Why Habits are Better than Goals

(aka The Secret to Real Progress)

Like any other new year, I sat down in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Day to take a careful look over the last year, and think about what I wanted for this year. Notebooks, stacks of papers, I even made a couple pie charts to map out my goals for 2024. You could say I’m into goals.

One of the glorious things I’ve been doing over the last couple weeks as I’ve been on holiday break is doing more reading (All the Light We Cannot See, These Happy Golden Years, Show Your Work, Prince Caspian, and others) At the end of this reading feast another book has stumbled onto my plate (does that make it a dessert?): Atomic Habits by James Clear.

I’m only a little ways into it, but the author’s view of habits being more effective than goals, is mercifully apropos right about now. It is just the right book at the right time, and I thought if it’s been helpful to me, then maybe you would find it helpful to you as well as you head into a new year. Here’s the book and a few of my scribbled notes from the studio:



Here are the top 5 ideas that I’ve gleaned from the book thus far (not necessarily the most critical ideas to the author but what I’ve found useful. Since this is my blog, I can pick what I want. ;)

Top 5 Ideas from Atomic Habits

(According to me not the author. All quotes are by James Clear in Atomic Habits.)


1. Your identity shapes your habits, and your habits shape your identity.

I’m an artist not because I call myself one, but because I paint, paint, paint. Eventually with enough practice you become an artist, a musician, a reader, a runner, a couch potato, or an angry parent. Practicing habits goes both ways. Focus on thinking like the person you want to become, and on doing the tiny daily actions that person would do.

2. No one is an overnight success.

“Success is the product of daily habits—not once in a lifetime transformations.” As my life experience grows, so do the successful people I meet. And for every last one of them (if I know their story), it’s crystal clear that no one is an overnight success. Every successful person did years of tiny daily habits that “set the stage” for their breakout success moment.

3. “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”

Focus on improving your systems (habits) over achieving your goals. Having good systems will likely get you to your goal eventually, and even if it doesn’t get you all the way there, you will have made good progress. Unlike a lucky break, habits, amazingly, set us up to succeed not once but over and over again.

4. “Winners and losers have the same goals.”

Clear is making a point that every Olympic hopeful has the same goal, say to make it to the Olympics. And the public will hear about the precious few that accomplish this goal, but what we don’t generally hear about is the multitude of dreamers that ultimately didn’t make the cut. While it’s true, that if you want to make it into the Olympics, you absolutely need to set that goal, it’s also essential (and maybe even more important in the long run) that your goal be backed up with tiny, daily, consistent actions that will move you closer to your desired outcome.

5. Goals can ultimately steal your joy.

Setting goals can feel really empowering in the moment, but the reality is we have very little control over whether our dreams will come true in the end. What we can control is the tiny daily habits we show up and do. Learning to focus on systems/the process of doing the thing will help us enjoy life now, as we are living it, instead of holding out our joy in front of us (which we only get to enjoy if we reach your desired outcomes, and lets face it—sometimes we don’t make the coveted goal. Life can be a great ride anyway.)

How I'm Using These Ideas

As I begin 2024, I’ve put my annual goals on a back burner and turned my attention instead to focusing on simple systems/processes that will add up over time. For me these include things like showing up to paint consistently, walking outside at lunchtime, and simplifying our family dinner routine (which is helping with health and the overall vibe at dinner). I think “habits” might be my word for 2024. You may have heard habits before by a different name: consistency.

If you’d like to read Atomic Habits for yourself, you can find the book here.

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Thanks for being here, and here’s to showing up, one tiny little habit at a time in 2024.



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