to the gym five times a week and found yourself on the couch a month later with a gallon of ice cream on your lap, you know this.
People struggle to make lasting change because their new behaviors are often drastic and unsustainable. They underestimate the power of starting small and underestimate incremental change.
Strive for consistency
A few months ago, my roommate, Tim started teaching himself to play the piano. My other roommate and I listened to him play and thought, “Good thing we’re down here playing video games. He sucks.”
One night we had some friends over for dinner and they asked him to play something for them. And I was amazed at how much he had improved. Not only did he play the piano, but he sang.
If you are consistent with each new behavior, you are more likely to achieve your goal. Consistency makes your results inevitable.
People struggle with consistency for two reasons.
First, when you start learning a new skill or trying to change a behavior, you suck. But as the author Karen Rinaldi says, it’s great to suck at something. And it’s the first step to getting better at anything.
Second, people completely give up a new behavior when they miss a day. However, according to James Clear, there is no evidence that skipping a single day has any effect on your ability to maintain a habit long-term. One way to avoid this is to do what James calls reducing the scope, but sticking to the schedule.
Instead of writing 1000 words, write 100
Instead of exercising for an hour, exercise for 20 minutes.
By reducing the amount and sticking to the schedule, you’ll keep your momentum going. And even if you skip a day, it’s not the end of the world because you know you’ll be back tomorrow.
I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t miss a writing day here and there. As I joke, I would gladly skip a writing day for sex, surfing, or snowboarding.
Make it easy on yourself by creating the right environment
There are 9 environments that make up your life. And each of them has a profound impact on your behavior, health, and happiness. Your environment determines your default behavior.
A few nights ago, I was craving something sweet. Desserts are my kryptonite. I love carrot cake, milkshakes, and chocolate more than you can imagine. If they’re in the fridge or at my fingertips, I can’t resist. Since keto granola was the only thing in the house that could satisfy my cravings, that’s what I ate.
If you want to change your behavior, fill your environment with things that make a new behavior easy and get rid of anything that makes it hard.
Find someone who will hold you accountable
At school or work, we turn in homework or submit projects on time because we have deadlines. Someone else is holding us accountable. When it comes to changing your behavior, that’s not always the case.
“When you make a public commitment and take a risk to make an idea happen, you get what I call “Committal Benefits”. Committal Benefits represents the increased likelihood that others will take a risk of their own — financially or with their reputation — to support your project,” says Scott Belsky in his book Making Ideas Happen.
If someone else holds you accountable, you are more likely to honor your commitments because your reputation is on the line. When you don’t do what you promised, people stop trusting you. They start to think you’re full of crap.
If you really want to up the ante, pay someone to hold you accountable. It’s not just your reputation on the line, it’s your money. If you don’t follow through, you’re basically flushing money down the toilet.
Peter Shallard’s company Commit Action offers accountability coaching to people. Each week a partner helps you plan, prioritize and execute. And if that’s not enough, your partner pesters you with text messages, emails, etc. If you’re struggling to change your behavior, Commit Action can light a fire under your ass.
And I can tell you for a fact from a mother who says, “I’ve told you a thousand times to put the cap on the damn toothpaste”, if someone rides your ass to do something, you’ll do it just to get them off your back.
Make Sure it’s Something You Enjoy
Many people try to change their behavior to achieve a goal. But they don’t enjoy the process. Their new behavior is a necessary evil and only a means to an end. So they eventually give up on their new behavior.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you should do something because everyone says you should when you live in a world flooded with self-help books, TED talks, podcasts, and motivational memes running through your Instagram feed.
But if you can’t stand what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter how hard you try. Changing your behavior won’t lead to better results than setting goals. In fact, it might lead to worse results.
If we had a little more self-awareness, we’d probably make better choices and realize that the most effective workout might burn a little more calories and get you fit faster, but you’ll quit after one visit to the gym. So you have to find the balance. So you pursue the goal, but you do it in a way that will actually be immediately satisfying. — Katy Milkman, The Unmistakable Creative Podcast
In my 20s, I struggled to develop a consistent workout habit. Because the gym was a necessary evil, I almost never went. But when I started surfing, that all changed. By finding a form of exercise that I absolutely loved, it went from a necessary evil to one of the greatest sources of joy in my life.
I had no idea that writing 1000 words a day would lead to what it did. But I made a habit of it for a reason: I love writing.
It’s much easier to change or maintain a behavior when you love doing it, regardless of the results.
Sometimes quitting is the best strategy
Throughout our lives, we are encouraged to resist the temptation to quit. But there’s a fine line between persistence and foolishness. And there are times when it makes more sense to give up than to keep going.
Some people don’t quit because of the sunk-cost bias. They keep going with something because they’ve already invested so much time, energy, or money into it, even if it’s going nowhere. So how do you when to quit?
As Seth Godin writes in The Dip, “The opportunity cost of investing your life in something that isn’t going to get better is too high.”
If the process of reaching a goal doesn’t bring you joy, and the situation isn’t getting any better it may not be a worthwhile goal. The process is where you will spend most of your time.
Changing your behavior produces better results than setting goals. But there is a caveat. If your goals aren’t aligned with your values and what you really want, then changing your behavior won’t make much difference. If they are aligned with your values, changing your behavior will lead to better results than setting goals.
Stop setting goals for yourself. Start changing your behavior.
Want help changing your behavior?
I’ve curated a collection of book recommendations and interviews from the Unmistakable Creative on how to build good habits, change your behavior, and set meaningful goals. Just click here.