Every small step brings you closer to your goals.
Have you thought about why you are able to progress or achieve some goals while you struggle to do the same with others? This article answers this question by providing scientific reasons how our good habits are linked to achieving our goals.
You know what’s the most annoying thing about achieving goals – life and the external influences of this distracting, dynamic world. It’s massively frustrating when I am ready to take action, but life gets in the way, and it becomes a struggle to stay focussed. There’s a loss of momentum, I don’t make progress, I am demotivated, I lose confidence and eventually give up. It’s a vicious cycle. But there is a way to break it. When I look back and evaluate the goals I can achieve and the goals I struggle with, I observed some key differences.I can achieve my goals -1. When I keep a note of my progress in a simple way.
2. When I have developed good habits.
3. When there’s some form of accountability.
What we wanted to explore further at Human-Matter is point 2 – the relationship between forming good habits and achieving goals.
Goal progress = Sum of your good habits
James Clear in his book Atomic Habits explains that ‘what you repeatedly do ultimately form the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.’ Your actions and thoughts are continuously shaping who you are, your aspirations for life, and the goals you want to pursue. A habit is, most often, an action that you do repeatedly. In this way, habits affect who you are and propel your progress towards related goals. . Your daily thoughts and actions that are in line with your goals ultimately help you achieve them.
For a moment let’s keep the association of goals aside and focus on how we form habits. When an activity starts to become a habit, people develop implicit associations in their memory (J.A and W, 1998). For example, if I eat chocolate I need to have herbal tea afterwards to make me feel better. This is a habit where an activity (eating chocolate) elicits another behaviour (drinking herbal tea). It’s my way of having chocolate guilt-free. Nasty habit to have, by the way. As the association is in your mind, the action is executed unconsciously, without much mental effort. It’s like braking at a red light.
Bringing back our discussion to habits and goals, one way habits form is when people pursue goals in daily life (Carden and Wood, 2018). When people repeatedly perform a behaviour to progress on their goal, an association is formed in their brain between the goal and the behaviour:
Habit of daily walks→ Goal: Fitness
Habit of 7 hours of sleep→ Goal: Health & Wellness
Habit of Networking→ Goal: Entrepreneurship
Habit of having evening tea with your partner: → Relationship Goal
Consequently, achieving goals is easier when habits related to the goals are formed. Integrating a good habit as a part of your goal plan is always a good idea as mental associations that you develop between habits and goals helps you stick and achieve your goals.
Mike Tyson famously said ‘everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ The same applies to creating a goal plan that integrates habits. All is good until we have external disturbances that appear and discourage us from sticking to our habits e.g. Our goal is to get fitter. We incorporate running 5 days a week into our plan. But what happens if it is raining outside or it’s too cold to get out of snugglies? This is where rewards play an important role. To make a behaviour stick even more and develop into a strong habit, we need to be rewarded.
Charles Duhigg blog throws light on the extensive scientific research related to how a reward in the past influences behaviours in the future. In his book The Power of Habits, he describes the process of building habits in four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.
Cue: They are basically triggers that inform your brain to initiate behaviour. It provides hints of the potential reward.
Craving: The desire or motivation behind every habit. If there’s no craving there’s no cause to act.
Response: The capacity for performing an action or thought. Simply put, it’s the habit itself.
Reward: The response (action or thought) delivers the reward. We seek rewards to gratify us or enlighten us.
Based on these steps, people do certain things because of the reward they get from it. People drink coffee to feel more awake, people eat chocolate because of the dopamine ‘feel good’ feeling, people meditate to feel calm. Rewards are the end goal of every habit. Rewarding yourself when you stick to your routines or develop new routines, strengthens your habits. Rewards can be intrinsic or extrinsic. What you need to bear in mind is that the value of the reward is high enough to help you overcome external disturbances that hinder developing the habit.
One of your life goals is to focus on your mental wellness. You decided to focus on that goal because you realised that you constantly compare your life to other people’s lives and it stresses you out.
Cue: You scroll social media, you see people’s success stories, you are stressed out.
Craving: You want to stay calm and positive
Response (Habit): You begin to reflect on 3 things you are grateful for.
Reward (Goal): You notice that when you reflect on 3 things you are grateful for, you feel less stressed and experience less severe anxiety. The action of gratitude leads to your reward of calming down. Being grateful becomes associated with calming you down when you are stressed. This helps you progress towards your mental wellness goal.
Think about what habits you have or what behaviours you are doing regularly.
Are any of these helping or hindering you progress on one of your goals?
Try to identify what helped you stick to a specific behaviour.
