I have a confession. I set goals and fail at them all the time. One of them is staying fit. I never seem to be able to keep the weight off. The fat keeps creeping back, making my clothes uncomfortable and tight, my face round and red, and my spirit low and depressed. Another goal I fail at is playing guitar. Things always seem to get in the way of my practice time. And my guitar accumulates another layer of dust.
Maybe you’re like me and have grand designs but always end up with broken dreams. I thought I lacked the willpower to achieve great things, but it turns out willpower is not the problem at all.
Good systems, not good goals
I recently found the answer to my issue in the new book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Clear knows a lot about habits. Based on his habits, he went from an injured player, devastated from being cut from the varsity high school baseball team to being named the ESPN Academic All-America Team in college, an honor awarded to just 33 players in the U.S. He owed it all to the small changes he made in his life. Small changes done consistently led to large outcomes.
According to Clear, the reason you, me, and everyone else fails at reaching our goals, or maintaining our goals, is simple. We make goals but don’t put the proper systems in place to achieve them.
Outcomes versus identity
The problem with getting what you want is how you think about goals. We tend to think of goals as an “either/or” situation—if we achieve our goal, we are successful; if we don’t, we are a disappointment.
In reality, our outcomes are the result of the systems we put in place, not the goals we set. Goals point to the direction we want to go, but systems are we how we get there.
According to Clear, the reason we can’t maintain our success it that we make outcome-based habits, not identity-based habits. An outcome-based habit is your plan to lose 20 pounds, to run a marathon in June, or save x-amount of dollars. Once you have the outcome you want, you stop implementing the systems that got you there. You stop exercising five times a week and watching what you eat, you stop running three times a week, or you stop putting money aside. Then you end up back where you were when you started: overweight, unfit, and broke.
In order to get better outcomes, we need to create identity-based habits. Identity-based habits are all about who you want to become. When you have an identity-based habit, all your systems support that goal.
For example, instead of choosing an outcome to lose 20 pounds, you change your mindset to have an identity as a healthy eater. If you think of yourself as a healthy eater, you will start to establish systems for eating better. The outcome of eating healthier foods (and not eating unhealthy foods or in an unhealthy way), might be losing 20 pounds but it might not. It might be you just lose fat and gain muscle and stay the same weight but look and feel better.
Even better, since you have an identity-based habit, the new habits you created will persist beyond the outcome of looking and feeling better. So you will always have a beach body, a runner’s body, or whatever body you want because it is the result of the habits you practice every day.
The key is to create habits that support your identity. The small changes you make will seem insignificant on a daily basis (eating an apple, going for a ten-minute walk, playing 15 minutes of guitar) but the results will be big over time.