Keep coming back to this, and over time you’ll identify the cue, craving, response and reward which led to the formation of habits and progress towards your goals.
Reflective writing as a habit to help you achieve your goals
When we set a goal, it is important to keep track of how we are progressing. When we record, measure and document our goal progress we are able to gauge if we are making the desired progress and taking corrective actions. (Harkin et al, 2015)`
Starting a journal and writing about your experience and learnings as you pursue your goal is a great way to stay motivated and on track. Numerous studies (refer bibliography) have shown a relationship between how you write and your mental health, mindfulness or stress levels. Observing your mental state, behavioural patterns, thoughts and feelings can provide you with excellent feedback on your goal progress.
In the previous section, we described the power of habits. We talked about how habits form through associations made in your brain between behaviour and goal, and that this association is strengthened when we experience progress in our goals. The tricky bit with experiencing progress is that you need to be aware of it. Journaling about your goals makes you aware of how your behaviour (the ‘response’) leads to your goal progress (the reward). Reflective writing increases your metacognition, your awareness and understanding of your thoughts. Cultivating a habit of reflecting on your goals daily gives you the earliest opportunity to notice yourselves sidetracking from your goals. This allows you to make alterations and stay focussed.
This is part of self-regulation (Locke and Latham, 2005) and important for recognising and sustaining habits. Journaling combined with other good habits for example meditation can be your superpower to self-discovery and progressing towards your goals. In a way, journaling about your goals is a form of meta-habit: A habit to strengthen your habits.
How we used these insights to design and develop Restory
Many people acknowledge the benefits of journaling but are averse to dedicating time towards this habit. Some of the reasons being procrastination, laziness, being uncomfortable to write, unsure where to start, time-consuming, and forgetfulness.
At Human-Matter we wanted to help people get into the habit of reflective writing and track their goal progress by simplifying it.
We designed our pilot project Restory to act as personal goal guider and a micro journal. Restory runs for 3 weeks. During this period we nudge users with daily reminders to evaluate their mental state and progress towards their goals. Once a week, a series of prompts are delivered to users to help them reflect on their past week and plan ahead.
Restory has two areas that nudge users to form habits:
The Comfy Couch- A space dedicated to answering self-reflective questions related to their past week, week to follow and goals. This pushes users to spend time reflecting on what has happened to them and how past events shaped them. By writing about the past week and the next week, users become more aware of their past actions and form intentional behaviours. Reflecting about the past is a form of self-regulation and provides feedback about what works and what needs to be changed. These insights can then directly be integrated into making intentions for the following week.
The Kitchen Table- A daily-checkpoint to quickly note the daily progress they made in relation to their top 3 goals. The Kitchen Table is a key daily activity for users as it helps them become aware of their progress. Users are prompted to reflect on what they did to achieve their goal. This strengthens the association between a behaviour and the goal. As said above, strong associations are the first step towards sticky habits.
At the end of 3 weeks, users receive a personalised handbook (bite-sized behavioural analysis) that captures their approach towards progressing with their goals. The aim of the handbook is for users to gain even deeper insights into their habits. Thanks to this information, they can adjust their behaviour.
1. Daily Reflection
Spend every day thinking how your behaviour helps you achieve your goals
2. Timely Rewards
Design rewards that match your milestones and goals to help you strengthen habits
3. Periodical Recording
Make note of your goal progress through the cultivating a habit of reflective writing. Want to start with reflective writing, but not sure what to write about? Simply answer ‘How did I feel today and why?’
Boyd, R. L. (2017). Psychological Text Analysis in the Digital Humanities. In S. Hai-Jew (Ed.), Data Analytics in Digital Humanities (pp. 161–189). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-54499-1_7.
David Luque, Tom Beesley, Richard W. Morris, Bradley N. Jack, Oren Griffiths, Thomas J. Whitford and Mike E. Le Pelley (2017). Goal-Directed and Habit-Like Modulations of Stimulus Processing during Reinforcement Learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 37 (11) 3009-3017; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3205-16.2017.
Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., Benn, Y., & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142(2), 198–229. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000025
Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P. (2005). Goal setting theory: Theory building by induction. In K.G. Smith & M.A. Mitt (Eds.), Great minds in management: The process of theory development. New York: Oxford.
Lucas Carden., and Wendy Wood (2018). Habit Formation and Change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 20:117-122; DOI: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.12.009
Ouellette, J. A., & Wood, W. (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 54–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.124.1.54
Tausczik, Y. R., & Pennebaker, J. W. (n.d.). The Psychological Meaning of Words: LIWC and Computerized Text Analysis Methods. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 31.
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